Today, in the Supreme Court, the Modi government once again revealed its true colours. Some petitioners are seeking to have the Forest Rights Act struck down. In the face of this grave threat to millions, no lawyer argued at all for the Central government – even after three senior opposition leaders and people’s organisations had raised this utter negligence in a letter to the Prime Minister. The Supreme Court heard only from the petitioners – wildlife organisations that have a history of misleading claims about the Forest Rights Act – and from a lawyer representing an organisation of affected tribals.
The Centre’s callous neglect resulted in a one-sided hearing where the petitioners tried to claim that everyone whose claim has been rejected is an “encroacher” who should be evicted (even though both the UPA and the NDA governments have repeatedly admitted that many rejections are illegal). Fortunately the Supreme Court did not go along with this – the Court did not direct the eviction of those forest dwellers whose claims were not accepted. Instead, the Court has asked State governments to report on steps taken in case of rejections and to complete reviews of rejections within four months; and has also asked the Forest Survey of India to provide satellite imagery of forests to assess forest destruction.
The petitioners in these linked cases against the Act, all of whom are retired forest officials, ex-zamindars, or a handful of wildlife organisations (Praveen Bhargav of Wildlife First, Kishor Rithe of NCS, Harshvardhan Dhanvatey of TRACT, the Wildlife Trust of India, and others listed below) have a history of misleading statements about forest dwellers.
In 2014, several of India’s top conservation scientists, environmental NGOs and forest rights groups had jointly asked the petitioners to withdraw as their “petition is likely to facilitate the accelerated loot of this country’s natural resources” and endanger the livelihoods of millions of people. This plea fell on deaf ears.
The Central government’s deafening silence makes clear that the apprehensions were correct – the government most likely sees this petition as a backdoor to sacrifice the Forest Rights Act.
For more information on these cases, please see here.
Praveen Bharghav, Wildlife Trust of India
Kishor Rithe, Nature Conservation Society
Harshvardhan Dhantavatey, Tiger Research and Conservation Trust
Wildlife Trust of India (linked matter)
Bombay Natural History Society (linked matter)
Retired Forest Officials from Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Maharashtra, and Karnataka
T.N.S. Murugadoss Theerthapathi, ex zamindar of Singampatti
Leaders from the CPI, the CPI(M) and the Congress, along with two platforms of adivas and forest dwellers’ movements, have sent a strong letter to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs about its utter failure to defend the historic and landmark Forest Rights Act in the Supreme Court. The letter says that, in pending cases in the Supreme Court seeking to have this crucial Act struck down, the Central government’s lawyer has said nothing in defence of the law for all of the past three hearings. The signatories ask, “Has it been decided that this Act should be sacrificed, perhaps to appease big corporates or other vested interests?”
The letter is below.
NB: This letter was endorsed prior to the resignation of Shri V Kishore Chandra Deo from his post as Chair of the Adivasi Congress.
JOINT LETTER ON MODI GOVERNMENT’S UTTER NEGLIGENCE IN PROTECTING THE FOREST RIGHTS ACT
Shri Jual Oram
Minister of Tribal Affairs
Sub: Dismayed at the cavalier attitude of the Central Government to court cases against the critical Forest Rights Act; danger of the Act being diluted or struck down
Dear Shri Oram-ji,
We are writing to you because we are dismayed at the utterly indifferent and callous attitude adopted by the Central government around the rights of millions of India’s tribals and forest dwellers.
The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act has been challenged in the Supreme Court by retired forest officers and others with a vested interest in violating the rights of forest peoples (these cases are numbered WP 50/2008, WP 109/2008 etc.)
But far from sending a senior law officer to defend this critical law, in the last three hearings – in March, May and December 2018 – the Central government has said nothing. Your Ministry has been represented by a standing counsel with no stature. The petitioners have been asking the court to evict people whose claims have been rejected, when your own Ministry has admitted that many rejections are incorrect and require review. But in the recent hearings your lawyer has not even bothered to remind the Court of this. This is putting lakhs of poor tribal and forest dwelling families at risk of being evicted just because of the bias and illegal actions of officials.
