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
Yesterday, today and tomorrow, mass protests are being held across India against the BJP government at the Centre’s moves to attack the rights of tribals and forest dwellers. Tens of thousands of people are protesting in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Nagar Haveli, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Uttarakhand against the government’s steps, including:
- Encouraging illegal acts by forest officials, including illegally diverting forest land and denying people rights. Instead of recognising rights, the government proposed an amendment to the Indian Forest Act that would allow forest officials to arrest, raid and search without warrant, confiscate property, extinguish people’s rights by just paying cash, and shoot and kill forest dwellers while facing nothing more than an enquiry. For six months this anti-people proposal was allowed to stand and was only withdrawn two days ago.
- The government has remained silent in the Supreme Court, allowing a case based on lies and misleading propaganda against the Forest Rights Act to go unchallenged and eventually leading the Court to direct the eviction of millions of families.
The following protests are taking place:
- Madhya Pradesh – a month long Adivasi Hunkar Yatra, organised by a cross-party and cross-organisation coalition, staged a huge mass protest in Bhopal with thousands of people.
- Chhattisgarh – week long padyatras from multiple districts in the state are reaching Raipur and will be holding a mass rally tomorrow.
- Odisha – starting tomorrow, hundreds of people will be joining a dharna in Bhubaneshwar, with people from southern districts joining on the 18th, from northern districts on the 19th, and from western districts on Wednesday.
- Rajasthan – following on a series of rallies and dharnas, several thousand people protested in front of the Tribal Commissioner’s office in Udaipur.
- Tamil Nadu – A protest will be held in Kanyakumari district headquarters tomorrow, and a bandh is being called in the Nilgiris tomorrow with a dharna and hunger strike the day after.
- Dadra and Nagar Haveli – A mass protest was held in the capital yesterday.
- Uttarakhand – A joint press conference by the state’s social movements and opposition parties will be held tomorrow in Dehradun, and a date for a protest announced.
- Gujarat – A cross organisation delegation convened by Adivasi Mahasabha will be raising demands before the Tribal Commissioner tomorrow.
On the 21st, the cross-party and cross-organisation coalition Bhumi Adhikar Andolan will be holding a mass rally in Delhi with several thousand people expected to participate.
Since protests in Jharkhand are difficult to organise with the model code of conduct in force, a mass rally on these demands was already held on October 12th in Ranchi. Mass protests in Thane and Gadchiroli in Maharashtra had to be cancelled due to rains.
Photos can be found below.
In a press conference today, Environment and Forests Minister Prakash Javadekar announced that the government is withdrawing its proposal to bring draconian amendments to the Indian Forest Act. The proposed amendments would have made forest officials the most powerful officials in the country, with the power to arrest, raid, seize and shoot to kill without facing any accountability – powers that even the security forces do not enjoy in disturbed areas.
We welcome this withdrawal, which follows on nationwide protests and condemnation across the political spectrum, and which has clearly been done to avoid the mass protests planned across the country and in Delhi as well as to avoid negative fallout in the Jharkhand elections.
We note that the Minister’s statement is deeply misleading in several respects. The Minister claimed that the proposed amendments were merely a “draft” that resulted from a “study”, but in fact the letter sent to State governments on March 7th clearly stated that this was a proposal for legislation (you can see a copy here) and the Minister himself stated the same in this reply to a starred question in Parliament on June 28th. In the same reply he also misled Parliament by stating that the draft would be “in addition” to the rights recognised by the Forest Rights Act, though in fact it would have negated those rights.
We note that the Minister’s announcement today is meaningless until the Ministry issues a written notification withdrawing this draft. The protests on the 17th, which were on other issues as well as this, will continue as planned.
Campaign for Survival and Dignity
On Nov 17th, Protests Planned Across Country Against Attack on the Rights of Tribals and Forest Dwellers
आर पार को हैं तैयार, ले कर रहेंगे वन अधिकार!
