Forest Act Threatened

Evicting Millions of Forest Dwellers

Prakash Malu

On February 13, the Supreme Court ordered the eviction of millions of people belonging to the Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs) categories across 21 States whose claims as forest dwellers were rejected under the Forest Rights Act of 2006. Approximately 11 lakh tribal and Adivasi families will be affected if the order is implemented.

A petition was filed by the Wildlife Trust of India, Nature Conservation Society and Tiger Research and Conservation Trust. Even when the FRA was being drafted, the Forest Rights Act was criticised by the Union Environment Ministry and wildlife groups like Bombay Natural History Society. Wildlife Trust of India and Wildlife First. They said the Act would encourage further encroachment on India's already battered forestlands.

The case has dragged on for around 10 years under various benches and activists believe that this order reeks of a colonial mindset against forest dwellers.

"Evicting of more than a million forest dwellers whose claims under the Forest Rights Act has been 'rejected', is in line with the sustained attack by the pro-corporate and conservation lobby since enactment of the Act in 2006 in the name of public interest. By blocking the process of claiming and reclaiming of forest rights of the forest dwellers this order will make the process of implementation of FRA 2006 dysfunctional". Forest Rights Alliance—Bhumi Adhikaar Andolan said in a statement.

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 is intended to provide a framework to "recognise and vest the forest rights and occupation in forest land in forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers who have been residing in such forests for generations but whose rights could not be recorded".

The Act, passed in 2006, has seen opposition from within ranks of forest officials as well as some wildlife groups and naturalists who believed that FRA was against the Constitution and would cause widescale deforestation and encourage squatters.

There are over 100 million people who make up India's tribal population, 4 million of which reside in protected forest areas made up 500 wildlife sanctuaries and 90 national parks. The FRA gave them and other forest dwellers living on forest land before December 2005, the legal right to live and work on the land for three generations.

Some 1.8 million claims have been accented and land titles handed over to families living on 72,000 sq km of forest land, an area equivalent to the north-eastern state of Assam. But more than a million claims have been rejected, so an equal number of families face eviction. Environmental journalist Nitin Sethi calls this the "largest mass scale, legally sanctioned eviction of tribals in independent India", BBC reported.

The Union Government failed to present its lawyers in defence of the Forest Rights Act on February 13, leading a three-judge bench of Arun Mishra, Navin Sinha and Indira Banerjee to pass orders giving states till July 27 to evict tribals whose claims had been rejected and submit a report on it to the Supreme Court. The written order was released on February 20, 2019.

The court said that the state governments would "ensure that where the rejection orders have been passed, the eviction will be carried out on or before the next date of hearing. In case the eviction is not carried out, as aforesaid, the matter would be viewed seriously by this Court". The next date of hearing is set for July 27—the effective date by when states would have to evict tribals to comply with the court orders.

The total number of rejected claims from 16 states that have reported rejection rates so far to the apex court add up to 1,127,446 tribal and other forest-dwelling households shows an analysis of the court order. Several other states that have not provided details to court have been asked to do so. Once they follow suit these numbers are likely to swell.

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 (FRA) 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 so-called wildlife groups and naturalists.

This, combined with the fact that at the ground level, it is the forest bureaucracy that has to administer the law, that has made the implementation difficult and tardy.

The absence of the government's lawyer during the hearings only reinforced the predominance of colonial mindset against forest people in this legal process and how the government views their rights and welfare, Bhumi Adhikar Andolan said. Sabrang India had reported how the lawyers failed to make compelling arguments in the court and remained absent for many hearings, hinting at NDA and BJP's complicity with forest officials.

The case itself is being fought since 10 yeans under multiple benches, with the Supreme Court yet to answer questions on the constitutional validity of the law.

Many demands have made from the tribal families living in forest areas right from providing proof of residence, evidence that they are indigenous to that region to satellite images of the land that they are staking claim to. These are families who live on forest produce and were asked to provide satellite images as evidence.

The forest bureaucracy that has to administer the law has made the implementation of FRA difficult and tardy.

