Centre Seeks Temporary Stay on Eviction of 1.89 Million Forest-Dwelling Families

The Centre has asked for time for states to file detailed affidavits on the implementation of the Forest Rights Act.

New Delhi: The Union government on Wednesday filed a plea before the Supreme Court (SC) to modify its February 13 order and permit states to temporarily withhold forcible eviction of around 1.89 million tribal and other forest-dwelling families. The case is being heard on Thursday.

The Centre pleaded that the three-judge Bench give states a chance to file detailed affidavits on the implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA). The plea comes against a SC order to evict all tribals and forest-dwellers whose claims to traditional forestlands had been rejected under the FRA.

After the order, Opposition parties, including the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Indian National Congress, and regional parties such as Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, had blamed the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for being silent on the matter.

The Congress had asked governments in states it rules to file review petitions against the order. Following this, the BJP also asked its state governments to do so.

In its plea the Union government said: “It is submitted that… a large number of tribal and other forest dwellers would be liable to be evicted… the rejection of a claim does not ipso facto lead to the eviction of a tribal. There is no provision in the Act that provides for eviction after a claim is rejected.”

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Chart It noted the rejection of claims by tribals across the country had been faulty. It also recalled its earlier submissions that “concerns had come to its knowledge like high rate of rejection of claims; non-communication of rejection order; state-level monitoring committee meetings not taking place regularly who have to ensure that no tribal is removed till the process under the Act is complete.”

The Centre added, “The applicant noted that a large number of cases are rejected due to lack of evidence or incomplete evidence. It was directed that the district administration is expected to assist the gram sabhas (village councils) by providing forest and revenue maps. It was stated that the claims rejected for insufficient evidence or which requires additional examination, may be re-examined.”

It pleaded that the states had not put the complete picture before the courts as yet and said “Without such information and compliance with the mandate of law in letter and spirit, the eviction of such tribal, would amount to serious miscarriage of justice…The eviction of tribal, without such information would cause serious prejudice to such tribal who have been residing in forests for generations.”

The Union government also put on record that it had as far back as 2016 told the states about problems and illegalities in high rate of rejection of claims which included “non-communication of rejection orders; lack of reasons in the order; raising of frivolous objections etc”. The Union government had then warned the states that “forest authorities are immediately attempting to evict tribal where rejection is made even without awaiting the decision of appeal.”

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But the government, in its fresh prayers to the SC, stopped short of pleading for a full review of the order, which even the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram had asked for besides several opposition parties. Earlier in April 2016 while the matter was being heard by the Supreme Court the Union government had argued that the court should first focus on the one question raised by the petitioners – the constitutional validity of the FRA — and not its implementation, the questions about it were later raised by the petitioners in oral arguments.

But at this stage, instead of challenging the order in its entirety the Union government has preferred ask that the apex court modify its February 13 order, and “withhold eviction proceedings till such time” as states file detailed affidavits “regarding the procedure followed and details of the rejection of claims” of tribals and other forest-dwellers under the FRA.

By arrangement with Business Standard.