Indian National Congress president Rahul Gandhi has written to chief ministers of all Congress-governed states to file review petitions in the Supreme Court against mass-scale evictions of tribals and other forest-dwellers.
In separate letters with similar guidance to all Congress chief ministers, Gandhi said, “In order to pre-empt large-scale evictions, it would be expedient to file a review petition and take any other action you may deem fit.”
“The Union tribal affairs ministry has pointed out that forest staff often raised frivolous objections leading to rejections. In this backdrop, evictions based on rejected claims alone, without a proper review and appeal process violets the due process of law,” he added.
Business Standard reviewed the letters to all the chief ministers sent on February 23 by the Congress president.
A day before that, on February 22, responding to the apex court order, on February 22, the Union tribal affairs ministry had said, “It’s clarified that Govt of India, Ministry of Tribal Affairs is well aware of its responsibilities of defending the constitutional validity of the Forest Rights Act and the Ministry will do everything at its disposal to safeguard the interests of the tribals as it has been doing so far.”
The moves come in response to a Supreme Court order which asked states to forcibly evict all tribals and other forestdwellers whose claims under the Forest Rights Act have been rejected. The court had warned each of the states, to file a detailed affidavit on “whether eviction has been ordered and possession has been
taken or not.”. It also said, “It is further directed that the cases in which the orders have attained finality (for eviction), let eviction be made forthwith. In case of noncompliance of this order, the same shall be viewed seriously.”
A total of 1.89 million claims had been rejected by November 2018, according to the tribal affairs ministry. Potentially all these households face the threat of eviction after the Supreme Court order.
From the key states in central India with high levels of tribal populations, Chhattisgarh was the first to take concrete steps to prevent evictions. State chief minister Bhupesh Baghel tweeted, “The state government shall put up its own lawyer to defend the Forest Rights Act before the Supreme Court on the next hearing. If need be, a review petition would also be filed.”
Congress’ senior political leader from Madhya Pradesh, Digvijay Singh said, “The court order impinges on the constitutionally guaranteed rights of tribals. We need to go in for an immediate review petition.”
Speaking to Business Standard, the state panchayati raj and rural development minister for Chhattisgarh T S Singh Deo said, “There is no case for evictions. We will not let such large-scale evictions take place. We have ordered a full time-bound review of all rejections (of claims made under the Forest Rights Act) because we know that most of them were not done legally. Under the previous government, people were not given the opportunity to be heard or to appeal as the law provides.”
“We have ordered each district to review such cases where illegal rejections were made and ensure that people get their legal right to appeal as provided in the Forest Rights Act. Till this exercise is over no evictions can take place.”
Business Standard reviewed the detailed orders sent to each district by the state chief secretary asking for such a scrutiny. These orders were initially passed in January. The minister said after the Supreme Court order on February 20, the state government has decided to do it in a time-bound manner and instructions to the effect would be sent shortly.
In the adjoining state of Jharkhand where 26.3 per cent of the population is tribal, the opposition party Jharkhand Mukti Morcha prepared to hold protests in all districts and convene a larger inter-state meeting to ramp up pressure. The party's executive president and former Chief Minister Hemant Soren told Business Standard, “We cannot allow this to happen to tribals in our state. Historically they have anyway being evicted for development and industrial projects. We are beginning our protests and will take whatever steps we can to prevent any forced evictions by the state government. This includes taking all legal recourses that may be required.” BJP is in power in Jharkhand.
Sources in the Union government said, the tribal affairs ministry was seeking legal advice on the steps ahead. The Times of India had earlier reported that the ministry had written to the states asking for information on how many people would end up getting evicted. The Union tribal affairs secretary Deepak Khandekar was quoted saying, “The ministry may convene a meeting of states to work out how to deal with these cases and what will happen to those who face eviction.”
A Senior forest official from a BJP state speaking on the condition of anonymity said, “This is just not viable. There could be violence if we go ahead like this. Our state officials are also consulting on the next steps to be taken.”
No state or central BJP leader has so far come out categorically opposing the evictions or announced a decision to oppose the court order.
In the northeast region, the BJP government in Assam had earlier indicated its inclination to evict people. In its affidavit to the court it had said district level authorities had already submitted plans for evictions in their respective areas.
Several civil society groups and NGOs have come out against the Supreme Court order over the past few days. “Reports by the state government and independent committees have shown that the process of recognising rights has been poorly implemented. In several states, systematic rejection of claims has happened without stating the reasons or giving a chance of appeal…and most significantly the Forest Rights Act does not have a provision of automatic evictions. We appeal to the nodal ministry and state governments to present these as part of their response to Supreme Court’s directions and uphold the rights of the forest dwellers to life, dignity and livelihood,” said Oxfam India.
No other prominent wildlife group in the country, except for the petitioners in the case, have till date come out in support of the mass eviction orders.
Harini Nagendra, a well-known ecologist and professor at Aziz Premji University tweeted, “They (tribals and forestdwellers) have first rights. They were in the forests before any of us city conservationists. Evicting India’s tribes from its forests is wrong on all counts- bad for ecology, society and most of all normatively. Just wrong.”
M D Madhusudan, co-founder of the Bangalore-based Nature Conservation Foundation added to it to say, “If nature conservation is at all worth doing—and I think it absolutely is—it is worth doing well. Worth doing right. Worth doing justly. To claim bad citizenship as good conservation, or that one law must be upheld by undermining another is just not the way.”