The Supreme Court’s recent order to evict more than 10 lakh families, including tribal and traditional forest dwellers across 16 states, who live in forest areas has raised concern in several quarters.
The order, which has come just before the announcement of Lok Sabha elections schedule, can damage the ruling BJP. It has given the opposition parties a weapon to attack the central government with as its lawyers did not defend the Forest Rights Act which protects adivasis.
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 naturalists say the law is against the Constitution, causes forest destruction and endangers flora and fauna. They also say that the phrase ‘Other Traditional Forest Dwellers’ (OTFD), which forms bulk of the claims, is a “nebulous” category of people not defined in the Constitution.
After the court order, more than 11 lakh families, whose claim is rejected under FRA, will have to move out of their homes by July 27, the next date of hearing. The court has said that the matter would be viewed seriously by the court if eviction isn’t carried out.
The number of affected families may increase as other states will also have to comply with the orders of the Supreme Court. The latest data (December 2018) available with the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA), which is the nodal ministry for FRA, 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.
Under the FRA, communities like Gond, Munda or Dongria Kondh are given the 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 Supreme Court’s order evoked sharp reactions also because the central government did not even defend the rights of these communities in court.
The forest department is always seen acting as a villain while implementing the Forest Rights Act. The communities have accused the department of diluting the provisions and denying claims to adivasis and forest dwellers. Last year, MoTA told 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.
The hostility of forest authorities towards the claimants is mainly due to the right of collecting and selling the minor forest produce (MFP) they (adivasis and forest dwellers) get under the FRA act.
MFP is a major source of revenue and forest authorities do not want to lose it. States earn more revenue from MFP than they earn from timber. For instance, Andhra Pradesh earns almost double the income from MFP than it does from timber. Other states also earn more than 50 percent of all revenue from MFP like mahuwa, gums, tendu leaves and several flowers.
The petitioners (wildlife activists), facing criticism from forest right groups and community leaders, released a clarification on Thursday, saying the Supreme Court order does not affect genuine claimants. The press release signed by petitioner Praveen Bhargava on behalf of Wildlife First, Nature Conservation Society and Tiger Research Conservation Trust cites the court order and concludes that: “The Supreme Court is presently focussing only on recovery of forest land from bogus claimants.” It says no action has been directed against lakhs of claimants who have got titles on more than 72 lakh hectares of forest land.
However, organisations fighting for forest rights see it as a “misleading statement”. Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a national platform for tribal and forest dweller organisations in 10 states, also released a statement saying, “The petitioners expect that an oppressed, marginalised and often illiterate population, facing opposition from a forest bureaucracy riddled with corrupt officials, should be able to prevail on every claim they file – and if not should lose their lands, homes or livelihoods.”
Forest rights activists say that rejection of claims is not grounds for believing a person has no right as the claims are often turned down due to “illegal intervention” by forest officers.
Shankar Gopalakrishnan, secretary of Campaign for Survival and Dignity, says, “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 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 Ccurt had also asked why the families (with rejected claims) 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”.
This time, however, the lawyers of the central government weren’t even present in court to defend the act and this has drawn criticism from rival political parties. The BJP has maintained silence after the court order, but Congress president Rahul Gandhi had attacked the central government on February 14 for acting as a “silent spectator” and “driving out lakhs of tribal and poor farmers from the forests”.
Clearly, apart from the legal nuances, the political dimension of the case is also very important. India has 9 percent 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.
“This is total betrayal of adivasis by the Narendra Modi government. Not only was the Forest Rights Act not represented properly before the Supreme Court, but also the state governments run by the BJP have been on the forefront, diluting and changing laws under the patronage of the Modi government. It has now come to a stage where they want to evict tribal people. So, we have demanded that the Modi government immediately issue an ordinance. They can issue ordinance on Triple Talaq, but are not bothered about the adivasis,” said Brinda Karat.