सरकार द्वारा आदिवासियों और जंगलवासियों के अधिकारों पर नीतिगत हमले के विरुद्ध में देश भर आंदोलन
कल दिनांक 25 सितम्बर को “इज्जत से जीने का अधिकार अभियान” ने एलान किया कि आगामी 17 नवंबर 2019 को देश भर के राज्य की राजधानियों और अन्य शहरों में केंद्र सरकार की आदिवासी और अन्य परम्परागत वन निवासियों के खिलाफ बनाई जा रही जन विरोधी नीतियों के खिलाफ जुलुस निकाला जायेगा। उल्लेखनीय है कि “इज्जत से जीने का अधिकार अभियान” आदिवासियों और जंगलवासियों का एक राष्ट्रीय मंच है। अभियान से जुड़े हुए संगठनों के द्वारा कम से कम सात राज्य के शहरों में जुलुस निकाले जाएंगे और अन्य राज्यों में भी तैयारी चल रही है।
2019 में केंद्र की सत्ताधारी पार्टी भाजपा ने दो बड़े नीतिगत कदम उठाये है जिससे 10 करोड़ से ज्यादा जंगल में रहनेवाले आदिवासियों और अन्य जंगलवासियों के परंपरा गत हक़ खतरे में आ गए हैं। अंग्रेज़ों के ज़माने से आज तक किसी भी सरकार ने वन अधिकार पर इतनी व्यापक हमला नहीं किया है जितना भाजपा सरकार करना चाह रही है।
* 10 मार्च 2019 को केंद्र सरकार ने सभी राज्य सरकारों को एक पत्र द्वारा भारतीय वन कानून में संशोधन करने के लिए एक प्रस्ताव भेजा था। इस प्रस्ताव के अनुसार वन विभाग को अधिकार दिया जायेगा कि वे वन रक्षा के नाम पर गोली चला सकते हैं और अगर वे स्पष्ट करते हैं कि गोली कानून के अनुसार चलाई गयी है तो उनके ऊपर कोई कार्यवाही नहीं होगी (धारा 66 (2))। अगर प्रस्तावित संशोधन कानून बन जायेगा तो वन विभाग के कर्मचारी किसी भी आदिवासी या जंगलवासी का अधिकार पैसे दे कर खतम कर सकेंगे (22A(2), 30(b)), बिना वारंट गिरफ्तार या छापे मार सकेंगे, और किसी भी आदिवासी या जंगलवासी की सम्पति को जब्त कर सकेंगे। अगर वन विभाग किसी व्यक्ति पर आरोप लगाएगा और कहेगा कि उसके पास आपराधिक सामान था तो ऐसी दशा में उस व्यक्ति को खुद साबित करना पड़ेगा कि वह निर्दोष है। अगर यह प्रस्ताव कानून बन जाएगा तो, कानून का राज जंगलों में से खत्तम हो जायेगा। रेंजर या DFO के कहने पर किसी को भी पकड़ा जा सकेगा या गोली भी मारी जा सकेगी। जंगल में रहनेवाले लोगों के कोई भी हक़ नहीं बचेंगे। हमारा शक है कि इस संशोधन जंगल वासियों को हटाकर वन क्षेत्र निजी कंपनियों को अपार मुनाफा कमाने के लिए सौंपा जाने की योजना है।
* 2017 से फरवरी 2019 तक केंद्र सरकार सुप्रीम कोर्ट में वन अधिकार कानून के खिलाफ चल रही याचिका में खामोश रही, जिससे कोर्ट में याचिका कर्ताओं के झूठ का जवाब देने के लिए कोई भी आवाज़ नहीं उठाया गई, जिसकी वजह से विगत 13 फरवरी को कोर्ट ने लाखों परिवारों की बेदखली करने को आदेश दिया मगर देश भर आंदोलन होने के बाद सरकार कोर्ट में फिर से जाने के लिए मज़बूर हुई तब भी उन्होंने न्यायपीठ से यह माँग नहीं की कि उक्त आदेश वापस लिया जाये। सरकार ने सिर्फ माँगा कि आदेश को कुछ समय के लिए स्थगित किया जाये। आज तक आदेश स्थगित अथवा पेंडिंग में है और लटकती तलवार के रूप में देश के आदिवासियों के सर के ऊपर आज भी खड़ा है। 12 सितम्बर को फिर से इस याचिका में सुनवाई हुई थी और केंद्र सरकार फिर से गैर हाजिर रही। याद रखने की बात है कि कोई भी प्रदेश में वन अधिकार कानून का सही कार्यान्वयन नही हुआ है।
भोपाल, रायपुर, मुंबई, गढ़चिरोली, भुबनेश्वर, उदयपुर, देहरादून, गांधीनगर और अन्य शहरों में प्रदर्शन किया जायेगा। 21 नवंबर को भूमि-वन अधिकार आंदोलन का बैनर तले दिल्ली में भी एक बड़ा प्रदर्शन होगा।
Protests Planned Across Country Against Attack on the Rights of Tribals and Forest Dwellers
Following a two day national meeting, the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a national platform of tribal and forest dwellers, today gave a call for national protests in state capitals and other cities on November 17th, 2019. Protests are already confirmed in several States and tens of thousands of people are expected to join.