The states are required to carry out a three-step verification of more than four million tribal occupancy claims, each requiring 13 different kinds of evidence of each family living on forest land.

Last year, Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) told chief secretaries of states that it has noticed that state forest authorities move immediately to evict people whose claims under FRA are rejected, without waiting for a decision on review or appeal or allowing time to file an appeal.

The process of recognising rights has been poorly implemented. Of the 41 lakh claims filed so far, 18 lakh have been approved, 3 lakh are still being processed and the remaining 20 lakh have been rejected, activists claim that they were purposely rejected when it became daunting for Adivasis to prove an abstract concept of their rights. States are wary of vesting forest rights since this could hinder their ability to divert forest land for industrial activities.

The 21 states that have come under the scanner of the top court are Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Goa, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Telangana. Tripura, Uttarakhand. Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Manipur.

Activists on the ground have been assorting that the government is doing its best to not recognise the FRA and manipulate the tribal records to make the process of their eviction much easier.

Speaking to Newsclick, Rahul Choudhary an environmental lawyer, said, "Under the FRA, there are three levels of committees. It also comes down to the opinions of the committee; we have been constantly witnessing cases where the government is deliberately not doing enough to defend the Act for its ulterior motives". Citing the example of Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh, he said, "Lease for the land was very conveniently given to the dam project despite opposition from the tribals. In another instance in Chhattisgarh, the government is not taking into consideration linear projects such as that of roads and railways under its ambit".

Aradhna Bhargav of the National Alliance of People's Movement (NAPM) said. "We have working with the tribals for while now. We condemn the behaviour of the government towards the tribals and their right to livelihood. The government is furthering the agenda of forceful acquisition by the hands of the corporates".

Speaking to Newsclick, she added, "Other policies protecting the tribals have been completely weakened, they (the corporates) are making inroads even into the buffer zones, while the government is doing nothing to safeguard their rights because of this hand in glove mentality".

The last time country-wide evictions took place was in 2002-2004, by an order issued by the MoFF, under the Bharatiya Janata Party led National Democratic Alliance government, (that too with a passing reference to a non-existent Supreme Court order of 23 November 2001) in giving a wrong impression that evictions had been ordered by the Supreme Court to all the state and union territories, stating that approximately 12.50 lakh hectares of forest land is under encroachment and that 'all encroachments which are not eligible for regularisation should be summarily evicted in a time-bound manner and in any case not later than September 30, 2002, Bhumi Adhikar Andolan said.

Those evictions led to many cases of violence, deaths and protests in the central Indian tribal forested areas and uprooting of around 300,000 households, researcher C R Bijoy noted in his published research.

Villages were set on fire, houses demolished, crops damaged and people killed in police shootings. "Tribes people and other forest dwellers become encroachers simply because their ownership rights have not been recorded and settled by officials as stipulated by forest laws", wrote Mr Bijoy in a paper.

The hostility of forest authorities towards the claimants is mainly due to the right of collecting and selling the Minor Forest Produce (MFP) they (Adivasis and forest dwellers) get under the FRA act.

MFP is a major source of revenue and forest authorities do not want to lose it. States earn more revenue from MFP than they earn from timber. For instance, Andhra Pradesh earns almost double the income From MFP than it does from timber. Other states also earn more than 50 percent of all revenue from MFP like mahuwa, gums, tendu leaves and several flowers, a report said.

This order, if followed, can become a pretext for forest officials to attack lakhs of forest dwellers across the country, preventing which was the very purpose for enacting the law.

At least two-thirds of the country's forest lands are tribal lands under the Vth Schedule of the constitution. The implementation of this order will definitely see more unrest in various parts across India which will be leading to the impoverishment of the tribals and the other forest dwelling communities. With this draconian order even the status of right holders, who have already received the rights will be endangered. In all probability, they would also be attacked by the Forest department and by the mafias engaged by the companies, Bhumi Adhikaar Andolan said.

Communities across the country are still struggling to ensure proper implementation of the Act have not shown any political will and made every attempt to dilute the law and also violate it in name of development and conservation.

     [courtesy : sabrangindia]

Vol. 51, No.36, Mar 10 - 16, 2019