NATIONAL | February 21, 2019:
The government of 17 states were asked by the Supreme Court to evict
an estimated one million tribal and other households living in forests after their claims of the right to live in forests were rejected under the Forest Rights Act.
The court has asked the evictions to be carried out by July 12 and directed the Dehradun-based Forest Survey of India to submit a satellite-image based report on the encroachments removed.
According to affidavits filed by the states in the top court, about 11,72,931 (1.17 million) land ownership claims made by scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers under the Forest Rights Act have been rejected on various grounds, including absence of proof that the land was in their possession for at least three generations.
The law provides for giving land rights to those living on forest land for at least three generations before December 31, 2005. The claims are examined by a committee headed by the district collector and having forest department officials as members.
The Forest Rights Law itself has been criticised by both wildlife activists and those fighting for the rights of tribespeople and forest-dwellers, albeit for different reasons. The former believe giving people rights to live in forests will eventually harm the forests themselves and also wildlife.
The latter believe that the implementation of the law is far from perfect and that deficiencies in this have resulted in many valid claims being rejected by the states. The latter also allege that the government didn't exactly put up an effective defence in the case, which was brought by wildlife NGOs and activists.
The rejections—Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Odisha have the biggest numbers—comprise 20% of the total claims for land ownership submitted by those residing in forests across India under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.
The law was enacted by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to undo the historic injustice done to forest dwellers under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, which termed them "encroachers" on the land they had been tilling for generations.
In an order uploaded on its website on Tuesday evening, the apex court specifically issued directions to the chief secretaries of each of the 17 states to ensure that in all cases where land ownership claims have been rejected, eviction is carried out on or before the next date of hearing (July 12, 2019).
In cases where verification/re-verification/review is pending, the state must complete the process within four months and submit a report, the court said.
"Let the Forest Survey of India make a satellite survey and place on record the encroachment positions and also state the positions after the eviction as far as possible," it said.
The court order came a few days after Congress president Rahul Gandhi wrote to chief ministers of party-ruled Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, asking them to reopen the rejected cases and help claimants to secure their rights under the Forest Rights Act.
"We must honour the people's mandate by effectively implementing the Forest Rights Act," Gandhi said, in similar letters written to the three chief ministers. He pointed out that several environmental NGOs have challenged the constitutional validity of the Forest Rights Act and the legislative competence of Parliament to enact it.
"Given the significance of the case, I request you to ensure competent legal representation for the above-mentioned matter and to review the implementation of the Act," the letter read.
Kishore Rithe, one of the petitioners who runs Nature Conservation Society, a wildlife protection non-government organization, said the court has rightly asked state chief secretaries to evict encroachers.
"If the chief secretaries fail to implement the court order due to political reasons, only God will be able to save them. The order has nothing to do with elections," he said, referring to Gandhi's letter to the three chief ministers.
Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a network of NGOs working for the welfare of those living in forests, said the Forest Rights Act contains no clause for eviction of rejected claimants and, in fact, section 4(5) specifically prohibits eviction until the process of implementation of the law is fully complete in an area.
"But this order can become a pretext for forest officials to attack lakhs of forest dwellers and do another historic injustice to tribals and other forest dwellers," the NGO said in a statement on Wednesday.
According to the 2011 census, there are an estimated 104 million tribespeople in India. But civil society groups estimate there are around 200 million people from the scheduled tribes and other forest dwellers living in 1,70,000 villages in forest areas, which cover about 22% of India's geographical area.