On July 22nd, tens of thousands of tribals and forest dwellers held protests across India (on the call of the Bhumi Adhikar Andolan). Climate change organisations from around the world have condemned the Indian government. And soon, the Supreme Court is likely to hear a case in which it had earlier told State governments to evict millions of tribal and forest dweller families. The order was subsequently put on hold.
But what is all this about?
Why was the Forest Rights Act passed?
Millions of people have lived in and near India’s forest lands for centuries, but until 2006 they mostly had no legal right to their homes, lands or livelihoods. India’s forest laws followed a colonial model that empowered government officials – forest officers – to decide all questions relating to forests. This resulted in a situation where forests are destroyed merely based on the signature of a few officials in Delhi, while tribals and forest dwellers are subject to harassment, evictions, etc, on the pretext of being encroachers in their own homes. Torture, bonded labour, extortion of money and sexual assault are all extremely common. The situation is so bad that in 1989 the then Commissioner for SCs and STs, in his 29th Report, had said that “The criminalisation of the entire communities in the tribal areas is the darkest blot on the liberal tradition of our country.”
It is not an accident that tribals are the poorest communities in India. More background on this is here.
What does the Forest Rights Act say?
Following nationwide protests, in 2006 the Forest Rights Act was passed. It put in place a three stage process by which the rights of tribals and other forest dwellers were to be recorded and recognised. It listed thirteen types of rights, including rights over land being cultivated, rights to non-timber forest produce, and most crucially, the right to protect and conserve forests (which no Indian law had ever recognised as a right before). Details of these rights can be found here.
How does the Forest Rights Act help conservation?
The FRA changed the old system, where only officials had decision making powers, to one where officials should be accountable to the people they are ostensibly meant to serve. Using its historic provisions recognising forest dwellers’ right to conserve, the Forest Rights Act has been used by communities around the country to challenge tree-felling, fight commercial plantations in the name of compensatory afforestation, oppose ecologically destructive projects and consequent air, soil and water pollution, and regenerate biodiversity. The Act has been hailed by Indian wildlife experts, international conservationists and conservation scientists, by groups fighting climate change and by other movements around the world as a step forward for both social justice and conservation.
What is the Supreme Court case about?
In 2008, retired forest officials and their associations filed six cases in six High Courts (that were cut and paste copies of each other) and two groups of wildlife NGOs filed cases in the Supreme Court. All of these cases sought to have the Forest Rights Act struck down as unconstitutional. More details on what the petitions are asking for can be found here.
What did the Court order in February and why?
In early 2016, the petitioners stopped asking for the Act to be struck down and instead began demanding that those forest dwellers whose claims had been rejected should be evicted (this is a misleading claim, see next question). After initially opposing this in court, the BJP government chose to remain silent for two years. As a result, in February the Court ordered the eviction of all rejected claimants. This would have affected over nine million people.
The order was condemned by conservationists, forest dwellers’ movements, opposition parties, and several United Nations special rapporteurs for human rights.
Why did the Court put its order on hold?
After nationwide protests, the government finally went back to the Court and pointed out that the petitioners are deliberately distorting facts (more details here). In reality, the Centre admitted, most rejections of claims have been illegal. But instead of asking the Court to take back its order, the Centre only asked for it to be “put on hold.” The Court did so and asked State governments to report on how they had rejected claims.
What is going to happen when the case is heard next?
The Court will, most likely:
- review the replies by State governments
- hear applications from different groups seeking to be heard in favour of the FRA, including senior conservationists and academics, national adivasi and farmers’ organisations, and others
- hear whatever the Central government wishes to say, if anything
- hear the petitioners’ attempts to make satellite imagery into the centre of their case (see next question below)
The Court may choose to keep its earlier eviction order on hold, to withdraw it, or to lift the hold, which will again place more than nine million people in danger of eviction.
What is all this talk about satellite imagery?
