Just weeks after facing massive protests, the BJP government at the Centre sent all States a proposal for a sweeping set of amendments to the Indian Forest Act. These amendments would give forest officials the power to shoot people without any liability (with the same legal protection as soldiers in disturbed areas under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act); allow forest officials to restrict or cancel legal rights and to relocate people against their will; presume that people they accuse of crimes are guilty if certain materials are claimed to be found on them (a provision similar to anti-terror laws); to hand over forests to private companies for afforestation, and to grab other forests in the name of “carbon sequestration”; and on and on.
If passed, these amendments will make forest officials de facto dictators, with more powers than any other government official (more powers, in fact, than those that are given to soldiers, who are at least legally required to hand over anyone they arrest to the normal police).
This is nothing short of a declaration of war in forest areas. Who then is the enemy?
Is it the country’s tribals and forest dwellers? Consider what some of the amendments say:
- Forest officials can use firearms to “secure forest produce” or for even more frivolous reasons; and if their firing is even “purported” to be done under the law, they cannot be prosecuted; this is the same provision as in the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (proposed new section 66(2))
- The legal rights of tribals and forest dwellers can simply be taken away by paying arbitrary cash payments and people can be forced to relocate (22A(2))
- Forest officials can inflict British-style collective punishment on all rights holders if they feel “fires are being caused willfully” (26(3))
- Forest officials can simply deny all rights – if they feel enough forest is “left over” – by declaring any area a “conservation reserve” (30(b))
- If one ‘participates’ in any of the sham participatory schemes under the Forest Department, one cannot claim legal rights (29(3))
The amendments also provide for “production” forests (34C), for ending shifting cultivation entirely (despite it being both more ecologically friendly and socially equitable), and so on.
The clear goal of these amendments is to turn India’s forests – almost a quarter of the country’s land area – into a police state where the interests of forest bureaucrats and private companies will reign supreme. As the Forest Rights Act itself says, these areas were seized by colonial and post-independence governments in a “historical injustice” against forest dwellers. Now this government wants to double down on that injustice. This is a wholesale attack on the rights of India’s twenty crore forest dwellers.
But just as the backdoor attempt to get the Forest Rights Act weakened in court failed, this attempt too will fail. Protests are continuing and will intensify. The struggle goes on.
The Supreme Court’s February 28th decision to put its eviction orders on hold may have led the BJP-led government and other powerful forces to believe that the problem was over, and they can go back to sabotaging people’s rights as before.
Over the past week, many tens of thousands of people have poured on to the streets to show them that that’s not true – and forest dwellers will not take the assault lying down. We have assembled photos of some of these protests and will add more in a second post as they come in (protests in Orissa, Maharashtra and elsewhere are planned in the coming few days too).
We haven’t included photos of the March 5th Bharat Bandh protests, which took place across the country.
Regarding claims being made by the petitioners, please see note at the bottom.
Today, in a step forward for millions of forest dwellers who were living in fear and uncertainty, the Supreme Court put its order of February 13th – in which it had directed the eviction of over a million claimants for forest rights – on hold. The eviction order was the direct result of the BJP government’s failure to argue in defense of the Act at all for the preceding four hearings. Indeed, the Court itself asked the Solicitor General, “Why were you slumbering for so long? Why didn’t you argue about any of this earlier?”
The reality is that the Central government only filed this modification application after a nationwide outpouring of outrage, including mass protests in Jharkhand, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and other parts of central India, the “wave of struggle” announced up to March 10th, and so on. The Congress party also directed its CMs to act. Even the RSS’ own affiliate, the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, joined the protests.
Moreover, the Indian and world wildlife conservation communities joined hands against this order – more than a hundred senior conservation biologists and experts, from organisations and institutions around the world, have signed a joint statement describing the planned evictions as a “huge setback for conservation in India.”
It was only after all this that the government realised it could not get away with what senior opposition leaders had earlier described as a backdoor attempt to scuttle the Forest Rights Act.
But the struggle is not over. The written order is not out yet, and what was said orally asks the State governments to report on the processes they have followed under the Act. The February 13th order has only been put on hold, not withdrawn. None of this would have arisen if the sabotage of forest rights – above all by the BJP government over the past five years – had not happened. Both the Central and State governments should know that forest dwellers will continue to fight for recognition of all of their rights. As happened this time, so in future, evictions or the denial of rights will never be accepted.
The struggle for a society and a forest regime built around justice, democracy and law – rather than corporate profit and state extortion – will continue.
NB: It has been brought to our notice that some of the petitioners in the case are claiming that the court has endorsed the use of satellite imagery for verification of forest rights claims. To our knowledge this is a distortion. While the final order is not yet out, from the oral discussions, both the present order and the previous one only asked the Forest Survey of India to provide satellite imagery for the ground position and not for verification.
Please find below a joint statement by some of India’s and the world’s most experienced conservationists and conservation biologists on the recent Supreme Court order. More than three hundred signatories have signed, representing organisations, universities and institutions around the world. Contrary to the notion that this order is somehow a pro-wildlife measure, they say
“We do not regard this order as pro-conservation. On the contrary, it is a real setback for conservation in India.”