When these cases were first filed, the then UPA government had appointed Sr. Adv. Fali Nariman, one of the country’s seniormost lawyers, to defend the Act. Up to early 2017 your government was at least represented by a senior ASG – Sr. Adv. PS Narasimha. But now your Ministry is silent. Has it been decided that this Act should be sacrificed, perhaps to appease big corporates or other vested interests?
The Court had earlier directed that the matter should be listed in the last week of January 2019 and it may come up any day now. Whenever the case is heard, the court is set to decide whether people should be evicted. We call upon your Ministry to put up a strong defence of this crucial law and to ensure that these misguided cases are dismissed without delay. Dilution of this crucial legislation or eviction orders would be an atrocity on this country’s poorest people.
Shri V Kishore Chandra Deo, (then) chairperson, Adivasi Congress
Com. Brinda Karat, Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Adivasi Adhikar Rashtriya Manch
Com. D. Raja, Communist Party of India
Shankar Gopalakrishnan, Campaign for Survival and Dignity
Soumitra Ghosh, All India Forum of Forest Movements
cc: Office of the Prime Minister, Government of India; Secretary, Ministry of Tribal Affairs
Today (Wednesday, June 6th), Maharashtra police arrested Mahesh Raut, an activist in Gadchiroli, along with Sudhir Dhawale, Surendra Gadling (a senior lawyer) and Shoma Sen. All of these people are prominent, well-known faces in the struggle for social justice in Maharashtra. Mahesh Raut, in particular, has been affiliated to the Gram Swaraj Parishad and CSD and has spent years organising movements and struggles for forest rights in Gadchiroli, including village ownership and sale of tendu patta and bamboo. He has also been involved in working for people’s rights in the face of illegal land takeovers for mining in the area. This is not the first time Mahesh has been targeted – for years the police have been trying to claim he and his co-workers are Maoists, even though the charge is absurd.
Indeed, the charges against those arrested are even more absurd this time than earlier. In press reports, police officials are quoted claiming that the Maoists paid these activists money to incite violence at the Bhima Koregaon rally. This is the same police force that has exonerated Sambhaji Bhide and done precious little to tackle the Sangh Parivar groups that openly attacked people at Bhima Koregaon. This is clearly a politically motivated case intended to target those who have been working for democratic rights and basic freedoms in a BJP-ruled state.
We condemn this naked exercise of state repression and demand the immediate release of those arrested.
On the morning of May 8th, at 4 am, Vijay Bhaskar Reddy suffered a heart attack after internal bleeding and passed away in Hyderabad.
For many of us Vijay Bhaskar was both a friend and a comrade. For decades he worked on adivasi issues in undivided Andhra Pradesh, and then in both Telengana and AP after the division of the state. He was in touch with communities in remote areas and closely involved in their struggles, ranging from the movement against the Polavaram dam to the illegal descheduling of Scheduled Areas during the division of the state. He traveled up and down the state for his work and fought tirelessly for the rights of the people he loved and the communities he believed in. He was involved with us in the Campaign from our founding in 2003 and during the most intense years of the struggle for the Forest Rights Act, he was wherever the movement needed him to be, in the forests, on the streets, in Delhi and in the halls of Parliament.
On top of all this he had an enormous amount of information at his fingertips, able to recall details of historical documents and policy issues across the board. His accomplishments were all the more amazing because he did them despite suffering from debilitating problems in his vision, which made it very difficult for him to read or to see clearly. In the face of those difficulties many would have chosen an easier life. But not Vijay Bhaskar.
Over the years many of us got used to the fact that, once every few months, we would get a call from Vijay Bhaskar late at night, in order to discuss some detailed technical point or some new development in the struggle. In the face of everything he never gave up.
