The court’s February 13 order came in a case filed by wildlife groups demanding that people whose claims have been rejected under the law be treated as encroachers and evicted from forestlands.
If the court accepts the plea of petitioners, state governments would have to undertake mass evictions. The union ministry for tribal affairs estimates that by the end of November 2018, out of the 4.2 million claims received, 1.94 million claims have been rejected. As many as 1.89 million claimants have actually got titles over their traditional forestlands.
The law, passed in 2006, requires the government to give back rights over traditional forestlands to tribals and other forest-dwellers. Through a laid down process, people are permitted to lay claims before authorities. These authorities, based on criteria set in the law and regulations, are required to either approve or reject the claims with several layers of appeals being available to claimants.
The court’s orders on Febryary 13, with central government lawyers missing during the hearing, gave rise the next day to a political slugfest with the opposition claiming the BJP was not doing enough to safeguard tribal rights.
The court’s orders came while hearing a case filed by wildlife groups and retired forest officers raising a legal challenge on the constitutional validity of the law. The case was originally filed in 2009. The petition, besides challenging the constitutional validity of the law, also demanded that those whose claims had been rejected be evicted as ‘encroachers’. The petitioners also have demanded that those who are not scheduled tribes should not be handed back traditional forestlands under the law.
Hearing the case, back in March 2018 the Supreme Court had asked states to report on the status of eviction of those claimants whose claims have been rejected and the total extent of the areas from which they have been evicted. Besides other statistics, it also asked for the extent of the area in respect of which eviction has not yet taken place in respect of rejected claims.
On February 13, when the court heard the matter again the lawyer for the petitioner pushed the case for eviction. Justice Arun Mishra noted that state reports had not reported any eviction. In fact, four states have reported some evictions.
The court demanded that state chief secretaries submit affidavits explaining why no action has been undertaken subsequent to rejection of claims that have attained finality and what steps have been taken after rejection of claims.
This led Congress president Rahul Gandhi on Thursday to allege that BJP was standing as a "silent spectator" in the face of the Forest Rights Act being challenged in the court. He alleged that the absence of central government lawyers in court betrayed its "intention" to drive out lakhs of tribals and poor farmers from forests.
The law was enacted in UPA’s second tenure but faced with opposition from within various forest departments and others, the progress under it to hand over individual and community titles has been tardy and has been tardy and inefficient. Both the UPA and the NDA governments have subsequently diluted some of the regulations under the law which make acquisition of traditional forestlands for development and industrial projects difficult.
With general elections around the corner, any eviction of tribals in central India – a tribal heartland - precipitated by court orders could lead to potential political damage to the ruling party. It was such evictions carried out across the country, on interpretation of an earlier apex court orders, which led to mass-scale protests when more than 300,000 people were evicted between 2002-2004. The then NDA government with Atal Bihari Vajpayee as Prime Minister had informed the Parliament that evictions were carried from 152,400 hectares of forest land over the two-year period. The Congress, when it came into power as part of the United Progressive Alliance legislated the Forest Rights Act in 2006 to counter such mass-scale evictions that did not take into account historical displacement of tribals from forests due to continuation of colonial-era forest laws.