Last week, the Supreme Court (SC) ordered the eviction of over a million “encroaching” forest-dwelling and tribal families after reviewing arguments related to the Forest Rights Act 2006.
The SC’s written order was released on Thursday after a legal battle over The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 that gives tribal communities titles to forest land that they have historically occupied.
The following 16 state governments have been asked to review the status of tribals and evict them: Manipur, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Tripura, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Odisha, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka, Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Goa, Chhattisgarh, and Bihar.
The SC also ordered the Forest Survey of India (FSI) to use a satellite survey to record the positions of these communities before and after eviction.
What is this Act?
The Forest Rights Act passed in 2006 allows families that have lived in the forests to do so officially and legally. Many of these families belong to tribal communities.
Campaign for Survival and Dignity (CSD), a national organisation for tribal and forest dwellers, says that this act requires the government to award legal recognition to lands (upto four hectares) that people are already occupying.
CSD explains that if a tribal is using only two hectares, they legally own those two. But, if they are cultivating 15 hectares, they will receive the deeds to only four.
According to CSD, the fifth schedule of the Constitution states that two-thirds of Indian forests are located on lands that are owned by tribals.
Legal trouble ahead
Petitioners challenged the Forest Rights Act and demanded the eviction of families whose claim to forest land was rejected.
Managing trustee of Wildlife First Praveen Bhargav, director of
Satpuda Foundation, Kishor Rithe, and co-founder of Tiger Research and Conservation Trust (TRACT), Harshvardhan Dhanwatey, are the petitioners in this case.
They believe that the Forest Rights Act challenges the Indian Forest Act 1927 and Wildlife Protection Act 1972 that regulate activities in these forests and protect plants and animals.
They also believe that human occupation of forested land has already resulted in deforestation.
Bhargav, Rithe, and Dhanwatey further argued that allowing some communities rights to the land will open floodgates of thousands to make false and baseless claims to the same.
However, a letter signed by various conservation groups, scientists, and environmentalists, including Greenpeace India, All India Union of Forest Working People, and All India Forum of Forest Movement, refuted these claims.
They said that the petition against the Act was a grave injustice to communities who have been slighted by the authorities before. They also noted that local communities are instrumental in preserving resources.
“You would surely be aware that across the country a significant force that has stopped this resource loot is local communities fighting to protect their natural resources and habitats”, the letter says.
As the government failed to send lawyers to defend the act, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the petitioners. The SC ordered state governments to report the status of families’ claims and evict those whose claims have been rejected.
Rahul Gandhi has voiced his support for the Forest Rights Act, which was legislated under the UPA government in 2006, and accused the BJP for being a “silent spectator” in the matter.
CSD released a statement addressing the eviction order.
“The Central government—for the fourth time in a row—chose not to argue at all in the Court. As no other party can speak effectively in defense of a law, the version of the petitioner—forest official, ex-zamindars and a handful of wildlife NGOs—was hence taken to be the truth”, said CSD.
CSD contends that peoples’ claim to forest land has been wrongfully rejected by forest officials. It also says the the Act has no provision to evict people if their claims have been rejected.
Why does this matter?
After independence, all Indian forest cover was declared government property with no surveys on who was occupying the area and what they were using it for.
“As a result, millions of people are subject to harassment, evictions, etc. under the pretext of being encroachers”, says CSD. Hence, these communities are concerned that the SC order is a green light for officials to persecute tribal communities again.
Legality and morality aside, such a large scale eviction is likely to create violence, loss of life, and protests across the country—like it did between 2002 and 2004 when the SC gave a similar eviction order affecting 10 million tribals in forested areas.
Journalist Saurav Datta said that according to Section 4(5) of the Forest Rights Act and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, forest-dwellers are protected from eviction and have the right to appeal it.
One also cannot ignore the undertones of caste at play here.
Aniruddha Ghosal said that the relationship between forest department officials and tribal communities “has been largely antagonistic, steeped in caste bias—but worsened by the notion that ‘they don’t belong’ or that ‘forests are pristine spaces devoid of humans.’”
The SC has given the states in question until July 27 to carry out its order.
Rhea Arora is a Staff Writer at Qrius