The Supreme Court ordered the evictionof more than 10 lakh tribal and traditional forest-dwelling families from forestlands across 16 states
The order came after the top court heard petition challenging the validity of the Forest Rights Act on February 13. The petitioners had demanded that those whose claims over traditional forestlands are rejected and under the new law should be evicted. The lawyers of the central government were not even present in the Supreme Court to defend the rights of tribal and traditional forest dwelling families.
The Supreme Court ordered the ‘eviction’ after a case was filed by wildlife NGOs challenging the validity of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, also known as FRA which protects the rights of forest dwellers and communities.
Wildlife activists and some environmentalists claimed that the law is against the Constitution, causes forest destruction and endangers flora and fauna. They also said that the phrase ‘Other Traditional Forest Dwellers’ (OTFD), forms bulk of claims “it is a “nebulous” category of people not defined in the Constitution.
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After the court’s order, the claims of more than 11 lakh families have been rejected under FRA. These families will have to move out from their homes by July 27, the next date of hearing. The court also said that the matter would be viewed seriously by the court if eviction is not carried out.
The number of affected families may increase as other states will also have to comply with the orders of the Supreme Court. According to the latest available data of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) shows that out of 42.19 lakh claims made, only 18.89 have been accepted. Therefore, there are more than 23 lakh tribal and forest dwelling families who can still face eviction. This number is more than double the number of families to be evicted by present court order.
Communities like Gond, Munda and Dongria Kondh have a right to live and sustain their livelihood in forests, and protect, cultivate and manage their land. However, less than 2% claims of the forest dwellers have been recognised and other are considered to be living illegally in the forest.
The orders of the Supreme Court evoked sharp reactions because the central government did not even defend the rights of these communities in court. The forest department is always seen as a villain while implementing the Forest Rights Act.
Last year, MoTA told to the chief secretaries of states that “it has noticed that state forest authorities move immediately to evict people whose claims under FRA are rejected, without waiting for a decision on review or appeal or allowing time to file an appeal”.
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Monitor Forest Produce (MFP) is a major source of revenue so that the forest authorities do not want to lose it. States earn more revenue from MFP than they earn from timber. Andhra Pradesh earns almost double the income from MFP than it does from timber. Other states also earn more than 50% of all revenue from MFP like Mahuwa, Gums, Tendu leaves and several flowers.
The petitioners are facing criticism from forest right groups and community leaders. The press release signed by petitioner Praveen Bhargava on behalf of Nature Conservation Society and Tiger Research Conservation Trust, concludes that “the Supreme Court is presently focusing only on recovery of forest land from bogus claimants.” “No action has been taken against lakhs of claimants who have got titles on more than 72 lakh hectares of forest land” petitioners added.
Shankar Gopala Krishnan, secretary of Campaign for Survival and Dignity said “the main issue here is not environment versus people but bureaucracy versus people. The question is not whether the environment should be protected, because people who live in forest are also fighting to protect the environment. The question is whether the forest officers should have life and death power.”
This is not the first time that the court has passed such an order. In the same case in 2016, the Supreme Court had asked the state governments to file an affidavit giving the details of the rejected claims. The Court had also asked why the families were not evicted in two weeks. Then the MoTA had intervened and given clarification to the court, explaining about the cases where the claims had to be re-examined due to “wrongful rejection”.
However, the lawyers of the central government were not even present in the court to defend the act that has drawn criticism from rival political parties. Congress President Rahul Gandhi on February 14 alleged that the Bharatiya Janata Party was standing as a “silent spectator” when the Act was being challenged in the Supreme Court. “For millions of adivasis and other forest dwellers, Jal, Jangal and Zameen are an integral to their Right to Life guaranteed by our Constitution. It is time for us to work towards deepening the promise of India for everyone,” Rahul Gandhi said.
Apart from the legal nuances, the political dimension of the case is also very important. India has 9% tribal population getting a very poor signal about the ruling party. CPM leader Brinda Karat, who was also part of the Select Committee constituted to look into the proposed bill during UPA–1, wrote a letter to the Prime Minister to pass an ordinance to protect the tribal people from eviction.