In a relief to forest dwelling tribes and households, the Supreme Court on Thursday stayed its February 13 order in which it had asked states to evict nearly 1.89 million forest-dwelling tribes and households. The top court had asked the states to evict these people, whose claim over the land they had been residing on, had been rejected by the authorities.
A three-judge bench, led by Justice Arun Mishra, gave the states four months to file affidavits detailing the process via which the claims on land of forest dwellers were rejected by the authorities. The court will next hear the matter on July 10.
On February 13, the top court had ordered 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 SC orders had come 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.
Following the order, Opposition parties, including the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Indian National Congress, and regional parties such as Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, had blamed the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for being silent on the matter. The Congress had asked governments in states it rules to file review petitions against the order. Following this, the BJP also asked its state governments to do so.
In a review petition on Wednesday, the Centre had asked the top court to modify its earlier order as states had not put the complete picture before the courts as yet. “Without such information and compliance with the mandate of law in letter and spirit, the eviction of such tribal would amount to serious miscarriage of justice… The eviction of tribal, without such information would cause serious prejudice to such tribal who have been residing in forests for generations,” the central government had said in its order modification plea.
During the hearing on Thursday, the three-judge bench also slammed the central government for “being in slumber” over all these years and asked them as to why they had not come to the court.
“You woke up now... you were in slumber? Why were you sleeping for the last several years? For years you do nothing and now you come for modification,” the bench observed.
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.