Relief for forest-dwelling families across 16 states as SC stays eviction notice

In a major reprieve to a million indigenous people, the Supreme Court on Thursday stayed its February 13 order which directed 16 states to evict over 11 lakh families of Adivasis and other forest dwellers across India.

The Ministry of Tribal Affairs and the Gujarat government had moved petitions in the top court seeking abeyance on the judicial order, in the interest of the forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes (FDSTs) and other traditional forest dwellers (OTFDs) across 16 states.

The three-judge bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra also gave the states four months to submit details on how claims over traditional forest land were processed and if the rejections were made after following due process. Also comprising Justices Navin Sinha and MR Shah, the bench posted the matter posted the matter for further hearing to July 10.

By then, the Chief Secretary of each state is to collate data and file their detailed affidavits with regard to the processes followed in deciding claims and granting ‘’.

Indigenous forest-dwellers of India cannot claim victory just yet, because the top court has cautioned that those found undeserving, based on their respective state’s submitted responses, will not be allowed to continue with ‘encroachment’.

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. 

Alleged grounds for eviction

The SC’s controversial order on February 13 had followed a review of The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006. Also known as the Forest Rights Act 2006, this gives tribal communities titles to forest land that they have historically occupied.

The original petitioners who demanded their eviction include 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.

Believing that the Forest Rights Act challenges the Indian Forest Act 1927 and Wildlife Protection Act 1972 that regulate activities in these forests and protect forest flora and fauna, the petitioners contended that human occupation of forested land has caused widespread deforestation.

The SC subsequently rejected the claims of many tribal families to their forest dwelling and ordered the Forest Survey of India (FSI) to use a satellite survey to record the positions of these communities before and after .

It also reprimanded the Centre for “sleeping” on the problem thus far.

Centre: a silent spectator so far

Critical of the MoTA’s plea, the bench observed that it was perhaps in a slumber when the previous order was passed and that it cannot wake up one fine day with making new arguments. 

The Campaign for Survival and Dignity (CSD), a national of several and forest dwellers’ movements, also the Centre for its silence on the matter until it was too late.

On the February 13 hearing, the government failed to send lawyers to defend the act, which the CSD believed tipped the scales in the favour of the petitioners.

“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.

Tribal communities and sustainability

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who appeared for the Centre on February 28, submitted, “The Act of 2006 only envisages an examination of the claims and not eviction…under the Act, the rejection of a claim does not ipso facto lead to of a . There is no provision in the Act which provides for eviction after a claim is rejected.”

“It is uncertain whether the data furnished by the state governments accurately indicates whether the rejection orders were passed after of due process of law; compliance with principles of natural justice and whether appeal mechanisms have been properly exhausted. Without such information and compliance with the mandate of law in letter and spirit, the eviction of such would amount to miscarriage of Justice,” said the Ministry. 

Mehta also objected to the prosecution’s view that historical forest dwellers destroy the forest ecology.

“This is a human problem. Protection of forests and forest dwelling tribals have coexisted across the world,” he said, referring to the view held by all environmental experts and activists regarding the symbiotic relationship between the cultural practices of tribal communities and the conservation of forests and wildlife.

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 the prosecutors’ claims.

“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.

The exemplary case of the Soligas

Last October, the Supreme Court too was forced to the rights of Soligas to the forest land in Karnataka. Renowned for their intimate relationship with nature, Soligas (children of bamboo) became the first tribal community in India living in the “protected” core area of a tiger reserve.

They were evicted and relocated in after the forests near the Biligiri Rangana Hills were declared a wildlife sanctuary under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972.

In 2008, the Soligas took the issue to court. The Forest Rights Act helped them in their legal battle. With the court ruling in their favour, in August 2010, about 1,200 families received pattas that established their rights over the land.

In 2011, when the sanctuary was declared a tiger reserve, the Soligas once again contended that the hasty announcement was made without proper consultation and approval of the tribe that has had ancestral rights over the region.

Why it matters: The law that protects forest-dwelling communities is in peril

The Forest Rights Act 2006, which was legislated by UPA government to protect tribal land rights, was established to correct actions by the British and post-independence governments who unfairly seized land away from tribal communities.

The CSD further alleged that the act explicitly requires the government to award legal recognition to lands (up to four hectares) that people are already occupying. This means that if a tribal is using only two hectares, they legally own those two; if they are cultivating 15 hectares, they will receive the deeds to a maximum of four. 

“As a result, millions of people are subject to harassment, evictions, etc. under the pretext of being encroachers”, says CSD. The latest order has all caused grave concern among these communities, who view it as a green light for officials to persecute tribal communities again, for corporate interests.

Nearly 3.5 lakh claims have been rejected in Madhya Pradesh, and 1.5 lakh in Odisha. Uttarakhand has the least number of rejected claims at 51, Live Law had reported.

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. The February 13 order is touted as one of the biggest eviction drives in India’s history and fuelled controversy among academic and activist circles across the country.

The apex court’s revised stance to review the matter before final holds out the faintest of hope for India’s forest-dwelling indigenous communities.

Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius

EvictionForest Rights ActLand rightsScheduled TribesSoligasSupreme CourtTribal community