A Local Rain-Check Before a Global Summit: What is India Busy with Pre-CoP26?

 The upcoming CoP26 is not without its own set of apprehensions and mired more in doubts than expectations with unrealistic ‘net-zero’ rhetoric and big consultancies like Boston Consultancy Group[i] managing the event, along with the latest rumours that one of the most notorious businessmen of the world, Adani[ii], trying to pitch for a presence in this global summit. Climate change is definitely not a battle to be fought in isolation or through a single nation, but it becomes imperative to take a glimpse at what is happening in our country as we all set to participate in CoP26.

While the instances mentioned below are just few nor completely unknown, the politics and impact of each case and their inter-connectedness can be reflected on, beyond this article, since it becomes imperative to draw relationships between global and mainstream climate-change discourse and local ground realities. The State’s action or rather inaction within its own administrative boundaries, often gets missed in larger spaces like CoP26 where India gains an identity of a low pollution emitter and energy user(in terms of per capita) and a country still ‘developing.’

Amendments to the Forest Conservation Act (FCA 1980)

Amendments to the FCA which will affect more than 275 million forest communities has been on the cards for quite a while now, but suddenly on 2nd October 2021, a public consultation paper on the same appeared and a very short period of 15 days had been provided for feedback and suggestions. In reality a number of organisations and individuals working in this field, were not aware about this as no publicity or awareness was generated. Secondly, the sole English copy available only online, deprives many from across different rural and forested landscapes working and living with these issues, from accessing and providing their crucial inputs, since they are well-versed in vernacular languages only. The proposed amendments are not clear of how they will play out in the Rules which are the most important for implementation of any legislation. Some areas remain undefined but can be apprehended based on the past reputation of the government. For instance, the proposal to keep pristine areas exempt from forest diversion for a certain period might be a noble idea but then it has to be made clear if such demarcations will lead to easier strategies of denying forest-dependent communities their rights and simply provide for more hassle-free diversion later if not sooner. One of the major fears looming over the concept of ‘consent’ for diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes, a pre-condition made amply clear in the FRA as well as PESA and also in the FCA Amendment Rules 2017. However, poorly implemented, this powerful legal decentralised democratic public space where local and affected communities could voice their decisions, now stands jeopardised.

REDD+

UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation Programme (REDD and REDD+) as a climate change mitigation tool has found ample attention and under the Cancun Agreements (Mexico 2010) of UNFCC, developed countries such as India are required to frame and follow a Safeguards Implementation System (SIS) to prevent negative impacts on REDD+ on natural forests. The MoEF released a draft of the same on 13th September and kept it open for public comments till 15th October. However, one of the major contentions in implementing REDD+ activities in a sustainable manner is the complete negation of securing indigenous rights over the very same resources. The Draft released similarly, keeps silent on this and does not provide voice to the forest dependent and forest dwelling communities though multi-stakeholder consultation and analysis are terms strewn throughout the document carelessly. The spirit of the Draft’s reliance on safeguards of age old colonially driven laws and provisions such as Forest Conservation Act and Wildlife Protection Act etc is a risky enough affair. Additionally, funds to look after activities for REDD+ are majorly drawn from sources such as CAMPA (Compensatory Afforestation and Management Planning Authority) Fund, a part of CAF Act which faced heavy opposition by forest rights activists and forest communities. CAMPA funds have and still are spent on mostly non-forestry expenditures such as the Forest Department’s assets (cars, administrative costs etc. as per CAG report 2013 as well) and monoculture plantations which only provide labour for local communities and these plantations have a very poor survival rate.

There are already enough international examples to steer clear of simply blindly following REDD+ without a robust SIS in place. In Indonesia a baseline survey from 2008(the year REDD was launched there) has helped conduct evaluation of the numerous projects underway in the country. Negative impacts of REDD activities -on both ecology as well as livelihood and cultural identity, especially in a highly complex country like ours, can only be monitored if such provisions are incorporated in the safeguard mechanisms of REDD. Apart from the previous points discussed, India’s draft on SIS lacks mention of baseline data or any indicators such as recognition and respect for indigenous customary rights and knowledge etc .

Hasdeo Aranya

Hasdeo Aranya
Padyatra to Save Hasdeo Aranya/ Chhattisgarh Bachao Andoalan

On 2nd October Gandhi Jayanti, thousands of Adivasis and other forest dwellers, set off on a ten day and 330 kms long padyatra (foot journey) from Sarguja district to Raipur to once again reiterate the issues of illegal land acquisition & forest diversion for various mining projects, taking place in violation of PESA Act 1996 and FRA 2006.

Known as the “Lungs of Chhattisgarh”, the Hasdeo Aranya forests are one of the largest intact dense forest, biodiversity-rich areas in Central India. It has significant elephant presence throughout the year and is the catchment of Hasdeo river (largest tributary to Mahanadi) and Bango dam (responsible for irrigation of double-cropped farmland across Chhattisgarh). Due to its ecological importance, the region was classified as No-Go area in 2010 where the entire area was deemed to be out of bounds for mining. However, the region remains threatened with multiple mining projects.

