By Dhurjati Mukherjee
The Supreme Court decision asking States to implement their own orders, rejecting 11.8 lakh claims over forest land by Scheduled Tribes and Other traditional forest dwellers (OTFDs) by reportedly describing these as baseless, triggered a massive stir in the country. In fact, the widespread criticism from tribal groups, civil society organisations and the Central government filing a petition, the Supreme Court had to temporarily stay its own order. Organisations are now gearing up to appeal against the order and build up pressure.
On February 13, 2019, the Supreme Court ordered that all households whose rights claims under Forest Rights Act (FRA) have been rejected should be evicted from forests by July 2019. Two weeks later, on February 28, it stayed its own order till July 10.
The 21 States will, however, need to explain how the FRA claims were rejected or accepted. These are: Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Goa, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Manipur, Odisha, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Tripura, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal). This, after the petitioners i.e. the Wildlife First, Nature Conservation Society and Tiger Research and Conservation Trust, had argued that rejection of an FRA claim implies that the claimant is an encroacher and not a bona fide forest dweller.
The eviction order by the apex court was expected to have affected anything around 18-20 lakh forest dwellers and their families. The Forest Rights Alliance -Bhumi Adhikar Andolan, termed it as a continuation of historic injustices against the Adivasis and OFDC by pro-corporate and conservation lobby since enactment of the FRA in the name of public interest.
One may also recall that an earlier SC bench headed by Justice Madan B. Lokur had on April 18 last imposed a fine of Rs 50,000 each on Karnataka, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Assam, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Telengana for not filing affidavits regarding eviction carried out despite several opportunities.
After this, States filed affidavits of forest right claim by STs and OTFDs. Andhra said 1.14 lakh acres of land has been encroached upon and though it rejected claims and ordered eviction, not a single order has been complied with. Madhya Pradesh said it had rejected claims of 204,123 STs and 150,664 OFTDs, while West Bengal rejected claims of 50,288 STs and 35,858 OFTDs.
As per data of Ministry of Tribal Affairs on the implementation of FRA till November 30, 2018, there have been more claims rejected than those for which title deeds distributed. Of the approximately 42.24 lakh claims, both individual and community-filed so far, around 18.94 claims have been given title deeds, whereas around 19.39 claims rejected.
What is of grave concern is that under the FRA’s Section 12, only the Gram Sabha has the supreme power over a number of committees and their recommendations along with that of the Forest Rights Committees have precedence over technical ‘rejections’ by the district and other committees, which has been overlooked. In some States, including Jharkhand, it emerged that the claims were rejected at district and sub-divisional levels, though committees at these levels can only ask for a reviewing of these claims.
Meanwhile, the Campaign for Survival and Dignity (CSD) announced a countrywide protest against the ruling party, specially in MP, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Odisha. CSD and other civil rights’ organisations are appalled and aggrieved that during the past four hearings in the apex court, the government side remained silent and didn’t utter a word. This says the CSD “is the last step in this government’s consistent sabotage of this law from May 2014 onwards.”
The CSOs have urged political parties to oppose the eviction order and not fall victim to the malicious propaganda of the wild life groups and instead engage in implementation of the FRA. As General elections approach, there is need for an open political debate.
So far, the Chhattisgarh government has declared full support for the tribal communities and decided to present the State’s view on the eviction row before the Court. Its Chief Minister assured his government stood by its tribal brothers and sisters in the fight for ‘jal, jungle and zameen’ (Water, forest and land). Congress President Rahul Gandhi too, with regard to implementation of the FRA, has observed that less than 45 per cent of individual forest rights and 50 per cent of the community forest rights’ claims were approved as on April 2018 as the Ministry itself stated that forest staff were rejecting claims on frivolous objections.
Importantly, the latest apex court order has Odisha’s Dongria Kondh tribals resolving to resist any attempt to force them out. Recall, this particular tribe shot into the limelight for their successful resistance against the Vedanta Group’s plan to mine bauxite in the ecologically and mineral-rich Niyamgiri hill range.
Meanwhile, what surprises the CSOs is the fact that after giving a spate of pro-people and pro-society judgments in the recent past, the apex court has chosen to give a devastating order for the forest dwellers despite their rights having been emphasised repeatedly not only at various national but also international forums. The order is undoubtedly a big setback for the impoverished sections of society and is bound to have negative social repercussions.
Further, it appears that amnesia of sorts has developed among State government authorities when it comes to the implementation of the FRA, 2006 and the process which needs to be followed once a claim has been rejected. Today, forest communities are at great risk and the question of eviction must be dealt with utmost caution.
As is well known, eviction, be it in whatever form, without rehabilitation is unacceptable. As such, judging the entire matter from a broad perspective, the apex court’s first order was not justified. Obviously, the States have to review the claims rejected, not in strictly legal but rather judicious manner, before taking any drastic action. Moreover, even if at some point of time, a number of forest dwellers need to be evicted, genuine rehabilitation must be arranged to ensure they have bare minimum access to some form of livelihood.
Social scientists are of the opinion that the crisis is indeed one of basic human rights and no one can be uprooted from his place of living and also livelihood. The whole issue has to be tackled from the standpoint of social justice.
It goes without saying that the government must safeguard the rights of the tribals, specially those guaranteed by the Constitution, and not set any precedent that would erode these rights. Only the claim of newer entrants may be rejected in order to protect forest from illegal encroachments. Perhaps, the Government or the SC may consider formation of a committee at the national level that would evolve a sound procedure to re-affirm the claims of genuine claimants and review those that have been rejected. At the same time, protecting forests and wildlife from fresh encroachers, who have commercial interests, can definitely be undertaken but not those who have been living in and around the forests for decades.
The State governments must show political will and make every attempt that the FRA is not diluted and that the law is not violated in the name of development and conservation. —INFA