India: Government against consent of tribals for displacement

Date of publication: 
31 March 2015

The NDA govt is on the verge of passing executive orders that would do away with the veto powers of tribals that protect their forestlands in most cases

New Delhi – India has told the World Bank that it is not ‘comfortable’ with mandatory need for free, informed and prior consent of tribals who are displaced for projects funded by the Bank. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s submission to the Bank comes at a time when it is working to do away with the need for consent from tribals, while handing over their traditional forests to industry.

India’s position was stated to the World Bank during consultations held on the latter’s Safeguard Policies & Proposed Environmental and Social Framework. This document, once finalised, would become the policy the Bank follows while lending to countries for specific projects.

The NDA government told the World Bank that India has domestic laws and rules that protect tribal rights, including the powers of consent “in some cases” and the Bank should rely on such domestic regulations instead of imposing its own conditions. But, domestically, the NDA government is on the verge of passing executive orders that would do away with the veto powers of tribals that protect their forestlands in most cases.

At present, the Forest Rights Act requires governments to seek the prior informed consent of gram sabhas (village councils) of tribals when their traditional forestlands are to be given over to industry or other development projects. Since June 2014, the government has been working to dilute these provisions though it’s been opposed by the tribal affairs ministry tooth and nail.

The need for consent while using tribal people’s non-forest lands is available only in the limited Schedule V and VI areas under the land ordinance and does not extend to all tribal lands in the country.

The Indian submission to the World Bank says the proposed Bank policy “prohibits forced evictions of indigenous peoples. This standard mandates that in three specific circumstances free, informed and prior consent is needed before proceeding with a project affecting indigenous people. We are not comfortable with this provision.”

The NDA government justified this saying, “Domestic laws of acquisition and protection of such communities already provide for adequate safeguards, including consent before acquisition can take place in certain cases. The Bank thus needs to rely on such domestic laws/guidelines where the domestic laws rules etc. take care of such issues.”

It added, “The proposed clauses like free, prior and informed consent (replacing consultation process) can lead to legal complications, delays, increase in costs and delay in project execution.”

Consultations are non-binding in nature but prior informed consent gives tribals veto powers over the use of their lands.

Reacting to this submission, Aruna Chandrashekhar, Amnesty India’s Business and Human Rights Researcher, said, “This further contributes to a disturbing trend of the government’s unwillingness to even listen to its citizens’ concerns on decisions affecting their lands and resources. Along with recent attempts to bypass the Forest Rights Act for a variety of different projects, its current position on respecting the free, prior, informed consent of adivasi communities is a distinct reversal from its decision on the Niyamgiri mine in 2013.” Amnesty has been tracking the debate on the World Bank safeguards and environmental policy.

India has demanded that the Bank’s lending policy should not be intrusive setting up long-term inspections and environmental supervision of projects that go beyond and are more onerous than the requirements of domestic law. “The engagement of the World Bank should be in the spirit of partnership, and should be non-intrusive,” it has said.

“Besides the creating an intrusive regime, such conditionalities imposed on loans from the Bank create an imbalance in the way environmental and sustainability norms are imposed globally. Most of the Bank’s borrowers are developing countries, we must remember,” said a senior government official, who was part of the consultations for preparing India’s reply. “The policy should not become a backdoor route to impose additional and more onerous targets on developing countries. The lending must be in adherence to domestic laws of each country,” he added.

India has also opposed strict standards and monitoring of greenhouse gas emissions and water consumption of projects for which the country borrows from the Bank.