SC Order on Evicting 2 Million Forest-Dwellers: What’s at Stake?

What is the apex court order all about? How is it connected to the Forest Rights Act? Here’s a short primer.

Published11 Sep 2019, 04:06 PM IST
Environment
4 min read
Snapshot

On 13 February, close to two million forest-dwellers – almost eight percent of India’s population, faced a threat of eviction from their habitat. The Supreme Court, on hearing the petitions from wildlife conservation groups, ordered the state governments to evict these “illegal” dwellers and “encroachers”.

Almost six months later, on 12 September, the court will begin to hear the case, demanding a ‘clear picture’ on the rejection of tribals’ claim on forest lands.

What is the apex court order all about? How is it connected to the Forest Rights Act? What happened in the intervening six months? Here’s a short primer.

SC Order on Evicting 2 Million Forest-Dwellers: What’s at Stake?

  1. 1. What Does the Order Say?

    The Supreme Court ordered that Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs) categories across 16 States whose claim as forest-dwellers has been rejected under the Forest Rights Act, must be evicted by 24 July.

    A Bench comprising Justices Arun Mishra, Navin Sinha and Indira Banerjee, in a 19-page order, said that the “matter would be viewed seriously” if the evictions are not carried out in the said period.

    The order was based only on the affidavits filed by the states. The forest dwellers were left undefended.

    Ironically, the SC order originated from a case on the constitutional validity of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) – which for the first time in 2006 – granted tribal communities the right of settlement in forest areas. Prior to the enactment of the Act, the forest-dwellers were legally considered ‘encroachers.’

    The court, with the view that 13 years is a “long time to complete the official trail” ordered that those whose settlement rights had not been accepted must be evicted.

    Expand
  2. 2. What Are the Problems With the SC Order?

    Soon after the apex court order, forest dwellers came out to the streets to protest in large numbers. Their target was the Centre and not the apex court which passed the order, as it is the official defender of the forest dwellers.

    On 28 February, the SC stayed its own order. The Centre had rushed to the top court for modification of the order, saying the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 was a "beneficial" legislation and should be construed liberally to help "extremely poor and illiterate people" who are not well-informed of their rights and the procedure under the law.

    It is important to note that this development took place amidst the campaigning for 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

    The apex court asked the states to explain whether due process had been followed before rejecting the claims the forest dwellers had on the land by 12 July.

    However, the court said, “The mighty and the undeserving who have encroached on forest land would be shown no mercy,” reported The Hindu.

    Despite the stay, some states continued to try evicting people, leading to protests in Madhya Pradesh, Telengana, Uttar Pradesh and other places.

    Expand
  3. 3. What Are the Proposed Amendments?

    Enacted in 2006, the Forest Rights Act envisions the forest rights committee of a village as the central unit to manage forest resources. This law recognises the rights of indigenous settlers and gives them the legal right to own land (up to four hectares) and right of settlement in these forests. Since its enactment, a number of people have applied for settlement rights, a number of which have been rejected.

    • Number of applications filed for settlement rights: 4.22 million
    • Number of applications rejected: 1.94 million

    In various parts of India, tribal activists believe the amendments to the Indian Forest Act will divest the claims of forest dwellers over the right to own land and resources.

    While petitioners want the FRA to be struck down as unconstitutional, the proposed amendments to the Indian Forest Act is also a threat to forest-dwelling communities.

    The amendments seek:

    • To provide more power to Forest Department officials with the right to override the provisions under FRA, if needed
    • To punish entire communities by denying them access to forests for offences committed by individual members
    • It also specifies that if the rights under FRA are seen as hindrances to conservation, then forest dwellers can be compensated by the state.
    Expand
  4. 4. Who Are the Petitioners?

    • Wildlife First
    • Nature Conservation Society
    • Tiger Research and Conservation Trust

    Apart from petitioning to strike down the validity of the FRA, the petitioners argued that the protection of forests and wildlife has been severely affected due to those who make ‘bogus’ claims under the Act and continue to encroach upon large tracts of forest lands.

    Expand
  5. 5. What Lies Ahead for the Case?

    In the previous hearing on 6 August, the court observed that nine states had not followed the procedure in rejecting the claims of tribal people over the forest land and said the matter related to eviction of alleged illegal forest dwellers is "important".