Signatures continue to come in and we will update this post as they do. Other joint efforts by conservationists to respond to this situation are also underway.
STATEMENT FROM CONSERVATIONISTS ON SUPREME COURT ORDER
As conservationists and environmentalists, we are dismayed by the Supreme Court’s order of February 13th, 2019 to evict claimants under the Forest Rights Act whose claims have been rejected. This order came in a case filed by (among others) a group of wildlife organisations.
We do not regard this order as pro-conservation. On the contrary, it is a real setback for conservation in India. Forest dwellers have for centuries used and managed these forests that we are now considering to be valuable for conservation. The rights of local communities are an integral part of any sustainable and just model of conservation, as is now recognised in international law. Furthermore, the Forest Rights Act not only recognises these rights, it also legally empowers communities to protect their forests and wildlife as well. It is the first and only law in India that gives those who live in and with forests the power to protect them. Since it was notified into force in 2008, the FRA has been a key weapon in the hands of communities across India, from Niyamgiri to North Bengal to Uttarakhand to Maharashtra, who seek to protect forests and defend themselves against corporate and government resource grabbing.
We do not agree with the claim of the petitioners in this case that their positions represent the interests of conservation. We do not agree with their claim that only “bogus claimants” will be affected by this recent order. We find it particularly ironic that they went to court claiming that the procedures under this Act are ‘arbitrary’, and are now seeking to say that those same procedures are so effective and sacrosanct that millions of people should be evicted on the basis of their results.
It is incredibly difficult for local communities, who have long been oppressed, to secure their rights. We believe that those interested in conservation should be working to strengthen the transparency, community and democratic potential that the FRA creates – not seeking to attack forest dwellers or the law.
We reiterate the call of an open letter in 2014 to the petitioners that they should withdraw this case. We join forest people’s organisations in calling upon the Central and State governments to seek the reversal of this unjust order, not least because it will cause immense harm to conservation.
You can see an updated list of the signatories – now more than 300 in number – by clicking here.
हिंदी के लिए नीचे देखे
Today, the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a national platform of adivasi and forest dwellers’ organisations, decided on a national Wave of Struggle over the next two weeks against the unjust attack on millions of people whose claims under the Forest Rights Act were rejected.
The Supreme Court’s order to evict over one million claimant families is the direct result of the BJP government’s decision to not say a word in court for the last four hearings. This is only the last step in this government’s consistent sabotage of this law, from May 2014 to the present.
Under the banner “BJP Sarkar Jawab Do!”, mass protests are planned from Feb 26th to March 10th. Each will draw several thousand people:
On February 26th, Jal Jangal Jeevan Bachao Sajha Manch will be holding a mass rally in Bhopal.
On February 28th, Adivasi Chhattra Sanghatan and allied groups will be holding rallies in all districts of Madhya Pradesh.
On March 3rd, Sarv Adivasi Samaj and allied groups will be holding a mass rally in Raipur.
On March 3rd, a mass protest will be held by Adivasi Patel Sangh in Warla (Badwani district, MP).
On March 5th, Jangal Jameen Jan Andolan will be holding a mass rally in Udaipur followed by indefinite dharnas in the tribal districts of Rajasthan.
On March 8th, Adivasi Mahasabha will holding a mass rally in Godhra in Gujarat in which thousands of tribals from four districts will join. Subsequent protest will be held for north and south Gujarat as well.
On March 8th or 9th, a mass rally will be in Bhubaneshwar.
Meetings are being held over the next four days in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, and Dadra and Nagar Haveli and mass protests will be held in all these States before March 10th.
Each protest will be accompanied by poster and awareness campaigns about the Central government’s role, and in Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Nagar Haveli the rallies will be accompanied by padayatras in affected areas.
The protests will draw people’s attention to the attack on forest rights that has culminated in Supreme Court order. In particular we will demand:
The Central government immediately act to reverse the February 13th order, by any means appropriate, and to ensure that all rejection of claims under the Forest Rights Act are reviewed through gram sabhas (not only by officials).
The Central government ensure that, as per law, every village in forest areas in the country receives title to protect and manage their community forest resources, and to use their non-timber forest produce without any conditions or restrictions.
All compensatory afforestation and other forestry funds (including Joint Forest Management) should only be utilised under the control of forest welling communities through their gram sabhas.
Stop all diversion of forest land for corporate projects without consent of affected gram sabhas and without recognising rights.
Ensure that all officials responsible for violating forest rights are prosecuted.