Now it is difficult to believe that those calls will never come again. One more extraordinary person has left us. We will miss you, Vijay Bhaskar, and hope that one day we will see the dawn of the just world you fought for.
Today, October 2nd, the Environment Minister – Dr. Harsh Vardhan – is hosting the Global Wildlife Programme, while claiming that his government “is playing a leadership role in management of wildlife through involvement of local communities.”
But Dr. Vardhan’s statement is completely false. In reality, the government has been systematically and criminally violating the rights of millions of people, putting them at risk of harassment, eviction and being killed in the name of “wildlife conservation.” This began under the UPA government and has been converted into wholesale, systematic sabotage by the BJP at the Centre.
- On March 28th, the National Tiger Conservation Authority issued a completely illegal direction that barred recognition of any of the legal rights of forest dwellers in tiger reserves under the Forest Rights Act. This deprived lakhs of people of the protection of law.
- This government passed a law in the name of “compensatory afforestation” that completely ignored the legal rights of forest dwellers and threatens them with wholesale loss of their common and individual lands. Till date it has not fulfilled any of its promises to ensure this fund respects people’s rights, even after hundreds of villages wrote to the government in protest
- In BJP-ruled State after State, State governments have framed “village forest rules” that directly violate the FRA. The Centre tried to do the same with a draft “National Forest Policy” that ignored the forest rights issue entirely.
- Illegal grabbing of forest dwellers’ lands, both for corporate projects like mining and in the name of wildlife conservation, has continued across India.
- In the budget this year (2017), the government effectively shut down the program of providing minimum support price for non-timber forest produce – one of the most crucial sources of livelihood for forest dwellers.
- Despite the FRA permitting relocation from critical wildlife habitats only where coexistence can lead to irreversible damage and only with the informed consent of communities, under Central urging, many states have initiated wholesale relocation in total violation of the law, often using CAMPA funds.
- The situation had become so dire in India that, in October last year, some of India’s top conservation scientists and forty of the world’s leading conservation groups warned that the government “may be acting in ways that are not in consonance with [the] law” and that “disregarding the Forest Rights Act or undermining it will greatly damage environmental protection in the country.”
And these are just a few examples.
If this is the government showing “leadership”, then we can only hope that it shows less of this kind of “leadership” and starts showing more respect for the law and for the basic rights of the tribals and forest dwellers of this country.
On behalf of the Convening Collective
Campaign for Survival and Dignity
In violation of every form of justice, rights and humanity, the Central and Madhya Pradesh governments are attacking the families affected by the Sardar Sarovar dam yet again. Everyone involved is aware that those being displaced by this dam are not even receiving shelter fit for animals – and yet the BJP governments at the Centre and the State are pushing ahead with forcing them out. It is a telling testimony on the quality of justice in our country that not a single institution is willing to stand up for those struggling for these most basic of rights. It is an even more telling comment that the leaders of that struggle, including Medha Patkar, have been on fast for more than eight days and have received no attention from the media, state institutions or the ruling party.
We in the Campaign extend our solidarity and support to the struggle of the people of the Narmada basin, whose bravery and commitment have inspired generations of Indians to fight the brutality of the system that we live under.
On behalf of the Convening Collective,
Campaign for Survival and Dignity
On March 28th, the National Tiger Conservation Authority passed a grossly illegal order (copy here) in which they directed all states to not recognise any rights under the Forest Rights Act in so-called “critical tiger habitats.” This will is a criminal offence against the rights of over four lakh tribals and forest dwellers.
This order flies in the face of both the Wild Life Act and the Forest Rights Act, both of which explicitly require that rights must be recognised in critical tiger and wildlife habitats (see sections 38V(5) and 4(2)(a) of the Wild Life Act and the FRA respectively). The NTCA further had no jurisdiction to issue such a letter, which is a criminal offence under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act and the FRA. In a detailed letter to the Prime Minister, Com. Brinda Karat of the CPI(M) has explained these and other illegalities and said that the order constitutes “utter contempt for the law.”
