In the wake of the uproar over the recent Supreme Court hearing, where the BJP government’s silence resulted in an order to evict over a million families, the petitioners in that case have released another misleading statement (see here) to justify their actions.
They declare that every single claimant whose claim has been rejected under this law is a “bogus claimant.” This flies in the face of the government’s own findings, which state that many rejections were illegal and not in accordance with law (see for instance here, here, or here). The petitioners then go on to contradict their own statement by saying that 14,77,993 claims were ‘rejected’ at the gram sabha level (in practice these rejections are often illegal interventions by forest officials); but any such rejection at the gram sabha level, by definition, can be appealed twice and can hardly be considered final.
The petitioners expect that an oppressed, marginalised and often illiterate population, facing opposition from a forest bureaucracy riddled with corrupt officials, should be able to prevail on every claim they file – and if not should lose their lands, homes or livelihoods. This flies in the face of the basic principle that rejection of a claim is not a ground for believing a person has no rights. Indeed, the same principle is hardly applied to corporates – even when they directly violate environmental law.
The petitioners then make a set of other misleading statements. They cite the Saxena Committee report but do not refer to its scathing findings on illegal interference by forest officials. They ignore all the ample reports on forest officials’ attempts to deny people their rights.
They are equally disingenuous about their own actions. They do not mention that they never filed any actual application seeking eviction of rejected claimants, and they do not explain how this has anything to do with the constitutionality of the FRA (which was their ostensible reason for going to court). They do not mention that the majority of the petitioners are retired forest officials themselves – with a vested interest in denying rights. They ignore the fact that the FRA provides not only for rights over land but also for rights to protect and conserve forests – rights which they are clearly not interested in at all.
Indeed, most of all, they ignore the fact that their actions fly in the face of conservation tenets worldwide. Thousands of communities in India are protecting forests, and many use the FRA to do so. The rights of local and indigenous communities in conservation are now a part of international law. All major international and Indian conservation organisations now agree that respecting the rights of local communities is an integral part of conservation.
This is why, in 2014, many of India’s conservationists and conservation scientists argued that this Supreme Court case “seeks to turn the clock back”, and asked the petitioners to recognise that “across the country a significant force that has stopped this resource loot is local communities fighting to protect their natural resources and habitats, often by using the FRA. Your petition seeks to gravely undermine one of their primary weapons.” But these appeals fell on deaf ears, and the result is the tragedy facing us today.