2014 मई से वन अधिकार मान्यता कानून को ख़त्म करने की कोशिशों में लगी इस सरकार का यह आखिरी खंजर था।
– 28 फ़रवरी को आदिवासी छात्र संगठन व अन्य आदिवासी संगठनों द्वारा मध्य प्रदेश के सभी ज़िलों में मोर्चे निकाल कर ज्ञापन सौंपे जायेंगे।
– 3 मार्च को रायपुर, छत्तीसगढ़ में सर्व आदिवासी समाज व अन्य संगठनों द्वारा रैली निकाली जायेगी।
– 3 मार्च को मध्य प्रदेश के बड़ावनी ज़िले की वरला तहसील में आदिवासी पटेल संघ द्वारा मोर्चा निकाला जायेगा।
– 5 मार्च को उदयपुर, राजस्थान में जंगल ज़मीन जन आंदोलन द्वारा विशाल मोर्चा निकाला जायेगा।
– 8 मार्च को आदिवासी महासभा द्वारा गुजरात के गोधरा शहर में चार ज़िलों के आदिवासियों की महारैली आयोजित होगी। इसके बाद दक्षिण और उत्तर गुजरात में भी मोर्चे निकाले जायेंगे।
– 8 व 9 मार्च को भुबनेश्वर में बड़ी रैली का आयोजन किया जायेगा।
– अगले चार दिनों में महाराष्ट्र, तमिल नाडू, उत्तराखण्ड, झारखण्ड व दादरा नगर हवेली में भी बैठकें की जायेंगीं। 10 मार्च के पहले इन राज्यों में भी राज्य स्तरीय मोर्चे निकाले जायेंगे।सभी आंदोलनों के साथ पर्चे पोस्टरों द्वारा इस बेदखली की कार्यवाही में केन्द्रीय सरकार की लापरवाह भूमिका के बारे में प्रचार किया जायेगा।
ंछत्तीसगढ़, मध्य प्रदेश, महाराष्ट्र व नगर हवेली में पदयात्रायें निकाली जायेंगी।
1. फ़रवरी 13 के उच्चतम न्यायालय के आदेश को खारिज करने के लिये केन्द्र सरकार द्वारा उचित कदम उठाये जायें। वन अधिकार के आंशिक या पूर्ण रूप से निरस्त किये गये दावों को ग्राम सभा द्वारा समीक्षा किया जाये।
2. केन्द्र सरकार सुनिश्चित करे कि वन क्षेत्र के सभी गाॅंवों को उनके वनों को बचाने व प्रबंधन करने के लिये अधिकार पत्र मिले व लघु वन उत्पाद को बिना किसी शर्त व रोक टोक के इस्तेमाल करने दिया जाये।
3. क्षतिपूर्ति वनीकरण, संयुक्त वन प्रबंधन व अन्य वन निधी का उपयोग ग्राम सभा के नियंत्रण में किया जाये।
4. ग्राम सभा की अनुमति के बिना किसी भी वन भूमि का डायवर्ज़न न किया जाये।
5. उन सभी कर्मचारियों- अधिकारियों पर अपराधिक मुकदमें दर्ज किये जायें जिन्होने किसी तरह भी लोगों के वन अधिकारों का उल्लंघन किया है।
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.
Centre’s Silence Means Millions May Face Eviction Threat After Supreme Court Order on Forest Rights Act
The Supreme Court’s February 13th order (linked here) in a case challenging the Forest Rights Act, which was published yesterday evening, is a major blow to the struggle of tribals and forest dwellers for justice and to the homes, lands and livelihoods of millions of our poorest people.
The Central government- for the fourth time in a row – chose not to argue at all in the Court. As no other party can speak effectively in defense of a law, the version of the petitioners – forest officials, ex-zamindars and a handful of wildlife NGOs – was hence taken to be the truth. In fact their petition is not in accordance with facts, law or conservation, and several of India’s top environmentalists and scientists have condemned their petition.
The Supreme Court’s order directs various State governments to report on the status of people’s claims for their traditional rights over lands, forest and forest resources under the Forest Rights Act, and – for some States – goes on to state that claimants whose rejections have “attained finality” should now be evicted.
The fact is that numerous official and independent reports have confirmed that huge numbers of claims have been wrongly rejected and that forest officials, in particular, have a track record of illegally preventing people’s rights from being recognized. Both State and Central governments have repeatedly recognised this – but the Central government chose not to inform the Court of this basic fact.
The Act contains no clause for eviction of rejected claimants, and in fact section 4(5) specifically prohibits eviction until the process of implementation is fully complete in an area. But this order can become a pretext for forest officials to attack lakhs of forest dwellers across the country. This Act was enacted in order to remedy the historical injustice committed by the British and post independence governments, who seized forest lands without respecting people’s rights. Two thirds of this country’s forests are in areas that constitutionally belong to tribals under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution. Is another historic injustice about to be committed against tribals and other forest dwellers?
We, and we believe all other organisations, parties and movements interested in justice, will:
- seek to have this order reviewed or modified in accordance with law,
- expose the Central government’s collusion with big companies and forest officials against forest dwellers;
- fight to ensure that all governments and parties defend the legal rights of tribals and forest dwellers, and
- fight against any effort to use this order to justify illegal evictions or other atrocities against forest dwellers.
Campaign for Survival and Dignity
NB: Our prior statement on the issue was based on oral statements in the court and said no evictions were directed. The written order, however, does contain directions for eviction of some rejected claimants (and only when rejections have reached absolute finality).