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Supreme Court Stays Its Controversial Tribal Eviction Order

On February 13, the apex court had directed states to evict tribals and forest-dwelling households if their claims on forest lands had been rejected.

New Delhi: On February 28, the Supreme Court stayed its February 13 order that would have led to the forced eviction of over a million tribals and forest-dwellers, and rendered nearly another million vulnerable to the same fate.

The stay order came after the Centre moved an application seeking a modification. The Centre argued that the states had rejected the claims of tribals and forest-dwellers without observing due process.

In its February 13 order, the apex court had directed states to evict tribals and forest-dwelling households if their claims on forest lands had been rejected.

The Centre told the court that it was difficult to ascertain from the affidavits that states had filed with the court whether some claims had been rejected while following due process and whether all appeal mechanisms had been exhausted.

The Centre also noted that the rate of rejections stood as high as 50% as a consequence of the Act having been improperly interpreted. In some cases, the Centre continued, claimants had been unable to file an appeal because the reason for their original claims to have been rejected hadn’t been communicated to them.

Now, the Supreme Court has directed the states to submit the details of the processes they followed to reject tribals’ and forest-dwellers’ claims. The state governments are also required to inform the court about which authority passed the order and whether the State Level Monitoring Committees monitored the process as required by law. Finally, they will have to furnish all these details within the next four months (i.e. before July).

Curiously, the Centre had chosen to remain silent leading up to the February 13 order . In the three hearings before the order was pronounced, the government’s lawyers chose not to say anything to defend the Forest Rights Act 2006, whose constitutionality was in dispute. On February 13 itself, the lawyers were not present.

Once the order was spelled out, activists and lawyers upbraided the Centre for its weak defence. Those impacted by the order even took to the streets in protest, urging lawmakers to pass an ordinance and nullify the order. They were joined in their demand by the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, a body affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Rahul Gandhi, president of the Indian National Congress, wrote to sitting chief ministers belonging to his party and asked them to file review petitions.

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