The Adivasis of Hasdeo Aranya have been resisting the expansion of mining for over a decade now. They have regularly been passing Gram Sabha resolutions, under PESA Act 1996 and FRA 2006, to articulate their opposition to mining. have also written thousands of letters, petitions, and representations to all administrative bodies, ministries and political leaders. These Adivasis have held large-scale protests, dharnas, and sammelans and also sat on a 75-day strike in 2019.

Without wanting to dialogue or follow due process of the law, the Government is now trying to circumvent the need for “gram sabha consent” and has been using tactics such as acquiring of land under the Coal Bearing Areas Act (1957). Hence since 2015, 7 coal blocks have been allotted and though originally PSUs all of them have entered into agreements with private companies and hence ridden themselves of any further responsibility during operating the mine. It has issued notifications for acquisition of land for Madanpur South, Gidhmudi Paturiya, Kete Extension and Parsa even before any clearances or consultations. For the Parsa coal block, the Forest Clearance had been issued based on some forged consent/letter based on wide collusion of district administration with the company.

In Raipur though some meeting did take place between the Chief Minister and the Governor with the group, at the end of the padyatra , no clear assurances were given to meet the group’s demands.

FRA Promise and Performance

The World Conservation Congress (held in the beginning of September this year) is an important precursor to the CoP20 and the release of the Global Indigenous Agenda put forward a land rights-based approach and funding for self-determined ecosystem management at the heart of biodiversity conservation. It was also the first time that Indigenous organisations participated in this Conference which is held only once in four years. The most significant Agenda stating that solutions to climate change and biodiversity loss should include traditional indigenous knowledge and practise has the potential to entirely shift the approach to ecosystem management adopted till now. Infact, in March 2021, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation had published a report which found that deforestation rates were comparatively lower in places where collective indigenous land rights had been recognised formally.

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA), for the first time in our chequered history of forest governance, provides a chance to right the ‘historical injustice’ meted out to the forest dependent communities in our country. However, an independent research[iii] in 2016 by an advocacy cum research group-Community Forest Resources Learning and Advocacy (CFR-LA) found that after a decade of the Act being passed, only 3% of the total rights had been recognised at national level. A more recent study[iv] based on GIS , census data and maps, undertaken by ATREE (Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment)  finds that in the states of Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh, the realisation of community forest resource rights (CFR) stands at an abysmally low 23% , 26% ,2% and 10% respectively. Other states having an even lower performance, and the numerous other inconsistencies even in the cases of rights recognition, will not be discussed at this moment. It is the irony to be noted in an almost contradictory reality where tools such as FRA should be used for converging efforts on conservation and sustainable livelihoods but in our country seem to be running in parallel.

Conclusion

Recently national news was filled with warnings of the country being attacked by waves of darkness due to a severe coal shortage. However, the simple question of why should such a situation arise is only limited to explanations of increase in demand, decrease in imports of coal and the heavy rainfall that spoilt large reserves of coal in the country. Even if the current threat is accepted at face value and we restrain from asking the question of why is 75% of the country’s energy still coming from coal thermal powerplants whereas our plan was to produce 175 GW of renewable energy by 2022; China at the same time seemed to have been undergoing similar spells of darkness but due to different reasons, arising from curbing carbon emissions and hence cutting down on coal production. There is no single universal approach for different nations or even different communities to follow in this raging climate change saga since neither the causes nor the effects are equitable. Negating histories and narratives of those who are going to be the most severely affected, and carrying on viewing sustainable development through colonially tinted glasses and a capitalist lens will not only provide distorted solutions but further amplify the problems as those in power carry on converting crisis situations into opportunities for themselves. Albeit the presence of existing decentralised governance systems (customary and legal) and strong grassroot mobilisation and movements and civil society organisations; the participatory and culturally diverse and politically conscious social fabric of the country is being shed to pieces as vital sites such as the Forest Rights Act, Safety Information System for REDD+, grassroot voices of protest to protect rich ecosystems etc. are being invisiblised.

In Glasgow, at the CoP26, as we commit and demand commitments from other countries, we should not forget to make a few to our very own people and stick to it.

Mrinalini Paul is a Phd Research scholar at TISS

[i] Boston Consulting Group has a number of controversies attached with its name and many can be found in the New York Times Reports, one being that it helped Muhammad Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia consolidate power and another instance of unethical business collusions in Angola

[ii] Adani Group has an appalling record of environmental degradation and social devastation both in India and overseas

[iii] http://www.cfrla.org.in/uploads_acrvr/X36BEPromise%20and%20Performance%20National%20Report.pdf

[iv] https://www.atree.org/sites/default/files/reports/CFR_Potential_Mapping_Report_compressed.pdf

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