On Tuesday, September 13th, the Supreme Court once again heard the cases filed against the Forest Rights Act – after a gap of three years. During the hearing, efforts were once again made to secure court orders that would have deprived millions of our country’s most oppressed communities of their rights – efforts that failed due to the intense resistance of lawyers representing tribal organisations. This hearing comes at a time when the rights of tribals and forest dwellers are under attack as never before. There are new efforts to make it easier to displace them, to accelerate forest destruction, and further marginalise their rights.
In 2019, the last time these cases were heard, the government failed to argue in defense of forest dwellers, resulting in eviction orders that threatened millions of tribals and forest dwellers across the country. These orders were eventually ‘suspended’ after nationwide protests forced the government to return to court and ask for them to be ‘put on hold.’ But the orders remain on paper, hanging like a sword above the heads of the country’s forest dwellers. In Tuesday’s hearing the government did appear, but only to ask for an adjournment. Meanwhile, the petitioners – a small group of elite NGOs, two of whom have already dropped out – tried once again to mislead the court and secure orders that would have pressurised states to reject claims and/or evict people. The petitioners’ lawyers were strongly opposed by lawyers representing various tribal and forest dwellers’ organisations, leading the bench to finally state that no orders wouuld be issued without hearing everyone. The matter has now been posted for after Diwali.
The situation for tribals and forest dwellers at present is dire. After the eviction orders of 2019, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs – the national “nodal agency” for recognising forest rights – instructed all state governments to “review” claims for rights that had been illegally rejected. On paper this may seem like a good thing. However, these rejections were “reviewed” through processes that was often just as illegal and opaque as the first time around, resulting in many rejections being “confirmed.” Meanwhile, other than this review, neither the Tribal Ministry nor most state governments (with a handful of exceptions) have undertaken any initiatives at all for the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, leading to most tribals and forest dwellers not receiving either their individual or their community rights.
On top of these moves, in July the Environment Ministry notified new rules under the Forest (Conservation) Act under which the Ministry essentially washed its hands of forest rights. The Ministry now says that it would clear the use of forest land for projects without in any way checking if forest dwellers’ rights had been recognised or if the project had secured the legally required consent of the affected gram sabhas. This sends a clear message – the Central government does not see the rights of tribals and forest dwellers being of any importance.
We call upon the Central government to carry out its constitutional and statutory responsibility to recognise and protect the rights of tribals and forest dwellers – in court and outside. Meanwhile, communities will continue to struggle for their rights and for justice.
On behalf of the Convening Collective
Campaign for Survival and Dignity