The petitioners and some forest officials have long been claiming that satellite images both show “forest destruction” and should be used to verify if a person claiming forest rights actually had them. This is a deliberate misconception.
In reality, satellite images:
- Are easy to distort, since everything from seasonal changes to lack of ground truthing can lead to misleading conclusions (here’s a striking recent example)
- Have nothing to do with most of the rights under the Act, such as non-timber forest produce, grazing, etc., which won’t show up on satellite images anyway
- Cannot even be used to verify land rights, since a person may choose to leave land under their occupation fallow for some time, may grow fruit trees or other tree crops, or may have had trees illegally planted on their lands
As a result, in 2013 the Gujarat High Court had held that satellite imagery can be used as one among several forms of evidence, but cannot be made a mandatory requirement for recognition of forest rights.
Two Days Before Supreme Court Hearing, Groups from 24 Countries Say Government Undermining Fight Against Climate Change by Attacking Forest Rights
Forty three organisations fighting climate change, from 24 countries around the world, have said that the BJP-led government is threatening the fight against climate change by attacking the rights of tribals and forest dwellers. Referring to the Modi government’s silence in Supreme Court cases against the Forest Rights Act (next hearing expected to be on July 24th), and the government’s proposal to bring in draconian amendments in the Indian Forest Act, these organisations say that “The Indian government’s steps imperil the livelihoods of millions of people, threaten to restore a colonial and autocratic model of forest management, and threaten the global fight against climate change.”
Saying that “The protection of local communities’ rights over forests and land is a crucial weapon in the fight against climate change” and that the “international community has repeatedly recognised this fact” – including in agreements that India has signed – the groups “call upon the Indian government to refrain from such steps, to vigorously defend the Forest Rights Act in court, and to ensure that all legal and policy changes strengthen the rights of local and indigenous communities rather than weakening them.”
The statement and signatories are below. The signatories are from Peru, Tanzania,Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Burundi, Cameroon, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ecuador, France, Ghana, India, Malaysia, Nepal, Nicaragua, Palestine – Israel, the Philippines, South Africa, Spain, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the USA, and Vietnam.
Campaign for Survival and Dignity
In Solidarity with Indigenous People and Local Communities facing Evictions in India
We, as organisations working to fight climate injustice around the world, are dismayed by recent developments in India and call upon the Indian government to take an active stand in favour of the rights of indigenous and local communities in the country.
The protection of local communities’ rights over forests and land is a crucial weapon in the fight against climate change. The international community has repeatedly recognised this fact, whether in the preamble to the Paris Agreement, the agreement on REDD+, or other international covenants. Indeed, the 23rd Conference of Parties specifically finalised the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples’ Platform for precisely this purpose, to ensure that these communities’ vital contributions are recognised and heard.
In the Indian context, the 2006 Forest Rights Act attempted to reverse over a century of colonial, centralised forest management and to attempt to recognise the rights of local, indigenous and forest dwelling communities in India’s vast forest areas. The law was hailed the world over as a step forward for conservation and justice. Using this law, communities across the country have been resisting monoculture plantations, protecting wildlife habitats, challenging pollution of soil and water sources, and opposing forest destruction from commerce and industry.
Unfortunately, however, it appears that recent policy steps have sought to undermine this historic achievement.
First, it is alleged that, when some retired forest officials and NGOs approached the Indian Supreme Court to reverse key elements of the new Act and restore the absolute power of forest officials over forest land and indigenous communities, the Indian government remained silent and did not defend the Forest Rights Act for over two years.
Secondly, the government has recently proposed amendments to the Indian Forest Act (India’s main forest management legislation). These new provisions would grant forest officials the power to arbitrarily take over local and indigenous’ communities rights, and also provide them with draconian powers including the right to arrest and search without warrant, to use firearms with impunity, and to impose collective punishments on entire communities by barring them from exercising their rights.