From start to finish, India’s tiger reserves have been plagued by illegalities. Even prior to the passage of the FRA, in 2005 the Tiger Task Force condemned forest authorities for “selective application of the law”, which had led to what it called “truly a war within, exploding inside reserves and taking everything else in its wake.” In 2006, the law was amended to require scientific evidence and a public process before deciding which areas are truly critical for tigers. But in 2007, in a mockery of the law, the Centre simply notified all of India’s tiger reserves as “critical tiger habitats” without bothering with any scientific process at all (see this note for more information).
Now this order comes as a further attack on people’s rights. On the ground, forest officials have already begun to use this order to threaten and harass forest dwellers. In tiger reserves where rights were already recognised – such as in Simlipal in Odisha – forest officials have even demanded that recognised rights should be canceled. This would be a double crime and a further atrocity.
To oppose this criminal order, the Campaign will be mobilising protests and village level meetings, where whole villages will send protest statements to the government. These will take place across the country in the next month. We also understand that other opposition parties are likely to take the issue up, and that many other democratic groups will be mobilising against it.
Campaign for Survival and Dignity
Ph: 9873657844, www.forestrightsact.com
Hearing a petition today filed by a small group of wildlife NGOs, the Supreme Court today declined to hold that the historic Forest Rights Act of 2006 was “beyond the legislative competence” of Parliament to pass. The petitioners had claimed before the court that this law is “essentially a land distribution scheme” and hence fell within the jurisdiction of the State governments and not the Central Parliament. After hearing all parties at length on this claim, the Court did not endorse this notion and asked the petitioners to continue with their other arguments.
The petitioners in this case do not represent the views of most wildlife conservationists, who support the recognition of the rights of forest dwellers and ensuring that they can protect and manage their forests. Indeed, just six months ago, more than twenty Indian wildlife experts and forty international organisations had written to the Environment Ministry asking it to stop violating this law and stating that “disregarding the Forest Rights Act or undermining it will greatly damage environmental protection in the country.”
The petitioners in this case instead want to restore the rule of the Forest Department, with all its colonial powers, by using a technical Constitutional argument. The court has not endorsed this backdoor attempt to attack people’s rights. The case will now proceed on the other claims of the petitioners, but we are confident that these too will be defeated.
Case Details: Wildlife First and Ors. vs. Union of India and Ors. (WP 109 / 2008), tagged with several related writ petitions and being heard by Justices Chelameswar, Sapre and Roy. Counsel for petitioners is Senior Advocate Shyam Diwan; for the Union of India is Additional Solicitor General and Senior Advocate PS Narasimha; and for several impleaded tribals and forest dwellers’ groups, Senior Advocate Chander Uday Singh appeared. See here for more details on these cases.
Since it came to power the BJP government at the Centre has consistently tried to attack the livelihoods and rights of forest dwellers and tribals. Recently, it has intensified its assault:
- Destroying the MSP for MFP scheme, which could have boosted the income of millions of people: In 2013, the UPA introduced a scheme to provide a minimum support price for minor forest produce. This produce constitutes more than half of the income of many forest dwelling communities, especially the desperately oppressed adivasis of central India. But whereas funds for this purpose were released to six States in 2013-2014, in 2014 – 2015 practically all the money in the fund was given to Chhattisgarh alone (excepting a miniscule allocation to Jharkhand). In 2014-2015, 317 crores was allocated for this scheme; 307 crores in 2015-2016; 158 crores in 2016 – 2017; and only 100 crores in 2017 – 2018 (see here). Even more striking, only three crores was actually spent in 2016 – 2017 – effectively finishing off this scheme.
