Exclusive: Head of constitutional ST body flagged grave concerns with new Forest Rules before early ‘resignation’

NCST chairman Harsh Chouhan resigned eight months before his term ended, and the commission is now ‘defunct’.

WrittenBy:Rishika Pardikar
Former NCST chairman Harsh Chouhan (left) and union environment minister Bhupender Yadav (right).

Over the last two years, the union environment ministry amended the Forest Conservation Rules and the Forest Conservation Act, the former in June 2022 and the latter in December 2023. Both moves were widely criticised for making it easier to give away forest land to corporate interests, thereby undermining the rights of forest-dwelling communities.

But when the head of a constitutional tribal affairs body flagged issues with the amended rules, his concerns were dismissed without discussion – and he later resigned.

Harsh Chouhan was the chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes. In September 2022, according to documents obtained by this reporter under the Right to Information Act, he wrote to union environment minister Bhupender Yadav highlighting serious concerns with the new Forest Conservation Rules.

Chouhan wrote that the rules would lead to “large scale perpetuation of historic injustice” with “important provisions being diluted and undermined”, while also compromising the very purpose of the FRA. He said it was a matter of “great concern” that the NCST had not been consulted on an amendment that “would have significant implication on the lives and forest rights” of Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers.

In his conclusion, Chouhan asked that the amendment to the rules be “immediately” kept in abeyance and that future amendments to the Rules be done only after due consultations with NCST.

In November 2022, environment minister Yadav wrote back to Chouhan. According to RTI documents, he merely said the amendment to the rules do not override provisions of the FRA. With this curt one-paragraph reply, Chouhan’s concerns were dismissed.

But the matter didn’t end there.

The fact that a prominent constitutional body like the NCST was pointing out such issues does not seem to have gone down well with the powers that be. In June 2023, Chouhan resigned eight months before the end of his term.

News reports at the time pointed to a “run-in with the environment ministry” over the Forest Conservation Rules. On Twitter, now X, Congress MP Jairam Ramesh said Chouhan “paid the price for his commitment and courage”.

We sent Chouhan an email on January 26, 2024 seeking an interview about his resignation. We have not received a response.

We also reached out to environment minister Bhupender Yadav on January 27 seeking his response as to why NCST’s concerns, which were laid out in the letter by Chouhan, were not addressed and also his comments on how the sequence of events point to a forced resignation and the fact that NCST now lies effectively defunct. This report will be updated if we receive a response.

Chairman sought ‘corrective action’

The earlier Forest Conservation Rules mandated that land rights of local communities be recognised as per the FRA and that the consent of communities must be obtained via the gram sabha before final approval was granted for the diversion of forest land. The union environment ministry had the primary responsibility to ensure forest rights are settled and consent is obtained for diversion proposals. 

This requirement was done away with in the newly amended rules which allow final diversion approvals to be granted without the prior consent of the gram sabha. Now, the burden of ensuring that forest rights are settled and that the consent of the gram sabha is obtained is passed onto state governments after final diversion approval is granted by the union government. 

Experts say this creates a fait accompli situation, where people’s rights and their consent are effectively undermined. Additionally, the Supreme Court’s landmark judgement in 2013 in the case against Vedanta in Odisha too underscored the need to obtain consent from local communities as part of forest diversion processes. 

Chouhan laid out all these concerns in his detailed four-page letter to the minister. 

According to his profile on the NCST website, Chouhan has worked extensively with tribal groups in Madhya Pradesh, most prominently as a member of the RSS-affiliated Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram. Importantly, the NCST had been working on a report showing the lack of recognition of titles to forest land ever since the FRA was enacted 16 years ago. His letter to Yadav was accordingly based on issues identified by a working group constituted by the NCST to look into FRA issues. 

Sharad Lele, a member of the working group, told Newslaundry Chouhan was “very interested” in FRA issues.

“He was convinced the NCST has a role to play to find out what is happening with the act’s implementation to protect the interests of tribal groups,” said Lele, a distinguished fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment.

In his letter, Chouhan stated that the amended rules are a major policy matter that affect STs. 

Yadav’s response on November 10, 2022 said the new rules were amended to implement the FCA and that they do not abrogate provisions under the act. He also attached a one-page note to the letter, but that too did not address the specific concerns raised by Chouhan.

The FRA working group then drafted a letter in response to the dismissal of Chouhan’s concerns by Yadav. Lele told Newslaundry they were of the opinion that the “response from the minister did not address concerns raised in the original letter”.

But before this letter could be finalised and sent to Yadav, Chouhan resigned as chairman.

‘NCST a focal point to challenge the government’  

In the month following Chouhan’s resignation, an internal meeting within the NCST was scheduled to be held in July 2023 to discuss forest rights issues. But it was cancelled at the last minute without an explanation, according to members of the working group. 

One of the topics that would have been discussed at this meeting was issues with the FCA amendment that infringe rights and safeguards under the act, alongside matters related to the Forest Conservation Rules. Earlier in March 2023, the union environment ministry had introduced a bill in the Lok Sabha to amend the FCA.

Under chairman Chouhan, the NCST had commissioned a report on the status of recognition of community forest rights under the FRA across four states: Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra. The report was to be prepared by the Centre for Tribal Ethos and Economic Research, or TEER.

“Our findings showed that not a single claim for community forest rights was recognised in Madhya Pradesh. Rajasthan also lagged behind,” said Milind Thatte, founder and director at TEER and a member of the FRA working group. 

The report was completed in March 2023 and submitted to the NCST. In the meeting that was cancelled in July 2023, Thatte’s report was also set to be tabled and discussed. 

“The report [by TEER] raised a number of critical issues with respect to the status of FRA implementation,” another member of the working group said on the condition of anonymity. The NCST still needs to formally sign off on the report, so its contents have not been made public yet. 

The member also added that the letter by Chouhan on the Forest Conservation Rules was “the flashpoint” in the sequence of events that led to the chairman’s resignation because it reflected the strong position taken by the NCST on the dilution of the FRA due to the amendment of the rule. 

This led to “political issues” when Congress leaders like Mallikarjun Kharge, president of the party and leader of the opposition, and K Raju, national coordinator for the All India Congress Committee who is in charge of SC, ST, OBC and minority departments, raised the issue as well. Between July and August 2022, Kharge and Raju wrote to the NCST about FRA violations owing to the rules amendment. They urged it to direct the environment and tribal affairs ministries to ensure compliance with the FRA.

In essence, the member of the working group said, the NCST “became a focal point to challenge the government and the environment ministry”.

‘The commission has become defunct’

With Chouhan’s resignation, matters now stand in limbo.

Thatte said TEER had been asked to undertake another study to verify FRA rejections across states. “But this work could not be completed because funding is pending. The other problem is that only the chairperson [of the NCST] can authorise the release of data that is required for this study.” At present, the post of NCST chairman lies vacant. 

The data in question are affidavits on FRA rejections filed by state governments in the Supreme Court in the Wildlife First vs Union of India case, which challenged the constitutional validity of the FRA. 

“Since the chairman has resigned, the commission has become defunct,” Thatte said. 

The working group as a whole too has come to a halt, Lele said. 

“We cannot hold meetings unless we are actually called. The study [by TEER] on community forest rights is still not formally accepted because it lies pending with the NCST. We have also not commissioned any new studies which we were supposed to do [on themes like forest villages]. We are at a total standstill,” he said.

Thatte added, “As members of the working group, we knew what the NCST had planned to work on for the remaining part of the chairman’s tenure. So, the resignation was unexpected.”

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