The Supreme Court has ordered the forced eviction of more than 1,000,000 tribal and other forest-dwelling households from forestlands across 16 states after the government failed to defend a law protecting their rights.
The final country-wide numbers of forced evictions are likely to rise substantially as other states are forced to comply with the court orders. The court’s orders came in a case filed by wildlife groups questioning the validity of the Forest Rights Act. The petitioners had also demanded that all those whose claims over traditional forestlands are rejected under the law should be evicted by state governments as a consequence.
The Union government failed to present its lawyers in defence of the law on February 13, leading a three-judge bench of Arun Mishra, Navin Sinha and Indira Banerjee to pass orders giving states till July 27 to evict tribals whose claims had been rejected and submit a report on it to the Supreme Court. The written order was released on February 20.
The court said that the state governments would “ensure that where the rejection orders have been passed, eviction will be carried out on or before the next date of hearing. In case the eviction is not carried out, as aforesaid, the matter would be viewed seriously by this Court.” The next date of hearing is set for July 27 – the effective date by when states would have to evict tribals to comply with the court orders.
The total number of rejected claims from 16 states that have reported rejection rates so far to the apex court add up to 1,127,446 tribal and other forest-dwelling households shows an analysis of the court order. Several other states that have not provided details to court have been asked to do so. Once they follow suit these numbers are likely to swell.
The Forest Rights Act, which was passed during the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance’s first tenure, requires the government to hand back traditional forestlands to tribals and other forest-dwellers against laid down criteria. The Act, passed in 2006, has seen opposition from within ranks of forest officials as well as some wildlife groups and naturalists. This, combined with the fact that at the ground level it is the forest bureaucracy that has to administer the law has made the implementation difficult and tardy.
Tribal groups contend that their claims have been rejected systematically in some states and need to be reviewed. In several states there have been reports on administrations going particularly slow on even accepting community-level claims.
Some wildlife NGOs, like petitioner Bangalore-based Wildlife First, believe the law is against the Constitution and it has led to deforestation. They say that even if the law now remains in place, rejection of claims should lead to automatic eviction of tribal families by the state authorities.
Tribal groups have argued that the rejections in many cases are faulty, need to undergo review under new regulations that the tribal affairs ministry brought in mid-way to reform the process, the law does not lead to automatic evictions and in some cases the claimants are anyway not in possession of lands they had sought as their ancestral forests.
On the day the court had last heard the matter, Congress president Rahul Gandhi had blamed the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government for being a ‘silent spectator’ in the case and that the absence of central government lawyers betrayed the government’s intention to drive out lakhs of tribals and poor farmers from forests. By then, the court hearing and oral observations of the judges had left an ambiguous note about whether the court had ordered evictions or merely a report on the status of evictions from states. The written order on February 20 left no doubt. The Union government is yet to react to the order but mass-scale country-wide evictions at this scale have never been seen before and would lead to political trouble for the BJP in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections.
The last time country-wide evictions took place was in 2002-2004, again triggered by a Supreme Court order, which led to many cases of violence, deaths and protests in the central Indian tribal forested areas and uprooting of around 300,000 households, notes researcher C R Bijoy in his published research.