The Narendra Modi government’s cavalier approach to issues concerning the environment is well known. Equally subversive is its naked attempt to disregard a Constitutional provision that enjoins the state to safeguard the rights of tribal populations over land and resources in areas falling under the Fifth Schedule.
The government has set in motion a process to sell off 41 coal blocks across five states for private commercial mining through auctions. The promised moolah that the government expects to rake in at the end of the auction is an estimated ₹33,000 crore. If and when the money flows into the government’s coffers at the end of five years, it would have effectively defanged the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution.
The Fifth Schedule is, as the late Chief Justice of India M Hidayutallah termed it, “A Constitution within the Constitution, or miniature Constitution, for certain scheduled areas of India.” Fifth Schedule areas are those where tribals constitute over 50 per cent of the population and enjoy special rights under The Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (PESA), and Forest Rights Act, 2006.
PESA requires that the gram sabha and the Tribal Advisory Council be consulted before any project is undertaken in the Fifth Schedule areas. In all, 10 states have been designated Fifth Schedule areas with the coal blocks to be auctioned located in five of them – Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Odisha, and Madhya Pradesh.
While such consultation has not taken place, the plan to auction the coal blocks also constitutes a blatant violation of the landmark 1997 Samata judgement of the Supreme Court.
In the Samata versus the Andhra Pradesh government case, the apex court ruled that minerals are to be exploited by tribals (in Fifth Schedule areas) themselves either individually or through cooperative societies with the financial assistance of the state, and that transfer of mining lease to non-tribals, company, corporation aggregate or partnership firm, is unconstitutional, void, and inoperative.
The court, while stating that the government has no right to grant mining leases in these areas where lands belong to tribals, had ruled that mining activity in Fifth Schedule areas can be taken up only by the state and that too if it does not violate the Forest Conservation Act and the Environment Protection Act.
Ravi Rebbapragada, Executive Director of Samata, an NGO working for tribal rights which had filed the case in the Supreme Court says, “The decision taken by the government lacks stakeholder participation. Except for the central government and corporates, the other stakeholders were not consulted. It is also a violation of the Samata judgement.”
Since the Samata verdict of 1997, there have been a few other court judgements on similar lines.
In 2013, in the Orissa Mining Corporation Ltd versus Ministry of Environment & Forest (Niyamgiri Judgement) case, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court said forest clearance to any mining project could be given only in consultation with and after taking the consent of the gram sabhas.
In the same year, in the Thressiamma Jacob & Others versus Department of Mining, Kerala, a three-judge Supreme Court bench headed by Justice RM Lodha held that ownership of minerals should be vested with the landowners. The court declared that the landowner has right not only over the soil but also the subsoil and minerals underneath the surface of his land.
In 2017, the National Green Tribunal cancelled four environmental clearances granted in December 2008 for four blocks in the Chintapalli Mandal in Visakhapatnam district of Andhra Pradesh for bauxite mining. The tribunal’s order came in response to the petition filed by Samata for cancellation of the environmental public hearing held in 2008 under a “curfew-like situation.”
The coal auction decision has been challenged by the Jharkhand government in the Supreme Court even as it appears that the ground made there is that the state government has not been consulted in the matter, rather than that the decision is violative of the Samata judgement.
“Commercial mining is a major policy change and it has to be taken in consultation with states. Unless states come on board, this won’t succeed,” Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren has been quoted in media reports as saying.
Sarpanches of nine panchayats in the densely forested area of Hasdeo Arand in Chhattisgarh have also written to the prime minister opposing the auction of the coal blocks. In fact, many of these blocks lie in the ecologically sensitive ‘no-go’ areas for mining, as observed by Congress leader Jairam Ramesh in a letter to Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar.
It will be interesting to see if and how the courts will view the current challenge to the coal auction decision. A publication Land and Governance under the Fifth Schedule – An Overview of the Law brought out by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs brought out with the support of the UNDP, notes, “Unfortunately, this (Samata) landmark judgment has not been able to achieve its full potential, and has been the subject matter of considerable debate and semantics.”
Referring to a “telling” Supreme Court ruling in the Balco Employees Union case, the ministry observes that a narrow interpretation of the Samata judgement is “clearly rooted in the alignment of the State with mining interests, rather than on any honest interpretation of the law it lays down.”
“Numerous decisions of the Special Forest Bench of the Supreme Court have permitted extensive industrialisation and mining in forest lands which are the traditional homelands of Scheduled Tribes, without consideration of the Constitutional framework,” it adds.
(The writer is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru. He has reported extensively on politics and policy for leading news publications in India and the Gulf)
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal.)