Undo Historical Injustice to Forest Dwellers, Once Again

Undo Historical Injustice to Forest Dwellers, Once Again

On 13 February 2019 the Supreme Court of India (SC), hearing a decade-old petition challenging the constitutional validity of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006, ordered state governments to report on the status of people's (tribals) claims for their traditional rights over lands, forest and forest resources as guaranteed through Forest Rights Act. It issued an order stating that “claimants whose claims have been rejected and have attained finality should be evicted”. If implemented, this would affect 18.92 lakh forest dwelling families and more.  

State governments are required to submit responses within four months. The SC will hear the case on 24 July 2019.

What is the Forest Rights Act:

The Forest Rights Act is that landmark legislation which promised to undo the historical injustice meted out to forest dwelling communities by recognising their rights over the land, forest and natural resources that they conserved and managed traditionally for generations. Enactment of this Act was the result of years of struggles endured by these communities to get their rights over their homes recognised by the Government of India.

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How the 13 February Order Unfolded:

  • The SC order came in a case filed by wildlife conservationist (NGO Wildlife First) and a few retired forest officials who have opposed the Act from the very beginning. In their PIL (Public Interest Litigation), they challenged the validity of the FRA.
  • According to the petitioners, the Act has led to deforestation and encroachment of forestland. They believe that human settlements within the forests is a threat to forest and environment whereas numerous examples exist where villages across India protect and conserve the forests. 
  • The petitions filed way back in 2008 sought the recovery of forestland from the possession of those people whose claims under the FRA stood rejected.
  • On 13 February, SC directed various state governments to report on the status of people's claims on their forestland under the Forest Rights Act (FRA).
  • The order further stated that claimants whose rejections have "attained finality" should be evicted.
  • According to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, as of November 2018, the total number of rejected claims is 18.92 lakh – to affect almost 1 crore tribal and other forest-dwelling population.
  • Owing to massive pressure from national and international groups, the Central Government appealed to the Supreme Court, which suspended its order of eviction of tribals and forest dwellers till the next hearing on 24 July 2019.

What the State and Central Government failed to tell the court:

  • FRA does not provide for eviction and on the contrary it protects the tribals and forest dwellers from eviction as their rights get recognised and vested (section 4 (5)).
  • Rejection is not equal to eviction as there are other State Laws and directives, high court directions and customary laws which recognise rights.
  • Such misinterpretation will lead to major dilution of the FRA, reversal of a democratic process to secure rights and justice for millions of tribals and other forest dwellers in India and in effect undermines the centrality of Gram Sabha.
  • Two-thirds of this country’s forests are in areas that constitutionally belong to tribals under the Fifth and Sixth Schedules of the Constitution. Therefore the court needs to take cognisance of special provisions in Constitution of India and PESA.
  • Several other government and independent reports show large-scale rejection of claims throughout India where due legal procedure has not been followed.
  • Facts relating to wrongful rejection of claims and eviction attempts by forest authorities, though in the knowledge of ministry as per the letter of June 2018, have not been brought to the notice of the court.

Why is the Forest Rights Act important?

Though petitioners believe that human settlements within the forests are threat to forest and environment, there are numerous examples where communities have stopped the resource ‘loot’ from forests, protected against environmental violations, and protected and conserved the forests.

FRA empowered people and they used the Act effectively to protect and manage their forests. Forest and forest dwellers have a symbiotic association. For India, co-existence of communities and forests is not a new idea; it had been in practice and should be in practice.

Click here to read how forest dwelling communities are leading the way to sustainable forest management.

 It will be historic injustice again which the Act itself seeks to correct, if people are evicted from their homes without examining the reasons for the rejections of claims especially when the Act does not have any provision for eviction of rejected claimants, rather Section 4(5) specifically prohibits eviction until the process of implementation is fully complete in an area.

This order has come in a time when some of the state governments have not followed the due processes or have not furnished the reasons for rejections. Administrative failure cannot be the reason for another cycle of injustice towards tribals and other forest dwellers.

 Forest dwellers are equal citizens of India. We should not let the administration fail them. Let’s rise and stand with them in their struggle; request the Central and State Governments to strongly present their cases in the most rightful way in the court of law. 

Economic Justice

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