The Supreme Court’s February 13th order (linked here) in a case challenging the Forest Rights Act, which was published yesterday evening, is a major blow to the struggle of tribals and forest dwellers for justice and to the homes, lands and livelihoods of millions of our poorest people.
The Central government- for the fourth time in a row – chose not to argue at all in the Court. As no other party can speak effectively in defense of a law, the version of the petitioners – forest officials, ex-zamindars and a handful of wildlife NGOs – was hence taken to be the truth. In fact their petition is not in accordance with facts, law or conservation, and several of India’s top environmentalists and scientists have condemned their petition.
The Supreme Court’s order directs various State governments to report on the status of people’s claims for their traditional rights over lands, forest and forest resources under the Forest Rights Act, and – for some States – goes on to state that claimants whose rejections have “attained finality” should now be evicted.
The fact is that numerous official and independent reports have confirmed that huge numbers of claims have been wrongly rejected and that forest officials, in particular, have a track record of illegally preventing people’s rights from being recognized. Both State and Central governments have repeatedly recognised this – but the Central government chose not to inform the Court of this basic fact.
The Act contains no clause for eviction of rejected claimants, and in fact section 4(5) specifically prohibits eviction until the process of implementation is fully complete in an area. But this order can become a pretext for forest officials to attack lakhs of forest dwellers across the country. This Act was enacted in order to remedy the historical injustice committed by the British and post independence governments, who seized forest lands without respecting people’s rights. Two thirds of this country’s forests are in areas that constitutionally belong to tribals under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution. Is another historic injustice about to be committed against tribals and other forest dwellers?
We, and we believe all other organisations, parties and movements interested in justice, will:
- seek to have this order reviewed or modified in accordance with law,
- expose the Central government’s collusion with big companies and forest officials against forest dwellers;
- fight to ensure that all governments and parties defend the legal rights of tribals and forest dwellers, and
- fight against any effort to use this order to justify illegal evictions or other atrocities against forest dwellers.
Campaign for Survival and Dignity
NB: Our prior statement on the issue was based on oral statements in the court and said no evictions were directed. The written order, however, does contain directions for eviction of some rejected claimants (and only when rejections have reached absolute finality).