Today, the Supreme Court overturned a 2008 Madras High Court order – the only order against the Forest Rights Act from any court in the country. This should dispel any illusions from Friday’s proceedings in the court, which were incorrectly reported as being about “encroachment” of forest land.
In 2008, hearing a bunch of copycat court cases filed in various High Courts by retired forest officers, the Madras High Court had directed that the Forest Rights Act should be implemented, but no titles should be given without its permission. This was based on fearmongering by forest officials that the case would lead to destruction of forests. The Andhra Pradesh and Orissa High Courts followed the Madras HC by giving similar orders that year, but within less than a year, observing that the petitioners did not seem to be using the methods available to them in law, both of these courts removed their interim orders. Only the Madras High Court order was left standing.
Today, a Bench of Justices Chelameswar, Roy and Sapre orally observed that “no challenge to the vires [constitutional validity] of this Act has yet been made before us.” In their order, the bench stated that “having regard to the fact that claims are proceeding in the rest of the country, we see no reason for a hold up in Tamil Nadu.”
With today’s order the Supreme Court has removed the only obstacle that any court had imposed to the implementation of this Act.
On Friday, the court, when hearing ongoing cases against this Act by a few wildlife conservationists, had asked State governments to report on steps they had taken after acceptance and rejection of claims under this Act. There was no order directing eviction of rejected claimants and no order regarding ‘encroachment’, though this was mistakenly reported in some press outlets. Incidentally, most wildlife conservationists now support the Forest Rights Act; for instance see this joint letter to some of the petitioners in this case..
Campaign for Survival and Dignity