    The Bench said that it would like to hear arguments on what procedure should be laid down for dealing with the claim of tribal people over forest land.

    The Bench, while posting the matter for hearing for 12 September, said it wants to get a "clear picture" first and subsequently proceed with the case.

    It also came down heavily on the Centre, asking why it had been in "slumber" for such a long time, and approached the court only after directions were passed on 13 February.

    Therefore, the Thursday hearing is not the end of the road.

    (With inputs from PTI, The Hindu and The Indian Express)

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    Expand

What Does the Order Say?

The Supreme Court ordered that Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs) categories across 16 States whose claim as forest-dwellers has been rejected under the Forest Rights Act, must be evicted by 24 July.

A Bench comprising Justices Arun Mishra, Navin Sinha and Indira Banerjee, in a 19-page order, said that the “matter would be viewed seriously” if the evictions are not carried out in the said period.

The order was based only on the affidavits filed by the states. The forest dwellers were left undefended.

Ironically, the SC order originated from a case on the constitutional validity of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) – which for the first time in 2006 – granted tribal communities the right of settlement in forest areas. Prior to the enactment of the Act, the forest-dwellers were legally considered ‘encroachers.’

The court, with the view that 13 years is a “long time to complete the official trail” ordered that those whose settlement rights had not been accepted must be evicted.

What Are the Problems With the SC Order?

Soon after the apex court order, forest dwellers came out to the streets to protest in large numbers. Their target was the Centre and not the apex court which passed the order, as it is the official defender of the forest dwellers.

On 28 February, the SC stayed its own order. The Centre had rushed to the top court for modification of the order, saying the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 was a "beneficial" legislation and should be construed liberally to help "extremely poor and illiterate people" who are not well-informed of their rights and the procedure under the law.

It is important to note that this development took place amidst the campaigning for 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

The apex court asked the states to explain whether due process had been followed before rejecting the claims the forest dwellers had on the land by 12 July.

However, the court said, “The mighty and the undeserving who have encroached on forest land would be shown no mercy,” reported The Hindu.

Despite the stay, some states continued to try evicting people, leading to protests in Madhya Pradesh, Telengana, Uttar Pradesh and other places.

What Are the Proposed Amendments?

Enacted in 2006, the Forest Rights Act envisions the forest rights committee of a village as the central unit to manage forest resources. This law recognises the rights of indigenous settlers and gives them the legal right to own land (up to four hectares) and right of settlement in these forests. Since its enactment, a number of people have applied for settlement rights, a number of which have been rejected.

  • Number of applications filed for settlement rights: 4.22 million
  • Number of applications rejected: 1.94 million

In various parts of India, tribal activists believe the amendments to the Indian Forest Act will divest the claims of forest dwellers over the right to own land and resources.

While petitioners want the FRA to be struck down as unconstitutional, the proposed amendments to the Indian Forest Act is also a threat to forest-dwelling communities.

The amendments seek:

  • To provide more power to Forest Department officials with the right to override the provisions under FRA, if needed
  • To punish entire communities by denying them access to forests for offences committed by individual members
  • It also specifies that if the rights under FRA are seen as hindrances to conservation, then forest dwellers can be compensated by the state.

Who Are the Petitioners?

  • Wildlife First
  • Nature Conservation Society
  • Tiger Research and Conservation Trust

Apart from petitioning to strike down the validity of the FRA, the petitioners argued that the protection of forests and wildlife has been severely affected due to those who make ‘bogus’ claims under the Act and continue to encroach upon large tracts of forest lands.

What Lies Ahead for the Case?

In the previous hearing on 6 August, the court observed that nine states had not followed the procedure in rejecting the claims of tribal people over the forest land and said the matter related to eviction of alleged illegal forest dwellers is "important".

The Bench said that it would like to hear arguments on what procedure should be laid down for dealing with the claim of tribal people over forest land.

The Bench, while posting the matter for hearing for 12 September, said it wants to get a "clear picture" first and subsequently proceed with the case.

It also came down heavily on the Centre, asking why it had been in "slumber" for such a long time, and approached the court only after directions were passed on 13 February.

Therefore, the Thursday hearing is not the end of the road.

(With inputs from PTI, The Hindu and The Indian Express)

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