The BJP government at the Centre has taken two steps this year that would crush the rights of the more than 10 crore tribals and forest dwellers who live in forests:
- Proposed an amendment to the Indian Forest Act that would allow forest officials to arrest without warrant, raid and search without warrant, confiscate property, extinguish people’s rights by just paying cash, and shoot and kill forest dwellers while facing nothing more than an enquiry. Confessions to a forest officer will be admissible as evidence in court – something that is not true even under ‘anti-terror’ laws – and in many cases the burden will be on the person to prove themselves innocent. If this becomes law, any tribal or forest dweller in the country can by law be arrested, deprived of their rights, or even killed by forest officials on the basis of suspicion alone.
- The government also remained silent in the Supreme Court, allowing a case based on lies and misleading propaganda to go unchallenged and eventually leading the Court to direct the eviction of millions of families. In the most recent hearing of the case, even after knowing that this case affects more than 10 crore people, the Centre was absent again.
Today crores of forest dwellers are at risk of losing all their rights under the Forest Rights Act, 2006. If the Indian Forest Act goes through, forest dwellers will have less rights than they did under the British. Forests would be converted into a kind of Special Economic Zone where all rights are subject to the whims of forest officials, who will have more power than soldiers in disturbed areas.
Protests will take place in state capitals and other cities on November 17th, including Bhopal, Raipur, Mumbai, Bhubaneshwar, Gadchiroli, Dehradun, Udaipur, and Gandhinagar. On November 21st, under the banner of the Bhumi Adhikar Andolan, a national alliance, a rally is expected to take place in Delhi as well.
Campaign for Survival and Dignity
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
Tomorrow, SC Will Hear New Applications in Anti Forest Rights Case That Again Threaten Rights of Millions
The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the case against the Forest Rights Act tomorrow, September 12th (see here for a brief explainer about the Act and the case). The petitioners have filed new applications in this case that could again result in millions of people being denied their rights.
The key question tomorrow will be – will the Central government oppose these applications and defend the FRA? Or will it again choose to just argue on technicalities?
In three new applications before the Court, the petitioners are again seeking to turn the focus of their case away from the constitutionality of the law and on to new subjects which have nothing to do with their original petition. The two main applications are here and here, but relevant paras are linked below. They want the Court to:
- Stop State governments from reviewing illegal rejections of claims by forest dwellers (see para 9 here). They also want to stop acceptance of claims for rights (see para 10 here). This at a time when the Supreme Court was just about to being considering how States have violated the law. The petitioners clearly don’t want this. Most States have admitted that the process undertaken for rejection of claims for rights was largely illegal. Not only that, the law provides no time limit for filing of claims for rights (contrary to what the petitioners say), given that the affected people are oppressed, marginalised and often non-literate.
- Ask the Forest Survey of India to survey all forest destruction in the country (see paras 6 and 7 here). The aim, presumably, is to hold forest dwellers responsible for this, when the government itself has been illegally diverting forest land en masse. In fact, satellite imagery is not a deciding factor for claims under this Act – it is legally untenable, impossible to use without ground truthing, irrelevant to most rights under the Act, and can be misleading when people grow tree crops or trees are planted illegally on their land.
- Implead the Forest Survey of India as a party. The petitioners have gone from being supposedly against the constitutionality of the Act; to assuming that the Act is constitutional and asking for decisions under it to be used to evict people; and now they want to make this a case about using satellite images to examine supposed “encroachment.”
The only reason they have gotten away with all this so far is because of the silence of the Central government. Back in February, the Court had passed orders that would have resulted in the eviction of at least nine million people. These orders were subsequently put “on hold” after nationwide protests resulted in the Central government asking the Court to do so.
Till date, the Central government has never asked the Court to withdraw these orders. It has instead only seemed to be wanting to buy time. Will it oppose these new applications?
Again, to know more about this case and the background to it and the Act, see our explainer here.
Campaign for Survival and Dignity
Today the Supreme Court heard the cases against the Forest Rights Act. The Central government chose not to argue on the main question of evicting people, but instead just pointed out that due process have not always been followed, in response to a question from the court. Seven states have not yet filed their reply affidavits.
The Court hence directed that the State governments who haven’t filed replies should do so within fifteen days and the matter will next be heard on September 12th.
The Court also directed state governments to supply information about rejected claims to the Forest Survey of India by August 31st. We hope this question is challenged in the next hearing, as this reliance on satellite imagery is not in accordance with law and is dangerous (see last question here).
The order putting evictions on hold continues – and any State government attempting to evict people on the pretext of this case is not only violating the law but also the court’s order.
We are disappointed that the petitioners’ attempt to distort both the law and the facts has still not been fully challenged and the eviction order is still only “on hold”, as opposed to being withdrawn. This order emerged out of the Centre’s failure to defend the law in 2017 and 2018. We and many forest communities of this country will continue to fight for the Central government to do its job in court, defend the law and have this order withdrawn.
Campaign for Survival and Dignity