As a result of the government’s silence in the Supreme Court, the Court ordered the en masse eviction of millions of forest dwelling households in February 2019. The proposed eviction on an unprecedented scale led to a nationwide uproar (the Court subsequently placed its order on hold). The next hearing for this case is on July 24th.
The Indian government’s steps imperil the livelihoods of millions of people, threaten to restore a colonial and autocratic model of forest management, and threaten the global fight against climate change.
As groups working on climate change from around the world, we recognise that one of the most important and effective ways of protecting our planet’s biodiverse ecosystems is by safeguarding the rights of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities. Actions done in the name of climate change or environmental protection hence must not threaten their rights.
We therefore call upon the Indian government to refrain from such steps, to vigorously defend the Forest Rights Act in court, and to ensure that all legal and policy changes strengthen the rights of local and indigenous communities rather than weakening them.
- Plataforma Boliviana frente al Cambio Climático, Bolivia
- Sahabat Alam Malaysia (Friends of the Earth Malaysia), Malaysia
- Abibiman Foundation, Ghana
- Asociación Ambiente y Sociedad, Colombia
- Friends of the Earth – England, Wales and Northern Ireland
- Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA)
- Vaagdhara, India
- Amnesty India
- Andaman Nicobar Environmental Team, India
- EcoHimal, Nepal
- Environics Trust, India
- Tadbeer Consultancy and Research, Afghanistan
- Arjon Foundation, Bangladesh
- UK Youth Climate Coalition (UKYCC), United Kingdom
- Association For Promotion Sustainable development, India
- Dignité Pygmée (DIPY), Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)
- Beatriz Roglá, Spain
- Igapo Project, France
- Solidarité des Volontaires pour l’humanité, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)
- Humane Trust, Koraput, India
- Women Major Group, India
- Association Chamade, France
- PLANT (Partners for the Land and Agricultural Needs of Traditional peoples), USA
- Asian Indigenous Women’s Network
- Center for Indigenous Peoples’ Culture of Peru
- Centre for Indigenous Peoples Research and Education, Nepal
- Centre of Research and Development for Upland Areas, Vietnam
- Ugnayang Pambansa para sa Katutubong Kaalaman at Talino (UPAKAT), Philippines
- Nuwekloof Rural Development, South Africa
- Luna Creciente, Ecuador
- War on Want, United Kingdom
- Punaruthan, India
- Ingénieurs sans frontières Agrista, France
- HATOF Foundation, Ghana
- Bangladesh Apparels Workers Federation-BAWF, Bangladesh
- Jahalin Solidarity, Palestine – Israel
- Global Rainbow, The Netherlands – International
- Association pour le Développement et la Reintégration Socio-Economique des Populations Autochtones et Locales”ADRSEPAL”en sigle, Burundi
- Amis De La Justice, Democratic Republic of Congo
- Center for autonomy and development of indigenous peoples (Cadpi), Nicaragua
- Pastoralists Indigenous Non Governmental Organizations (PINGO’s Forum) Tanzania
- Tanzania Indigenous Peoples Network on Climate Change (TIPNCC)
- Lelewal, Cameroon
Below please find a joint letter that was sent to the BJP government today by four national platforms of adivasi and forest dwellers’ organisations.
The government is trying to use two routes – a backdoor route through the Supreme Court and a front door route through proposed amendments to the Indian Forest Act – to condemn crores of tribals and forest dwellers in the country to destitution and extortion, brutality and eviction by forest officials.
The government is also enabling large-scale corruption by ensuring bureaucratic and non-transparent control of tens of thousands of crores collected in the name of afforestation and “development of mining-affected areas.”
The letter condemns these actions. Both these platforms and many others have planned mass protests and struggles around these issues in July and August.
