Social Activists protest Supreme Court’s order that rendered over a million forest-dwelling families homeless

A representational image (Source: Reuters)

Supreme Court has ordered 17 states to evict more than one million forest-dwelling and tribal families after their claims of the right to live in forests were rejected under the Forest Rights Act.

The evictions were ordered last week—and the written order released yesterday (Feb. 20)—after some citizens, including wildlife conservation NGOs, filed a petition challenging the Forest Rights Act. Passed in 2006, the Act attempts to grant forest-dwellers, many of whom belong to marginalised tribal communities, official access to places they have called home for centuries.

The petitioners challenged the Act and sought the eviction of all forest-dwellers whose claims to land under the law had been rejected.

The Modi government, meanwhile, failed to present lawyers before the court to defend the Act, the Business Standard newspaper reported.

“As no other party can speak effectively in defence of a law, the version of the petitioners…was hence taken to be the truth,” an official of a tribal and forest dwellers’ rights group said yesterday (Feb. 20) referring to the seeming state apathy.

According to the supreme court’s order dated Feb. 13, the total number of claims to land rejected under the Forest Rights Act currently stands at 1,127,446 households. But “several other states that have not provided details to court have been asked to do so. Once they follow suit these numbers are likely to swell,” the Business Standard said.

“In case the eviction is not carried out, as aforesaid, the matter would be viewed seriously by this court,” the supreme court order reads several times, in its directives to most of the 16 states addressed. These states have until July 27 to complete the evictions.

Congress President Rahul Gandhi had on February 14 alleged that the Bharatiya Janata Party was standing as a “silent spectator” when the Act was being challenged in the Supreme Court. “It is indicating its intentions to drive out lakhs of tribals and poor farmers from the forests,” he had said.

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Roma, a renowned social activist working for the rights of forest dwellers and Deputy General Secretary of All India Union of Forest Working People and Member of Forest Righst Alliance (FRA) in a text chat with The Morning Chronicle says that the premise of the judgement is erroneous. She said that there was no provision of rejection.

“Main stakeholders of the forest dwelling community were not consulted and represented,”she said.

According to Roma, Forest Rights Act is supreme and the Apex Court cannot overstep its jurisdiction. “The power of rejection only lies with Gram Sabha and no other authority according to sec 12 of the Act. Only review can be done. SC has not taken serious note of all these issues,” she added.

“This is an attempt to block the passage of claiming and reclaiming the forests rights as per the provision of FRA 2006. This order will make FRA dysfunctional. This is violation of constitutional rights of adivasi and forest dwelling communities. This Act was enacted to stop the historic injustice of Forest dwelling communities as clearly mentioned in the preamble of the Act. The SC order is tantamount to continue the process of historical injustice,” forest dweller’ rights activist said.

Forest Rights Alliance and Bhumi Adhikar Andolan have condemned the lackadaisical attitude of the NDA government and demanded effective implementation of the Forest Rights Act and have asked to subvert any attempt at diluting the law and stop from proceeding to forced evictions in light of the current Supreme Court law.

The organisations have also demanded that government issue an Ordinance in larger interest of protecting rights of forest dwellers to stop any evictions in the name of implementing the Supreme Order and prevent attempts of further harassment.

National convenor of Jan Mukti Sanghash Vahini Chakrawarti Ashok Priyadarshi has also demanded that the central government issue an ordinance to protect rights of the marginalised forest dwellers since it failed to protect them in the court. He said that he has already won a judicial battle and an interim order of Patna High Court dated 27 July, 2017 has defended the rejection. In a conversation to The Morning Chronicle, he said that he would see if forest dwellers of Bihar are not affected.

“In case, forest dwellers are affected from this order of the apex court he would fight on ground and in a judicial framework as well,” he said.

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