SC eviction order likely to impact 1.89 mn tribal, forest-dwelling families

Tribals collect dry leaves at a forest in Bastar
The number of tribal and other forest-dwelling families who can be potentially impacted by the Supreme Court’s order on eviction from forests could go up as high as 1.89 million households countrywide. This is the total number of claims to forestlands that have been rejected under the Forest Rights Act across all 35 states and union territories, according to the latest data from Union ministry for tribal affairs.

On February 20, the Supreme Court ordered time-bound eviction of all those families whose claims under the Forest Rights Act had been rejected by the authorities. The court order gave reference to rejections from 16 states which had by then filed data in their affidavits. But, all states are required to comply with the court order. The data from these 16 states collectively showed 1.1 million households as rejected claimants.

The country-wide data on 1.89 million households comes from the November 2018 report compiled by the Union tribal affairs ministry. This is the latest report it has put in public domain though the Centre generates this report on a monthly basis based on inputs from the states. 

A day after the Supreme Court order was published, one of the wildlife groups that had filed the case against Forest Rights Act, said, “Apart from loss of forests, granting such wide-ranging rights in scattered parcels of forest land is causing deleterious impact in the form of habitat fragmentation or breaking up of large forest blocks into smaller pieces. Fragmentation has been scientifically established as the most serious threat to long-term conservation of forests and biodiversity.”

It added, “As per the ministry of tribal affairs statement…1,477,793 claims have been rejected at the Gram Sabha level itself as per the statement (of the tribal affairs ministry). While the tribal affairs ministry statements do not provide data on actual extent of forest land occupied by rejected claimants, the estimated area could be in excess of 19 lakh ha by applying the average area of an approved individual claim.”

The Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a loose federation of hundreds of tribal rights groups, countered it by stating, “They (the petitioners) declare that every single claimant whose claim has been rejected under this law is a bogus claimant. This flies in the face of the government's own findings, which state that many rejections were illegal and not in accordance with law.”

This is corroborated from missives sent by the tribal affairs ministry as recently as June 2018 to state chief secretaries, stating, “It has also been revealed in the consultation meetings that forest staff keep raising frivolous objections causing rejection and prolong pendency.”

The Supreme Court order comes a year after it first asked states in March 2018 to provide a status report on evictions and what action had been taken in case of rejected claims. The February 20 order goes a step ahead to actually order evictions and asks states to inform by end of July on the action taken on its order.

The Down to Earth magazine reported that in response to the March 2018 order the tribal affairs ministry had written to states in June last year, stating, “It has come to the notice of MoTA that state forest authorities move immediately to evict people whose claims under FRA are rejected, without waiting for a decision on review or appeal or allowing time for filling appeal/review ostensibly under the garb of the Order of March 2018 from honourable Apex Court…Such an action while depriving aggrieved persons the opportunity to prefer appeal before SDLC (Sub-Divisional Level Committee) or DLC (District Level Committee), as the case may be, violates the spirit of FRA, 2006, besides creating grounds for unrest and agitation and also fuels extremism.”

This correspondence was independently confirmed by Business Standard. The tribal affairs ministry is yet to respond publicly to the latest Supreme Court order.

The tribal rights group also pointed out that the rejection by gram sabha (village council) was the first stage where manipulation often took place by the forest department and the law provided for two levels of appeals beyond this and the rejection rates were much lower on subsequent reviews.

The group added, “They do not mention that the majority of the petitioners are retired forest officials themselves--with a vested interest in denying rights. They ignore the fact that the FRA provides not only for rights over land but also for rights to protect and conserve forests - rights which they are clearly not interested in at all.”