Did you know that violation of the forest rights of any tribal or Dalit is an atrocity under the SC/ST Atrocities Act? Just to clarify, this means that the Collectors of Kalahandi and Rayagada Districts (who gave false certificates for Vedanta’s illegal mine) would now face from six months up to five years in jail; the forest officials who routinely harass, beat up and evict forest dwellers now face the same; and those who are trying to stop people from protecting their forests in MP, Chattisgarh, Bengal, Orissa, Jharkhand and so on also merit the same penalty.
In a little noticed move in March of this year, an ordinance was issued (copy here) to amend the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. Now section 3(1)(g) of the law explicitly states that “[to] wrongfully dispossess a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe from his land or premises or interfers with the enjoyment of his rights, including forest rights over any land or premises or water or irrigation facilities or destroys the crops or takes away the produce therefrom” is an atrocity under the Act. Section 3(1)(f) also criminalises the “wrongful” transfer of land that is owned by or under the possession of an SC or ST, and such wrongful transfer includes through the fabrication of records.
Of course, such actions were always a criminal offence under the Forest Rights Act itself, and indeed under the SC/ST Atrocities Act as well. But the penalty provisions of that Act were deliberately made procedurally complex by the government to protect the forest bureaucracy, and the SC / ST Act was not explicit. This is now no longer the case, and we both hope and plan that cases be filed everywhere under these sections.
Meanwhile, the Environment Ministry doesn’t seem to have heard of this, because it’s carrying on with notifying all kinds of policies that will encourage its officers to land themselves in jail. These include a new “Working Plan Code” that ignores community powers over forest (naturally, since “working plans” have their origin in the colonial system of “working” forests for timber, people’s rights be damned); a plan to implement the dangerous REDD+ agreement that will result in widespread violations of rights; and even changes that will encourage Collectors to give certificates they have no power to give under the law, all in order to favour companies. Such is the way of the MoEF and the corporates of our country – ignore every law, every right and every struggle until they blow up in your face, and then whine about “policy paralysis” and “populism.”