Photo: Shailendra Pandey
VYRICHERLA KISHORE Chandra Suryanarayana Deo — Kishore to his friends — has upset many during his tenure as Union Tribal Affairs & Panchayati Raj minister. For those who dismissed the soft-spoken, easygoing political middleweight as a “sweet nothing”, the “activist” minister’s relentless crusade for tribal rights and trenchant (albeit politely worded) criticism of party and Cabinet colleagues comes as a surprise.
On tribal rights, Kishore has taken on his own government, countering repeated attempts to dilute the Forest Rights Act (FRA) with a volley of letters to Cabinet colleagues, chief ministers and governors. His role has been crucial at a time when various government agencies have been seeking to set aside the provisions of the Act, which demand consent of the tribal dwellers before diverting forestland for infrastructure or industry.
Given his seniority — he is 65 and a sixterm MP — he might have expected highprofile portfolios. Panchayati Raj is regarded as second string and Tribal Affairs is a relatively new ministry; earlier clubbed with Home, then Welfare, then Social Justice, it was given independent status in 1999. Kishore is the fourth minister to hold the portfolio and the first to give it teeth.
Kishore implicitly believes mining in tribal areas is the biggest challenge faced by forest dwellers and the root cause of Naxal insurgency. “All of us are talking about left-wing extremism. The PM has described it as a threat to national security. People must wake up and realise that this is due to the neglect and extreme exploitation of forest dwellers,” he says.
|7 April 2012
Writes to AP governor on ‘illegal’ mining leases
Writes to CMs on FRA, also to governors on special powers
Writes to Naveen Patnaik on Kalahandi
Amends rules to give FRA teeth
Cancels AP mining leases, writes to AP CM
States objection to NIB overruling FRA/PESA
|19 November & 7 December
Writes to Jayanthi Natarajan on FRA
Sets up board to fix fair price for forest produce
Kishore is not opposed to mining, per se, but firmly believes that forest dwellers ought to have a share in the proceeds of mining, a decisive say in the pace and manner of mining and a right to forest produce. What he does not say on record (but conveys in his letters to the Minister of Environment and Forests) is that the Forest Department is the biggest hurdle in securing justice for tribals.
He fired his first salvo on behalf of forest dwellers last April, in a letter to Andhra Pradesh Governor ESL Narasimhan, demanding that leases granted to the AP Mining Development Corporation (APMDC) in violation of the FRA be cancelled. When he did not receive a response, he shot off a letter to CM Kiran Kumar Reddy cancelling the leases in exercise of his constitutional powers as Tribal Affairs minister — a first.
In his letter to Narasimhan, he points out that Vishakapatnam district, where APMDC has been granted mining leases, has become a hotbed of Maoist activity. The killings by extremists, he adds, have to do with the bauxite mining lobbies.
Kishore did his homework before taking on the AP government. First, he secured the Attorney General’s opinion on whether the governor had the power to cancel the leases granted by the state government. The AG concluded he did. Despite the legal go-ahead, Narasimhan chose not to take on the government. Kishore waited five months, then sent off a letter cancelling the leases: “By virtue of the powers vested in GoI vide Clause 3 of Vth Schedule of the Constitution… hereby directs the AP government to cancel the mining leases to APMDC immediately and report compliance.”
At the time of writing, compliance has yet to be received. The PM may well have to arbitrate between the minister and the CM and the results of that exercise would have immense significance. The PM is said to have reservations about Kishore’s leftof- centre leanings.
Meanwhile, Kishore busied himself with drawing Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan’s attention to the fact that her ministry made it a “practice of ignoring the FRA when diverting forestland for large projects”. He wrote: “I’m anguished to find that even five years after its enactment, the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) continues to ignore this law’s existence.” The prior, informed consent of the gram sabhas is a mandatory requirement for diversion of forestland under the FRA and this provision is being blatantly flouted by governments.