Campaign for Survival and Dignity
Joint Appeal to the BJP Government: Stop Attacking The Rights of Tribals and Forest Dwellers
Shri Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India
Subject: Attack on tribals and forest dwellers by Central government
Dear Shri Modiji,
We are writing to express our deep concern at the active attempt to attack the rights of tribals and forest dwellers by your government. We wish to draw to your attention three specific examples of this wholesale assault:
Since 2008, cases against the Forest Rights Act have been running in the Supreme Court. From 2008 up to 2016 the Central government played its constitutional role and defended this crucial law before the Court. From 2017 onwards, for no reason, the Central government’s counsels in the case did not make a single statement in defense of the law. We had raised this matter as early as February 4th. As a result, the petitioners’ view prevailed and on February 13th the Court passed an order to evict lakhs of families solely on the ground that they were unable to prove their claim under the law. After a nationwide uproar, your government rushed back to Court and managed to persuade the Court to put this order “on hold.” The next hearing in this matter is on July 24th. It is a matter of extreme concern to us and to the crores of forest dwellers of this country that your government has not made a single statement in public on this matter after February 28th. We fear that your government is again planning to try to sabotage the Forest Rights Act by remaining silent and thus allow for a mass eviction once again.
On March 7th, the Ministry of Environment and Forests sent a “proposal” for amendments to the Indian Forest Act, 1927, to all State governments. If this proposal becomes law, forest officials will acquire extraordinary powers that no other agency – including the security forces in disturbed areas – has ever had in the history of this country. Forest officials will be able to end people’s rights merely by paying cash compensation (s. 22A(2), s.30(b)); to use fire arms against tribals and forest dwellers with impunity (s.66(2)); to take confessions from accused and have them be admissible as evidence in court (a provision that does not exist in any other law) (s.64C); to shut down people’s rights in entire forests for flimsy reasons such as “willfully causing fires” (s.26(3)); to end shifting cultivation entirely; and so on. If these proposals become law they will be the single biggest attack on this country’s tribals and forest dwellers since the first British Forest Act in 1865. Your government will have committed a historic atrocity on the crores of tribals and forest dwellers in this country.
In 2016, when the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act was passed by your government, it did not even contain a mention of forest rights. The Rules framed under the Act – contrary to assurances to Parliament – also allow forest officials to override tribals and forest dwellers and plant trees on their lands. This has already led to atrocities against tribals and violence, including most recently in Telengana and Maharashtra. Compensatory afforestation money is being wasted, siphoned off by corrupt officials, used as a pretext for evicting tribals and seizing their lands, and spent on buildings and guns when by rights it should belong to the country’s forest communities.
When the Mines and Minerals (Regulation and Development) Act was amended in 2015 and 2016, much fanfare was made of how a “mineral development fund” would be set up for the development of mining affected areas and communities. As of December 2018 more than Rs. 22,800 crore had been collected by state governments in these funds, but only Rs. 5,529 crore – less than a quarter of the total – had been spent. We call upon the Central government to investigate and reveal where the remaining 17,271 crores is. This is a further injustice on the country’s tribals.
In this context we call upon the Central government to:
Actively defend the Forest Rights Act in the Supreme Court, and place before the Court the correct legal position, under which evictions only for the inability to prove a claim are not justified in law and in any case are not related to the case before the Court;
Immediately withdraw the proposed amendments to the Indian Forest Act and instead amend that law and other forest laws to bring them into accordance with the Forest Rights Act and to prosecute officials who violate forest rights;
Ensure that money collected in the name of compensatory afforestation is only spent with the consent of affected gram sabhas and subject to plans prepared by them rather than by bureaucrats.
Announce a transparent audit of expenditure under the District Mineral Funds and take action against any officials or agencies who have diverted money in these funds, and alter the rules under this fund to ensure that any expenditure is subject to the consent of gram sabhas and is decided by bodies with representation from tribals and other affected communities.
Jitendra Choudhury, National Convenor, Adivasi Adhikar Rashtriya Manch
C.R. Baxi, Working President, Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Mahasabha
Shankar Gopalakrishnan, Campaign for Survival and Dignity
Bijaybhai, Bharat Jan Andolan
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.