Nearly 20 Lakh Tribals Vulnerable to Eviction Thanks to Supreme Court Order

A lawyer said that the Supreme Court may have "overstepped".

New Delhi: On Wednesday, it was reported that the Supreme Court had ordered the eviction of over 10 lakh tribals from forest land over which they hadn’t demonstrated ownership.

As per the apex court’s order, those households whose claims over forestland had been rejected are to be evicted by the states before the matter is heard next.

However, the order could potentially impact almost 20 lakh tribal and forest-dwelling households. This is according to data collected by the Ministry of Tribal affairs. As on November 30, 2018, 19.39 lakh claims had been rejected across the country.

The Forest Rights Act (FRA) was passed in 2006 to “recognise and vest the forest rights and occupation in forest land in forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers who have been residing in such forests for generations but whose rights could not be recorded.”

According to Shankar Gopalakrishnan, secretary of the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a national platform of forest dwellers groups the order applies for now to the states which have been individually directed by the SC to evict claimants. The number can go up in time.

“As other states submit their affidavits to the court, the same order is likely to be applied to them and the number of those who are impacted will increase,” he told The Wire.

“The order could potentially also be misused by forest departments across the country to evict tribals and forest dwellers.”

It was issued as part of a case filed by wildlife organisations and retired forest officers, who have challenged the constitutional validity of the Act and argued that it encourages encroachment of forestland.

Weak defence

On February 13, while hearing the matter, the court had asked state governments to report on the action they had taken against those claimants whose claims have been rejected. Subsequently, 20 states filed affidavits with the SC, based on which the it pronounced its order on Wednesday.

Curiously, the Centre’s defence of the law seemed suspect. In a letter sent earlier this month to the minister of tribal affairs, a coalition of opposition parties and land right activist groups expressed concern that the Government of India had not defended the law.

“In the last three hearings – in March, May and December 2018 – the Central government has said nothing,” the letter noted.

On February 13, government lawyers were not present in court.

In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Brinda Karat of the CPI(M) had also pointed out that the total number impacted by the SC order could be much higher.

She contends that since only 18.89 lakh of 42.19 lakh claims have been accepted, the remaining 23.30 lakh claimants are left vulnerable to being evicted by the order. She urged Modi to pass an ordinance to protect the tribals and forest dwellers.

Also read: SC Orders Forced Eviction of More Than 1 Million Tribals, Forest-Dwellers

According to Land Conflict Watch, a website that maps land-related conflicts in India, the total number of people impacted by the Forest Rights Act is 14.22 lakh and that the total affected area is 5.53 lakh hectares.

Tushar Dash, of Community Forest Rights – Learning and Advocacy, an advocacy group working on creating awareness on the FRA, called the number “huge”. He added it could be “much higher than official figures because all rejection and pending claims are not reported.”

Flawed premise

Under the Act, claimants can lodge an appeal if their claim has been rejected. “So, if a claim is appealed, under the state government’s books, it shows as rejected,” a Supreme Court lawyer said.

However, the apex court has said that its orders are to be applied to cases ‘in which orders have attainted finality’. It remains unclear what that means.

“Under the Act, there is no provision for evicting tribals and forest dwellers. So it remains to be seen how these orders will be implemented,” the lawyer said. “It appears to me that the SC has overstepped.”

Activists have also pointed out that in several cases where claims have been rejected, state governments have followed faulty processes.

Also read: Adivasi Lives Don’t Matter

“In several cases, the claims have been rejected based on flawed methodologies in violation of FRA Rules. For example, in Gujarat, claims were rejected only based on satellite maps. They were not based on ground surveys,” Dash said.

In a letter to chief secretaries of state, the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs pointed out that in several claims had been rejected based on ‘frivolous’ objections.

In Kerala, the ministry pointed out, a new ground was ‘invented’ terming forestland “ecologically fragile land”. This, the letter said, was not tenable under the FRA.

“So now, all such rejections could lead to evictions. And the main reason for this order is that the Centre chose to remain silent and not defend the law,” the lawyer added.