He referred in particular to the clearance given by the MOEF to the Lara Thermal Power Project in Raigarh of Chhattisgarh, even while acknowledging that the mandatory gram sabha certificates had not been obtained! “Why is it (FAC) misleading the public into believing that these projects are in compliance with the law when they often are not?” he asks.
In a follow-up letter to Natarajan last month, he referred to the Niyamgiri case: “Proceedings are pending in the SC in regard to the proposed mine by Vedanta in Niyamgiri where people are seeking to argue that they can bypass, ignore or undermine the FRA in the name of advancing a project.” It behoves the government to take a clear stand that upholds the law and the rights of the people, he maintains.
Kishore has been urging state governments to take the FRA seriously. In a letter to all the CMs, he pointed out that community rights to pastures, water bodies and minor forest produce were not being given recognition; that tribals who sought to claim land rights were being given a fraction of the area to which they were entitled and claims were being rejected without assigning a reason. “As a result, forest dwellers are facing eviction or harassment by the authorities,” he wrote.
No issue is too small for Kishore to take up. Earlier in 2012, he wrote to Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik on Jamguda, a small tribal village in Kalahandi. The gram sabha had decided to harvest flowering bamboo, which (having flowered) would otherwise be destroyed. They proposed to sell it at 30 a pole and so earn about 1 lakh but the forest authorities refused to allow them to transport the bamboo. This random abuse of power, he said, “goes against our professed adherence to rule of law”.
Far more than his activism on tribal rights, his alleged description of AP Pradesh Congress Committee chief Botsa Satyanarayana as a “land, liquor and mining don”, in a letter to Sonia Gandhi, made a big stir. Kishore denied having written a letter. Correct, but only technically, sources say. It was an 11-page report, not a letter. And it severely criticised the functioning of the state government in general and the CM (and Botsa) in particular.
Kishore’s view on Kiran Reddy and Botsa are well-known, so the leak did not come as a surprise. It did, however, leave many wondering how this blunt, outspoken man had managed to fly below the radar for most of his four-decade-long political career. Given his distaste for lobbying, it was perhaps not surprising that he made it to the Cabinet only in 2011.
Last June, he took on the then home minister P Chidambaram over the massacre of 17 civilians in Chhattisgarh, saying his acceptance of the state government’s version that they were Maoists was “illinformed”. “By killing 17 innocent tribals, you are creating 1,700 Maoists,” he warned.
He was to take on Chidambaram as finance minister as well, when he opposed the National Investment Board’s reported attempt to bypass the FRA. While he didn’t do so directly, he said he would insist on the implementation of the FRA and the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act. The UPA stood for inclusive growth and so, no development project could be more important than the livelihood of millions. If the two laws that offer protection to tribals were an obstacle to development, then the Tribal Affairs ministry could well be wound up.
One of his first initiatives after taking over was to amend the FRA rules, because some of them, he says “were against the spirit of the Act”. Manoeuvring the amendments through the bureaucracy took him a year. Currently, his big project is setting a minimum procurement price for minor or non-timber forest produce, so that tribals don’t get shortchanged on their bamboo, herbs, etc.
Like his Cabinet colleague from AP, S Jaipal Reddy, he enjoys a reputation for probity. Both come from privileged backgrounds; Kishore is from the royal family of Kurupam. Apart from that, they are at polar ends of state politics, coming from different regions. Neither has ever openly expressed an opinion, but it is widely accepted that while Reddy, who hails from Telangana, sees little alternative to bifurcation of AP, Kishore is opposed to it.
Nor does he have a soft corner for Jaganmohan Reddy. In fact, in his letter to the governor, he even took on the late YS Rajasekhara Reddy, duly deified by the state Congress (even as the Centre claps his son in jail), for having betrayed “our commitment to the cause of the STs” in granting the mining leases, which was “a flagrant violation of our Constitution”. When it comes to tribal rights, Kishore doesn’t believe in holding back.