In February 2019, following two years of silence by the Central Government in a case against the Forest Rights Act, the Supreme Court issued orders for over a million tribals and forest dwellers to be evicted from their lands. The court directed that all those whose claims for rights under the Forest Rights Act had been rejected should be evicted.
After tens of thousands of people protested across the country, the Central Government finally opened its mouth in court and said what it should have said long before – that most of the rejections were illegal and the result of abuse of power by forest officials. The State governments came back to court and said they were willing to review the rejections. Now, several months later, the Tribal Ministry is holding a meeting – but only to look at “progress made by states in this regard” (letter here).
So, is the Modi government getting ready to again turn its back on the rights of forest dwellers?
The issue was never about rejected claims alone – this case is about the constitutionality of the Forest Rights Act. The petitioners had earlier said this entire act is unconstitutional – but they now want to evict millions of people from their lands on the basis of the procedure laid out in this very Act. Moreover, rejection is not a reason for eviction in itself. The only reason that the petitioners have been able to get away with this is that no one from the government opposed them in court for years (in cases on the constitutionality of a legislation, courts look to the government to respond). Is the Central government again planning to not say anything about this in court?
Further, all of this has meant that instead of building on the conservation potential of India’s first law to recognise a clear statutory right to conserve, both the government and the court are now entirely focused on reviewing and rejecting claims. In most major forested states, progress on recognising the rights of communities to conserve and protect their forests has slowed to almost zero. Indeed the Act is barely being implemented at all since February 2019 – when barely ten percent of rights have been recognised till date. Meanwhile the so-called reviews have often consisted of simply reiterating the illegal rejections.
But none of this features in the Ministry’s plan at all. All of this indicates that, at best, this government is still planning to treat this case with indifference. At worst, it is trying to destroy the Forest Rights Act through the back door. We condemn this and the struggle continues.
Campaign for Survival and Dignity