- Making community forest management impossible: Documents obtained through RTI show that the Ministry of Environment and Forests is now working on a “guideline for management of community forest resources”, along with the Ministry of Tribal Affairs. This might seem like a good thing, since for the first time, the Ministry is actually acknowledging that people have statutory rights over their forests. But the actual guideline belies any such hope. Despite being fully 23 pages long (a scanned copy is here), it has no mechanism by which people can hold state agencies accountable to enforce and implement their decisions regarding management of their forests. Meanwhile, chapter 4 of the guideline requires communities to first undertake a survey exercise so extensive that it would make a university department struggle for staff. Villagers are expected to list the species of plants and trees present, provide georeferenced maps, record tree cover and the legal status of forest lands, the texture and depth of soil, the status of stream flow during different months – and this is just the start (see Chapter 4 and Appendix 1 of the draft guideline). Since no gram sabha can conceivably complete such a survey, the Forest Department will cite this guideline to act as if no “appropriate” plan exists; and we will be back to square one. While there has been correspondence between the Ministry of Tribal Affairs and the Environment Ministry on this guideline, these fundamental issues appear to be very much on the cards.
Both of these steps are very much in line with the way this government has constantly tried to extend Bureaucrat Raj in India’s forests. Since the BJP does not have the political courage – or the strength – to state that this is its actual goal, it has been undercutting people’s legal rights by two strategies. The first is gross, continouous violation of the law in order to illegally favour corporates. The second is the creation of new, parallel structures of forest management that ignore the existence of the Forest Rights Act. These include giving private companies control over forests; the introduction of “village forest rules” in BJP ruled states that impose Forest Department control on people’s forests; and, most glaringly, the passage of the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act, which threatens to expropriate millions of people and which does not have a single word about forest rights.
Meanwhile, till date, less than 3% of the land over which communities have rights has been recognised. This is the real conflict: between democratic control and protection of forests and other natural resources, on the one hand, and a rapacious bureaucracy backed by a vicious corporate assault on the other. In this context, the NDA government’s intentions are clear as day.
After raping two adivasi women last week, police in Gadchiroli district, Maharashtra, have engaged in a spiral of atrocities. They have now abducted five people yesterday, including the victims, and are holding them at an undisclosed location. Phone numbers for details and for officials are at the end of this message.
Yesterday evening (January 28th, 2017) at 4:30 pm, two adivasi women who had been raped by the police and their supporters Shila Gota and Sainu Gota were abducted from the office of Nagpur High Court lawyer Nihalsingh Rathod. The police claimed to come from Bardi police station. They did not explain why they were detaining these people and refused to answer questions from the lawyers about what they were charged with (hence, this was an abduction, not an arrest as per law). At 7:40 pm the police returned again and detained activist Mangesh Holi. Till date it is not clear where any of these people are being held or why.
On January 20th, 2017, two women from Gonawara village of Bande block in Chhattisgarh were traveling to Nayatala village (Etapalli, Maharashtra) to see relatives. They were blocked by the Maharashtra Police near Todgatta village and held overnight. In the morning of the 21st they were taken to Naytala, where they were released after the villagers confirmed their identity. But the badly frightened women then told their relatives that they had been sexually assaulted by the police. When the villagers demanded to know what had happened the police battalion beat them up and again seized the two women. When the villagers followed and demanded to know where they were being held the police initially denied that they had ever detained them. After protests the police finally issued a statement saying they had detained the women “for security reasons.” The women were then taken to the district hospital for a medical checkup on the 22nd, but their relatives were barred from meeting them. After repeated protests, the women were finally released on the evening of January 26th after being subjected to further atrocities. They were then again abducted yesterday from the office of the lawyer who was assisting them.
The people of over 70 villages in this region have passed resolutions against iron ore mining and have been struggling for their rights under the Forest Rights Act and against illegal mining. For this reason the police repression in the area has massively increased recently.
Please call the concerned officials and ask to know what has happened to those abducted:
District Collector, Gadchiroli: 07132222001, 07798977831
Superintendent of Police, Gadchiroli: 08652573333, 07132222151
Reporters interested in details of yesterday’s incidents and the atrocities inflicted on these women can contact Adv. Nihalsingh Rathod at 09702136264, 09403253160.
Campaign for Survival and Dignity