The Forest Rights Act

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Centre Fails to Appear Again, Supreme Court Hears Case on Forest Rights Act 

The Central government failed to argue in defense of the Forest Rights Act in the Supreme Court again today. The Court heard arguments in the case against the Forest Rights Act, in which millions of people have been threatened with eviction (see here for a brief explainer on this law and this case). The Court asked where the Central government was and was told the Solicitor General was not present. The Court then heard the matter, allowed all the requests for impleadment by a large number of organisations defending the Forest Rights Act, and also allowed the petitioners’ request to make the Forest Survey of India a party (see below). The Court also said its order putting evictions of rejected claimants on hold will continue, and the matter will now next be heard on November 26th for final arguments.

Observing in court that “it is we [urban and elite citizens] who have destroyed forests in places like Pachmarhi”, the Bench declined the effort of the petitioners to make the situation seem like an emergency, and granted four weeks’ time to the State governments and to other parties to supply data (see below) and to reply. Several other things happened today:

  • Several adivasi and forest dweller organisations, as well as senior academics and conservationists, had applied to be heard in defense of the Forest Rights Act. They were allowed to implead/intervene in the case.
  • One of the key petitioners – the Wildlife Trust of India, lead petitioner in the earliest case before the Court against this law – applied to withdraw from the case (the Court heard it but hasn’t passed an order as yet).
  • The Court issued notice on the recent applications of the petitioners to stop State governments from reviewing rejections of claims under the law, and to direct the Central government to release funds for the Forest Survey of India to conduct its survey using money from compensatory afforestation funds (see here for more on this). The Court will hear arguments on these applications later, after State governments, other organisations and the Central government reply.
  • The Court clarified that its “interim orders will continue” (this is the order dated 28.2.2019 under which evictions of rejected claimants have been put on hold).
  • The Court clarified that the Forest Survey of India’s survey of forest ‘encroachment’, using data from States, will continue, based on the petitioners’ claim that satellite imagery can be used to verify claims under the Act (see here for why this is a bad idea). The petitioners sought to have the Forest Survey of India added as a party, and this was also allowed by the Court.
  • The Court finally said that in the next hearing it will start hearing arguments on all issues, including the constitutional validity of the Act – which is what this case was supposedly about in the first place, see here for a summary – and procedures under the law.

Since February 2019, millions of tribals and forest dwellers whose claims for rights under this law have been rejected have been living in fear of eviction (to understand this law and the case, please see this explainer). These cases, filed by a small group of wildlife NGOs and many retired forest officials, were originally filed on the basis that this law is not constitutional. Over the years, the petitioners then sought to claim that the very procedure that they had claimed was unconstitutional should now be used as the basis for evicting people. From 2016 to February 2019, the Central government remained silent in the matter, and the Court was given only the petitioners’ version, resulting in an order in February to evict all rejected claimants. After nationwide protests, the Centre finally argued in court and that order was put on hold.

We are pleased to see that the Court has not entertained the efforts of this small group of wildlife NGOs – who are not even supported by the vast majority of conservationists – to keep on trying to claim that there is some emergency related to forest destruction or that people should be evicted. Instead the Court has now said that it will hear arguments on the constitutional validity of the Act and that it will give a chance for others to be heard. The Central government’s continued apathy and silence in the face of this attack on the rights of millions of people, however, is deeply disturbing.

Campaign for Survival and Dignity