Why the Supreme Court Verdict on Forest Rights Act Might Spell Disaster for Lakhs of Adivasis

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Why the Supreme Court Verdict on Forest Rights Act Might Spell Disaster for Lakhs of Adivasis

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Yesterday, the Supreme Court released a written order of a damaging verdict that it quietly pronounced a week ago. The order called for the eviction of nearly 1 million adivasi and other tribal families who have been residing in forestlands across 16 Indian states for decades.

Reacting on a PIL filed by Wildlife First, a NGO that contested the validity of the Forest Rights Act, a three-judge member, comprising Justices Navin Sinha, Indrani Banerjee, and Arun Mishra, directed state governments to evict forest-dwellers, whose claims over the lands have been rejected. The time period given to the states, that include Chhattisgarh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala among others, is until July 27, even though the process of reviewing or verification of ownership is still pending in a handful of states. And as per the affidavits filed by the remaining states, the total number of rejected ownership claims from these 16 states add up to “11,72,931 tribal and other forest-dwelling households” – a number that is bound to increase in the coming months. A number that should force the government to sit up and take notice.

To make matters even worse – and the verdict allegedly rigged, in the face of perhaps one of the most decisive general elections of our time – there was no lawyer present to defend the Act, on the Centre’s behalf. The order was then technically passed after hearing just one side of the argument, a convenient ploy to make the path clearer for the industrialisation of forested land and its natural resources. In fact, a sizeable number of adivasi activists and lawyers also claim that last week’s outcome rests majorly on the “weak defence of the Act” that was presented by the lawyers of the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs for the last 10 years when the case regarding the Act’s Constitutional validity has been dragging on.

The last time tribals across India were similarly uprooted was also triggered by the SC-sanctioned nationwide evictions during 2002-2004, which caused irreparable damage: According to researcher CR Bijoy, the evictions were met with widespread protests and innumerable cases of violence and death that displaced over 3,00,000 vulnerable households. Yesterday’s SC order seems insistent on repeating that history of hurting some of the country’s most vulnerable communities. More importantly, it is also set to pose an insurmountable obstacle to the sanctity of the Forest Rights Act, passed in 2006 by the Congress government.

But in the last decade, the Act has been a victim to the government’s shoddy implementation of its legislation.

Although India was late to pass this corrective law, the Forest Rights Act was widely considered a landmark act, which aims 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”. Besides recognising the individual rights of people who have been residing in forestland for over 75 years or have traditionally been dependent on forest produce for their livelihood, the Act also entrusted local communities with the task of “determining the future of the forest”.

But in the last decade, the Act has been a victim to the government’s shoddy implementation of its legislation. For instance, forest dwellers have to navigate a complicated claim process that invariably sees high rejection rates and even slower processing. According to The News Minute, “only 40 per cent of the claims received across the country have been settled”. In Chattisgarh, for instance, “over half of individual rights and a third of community rights claims” were denied – and this in state where adivasi communities account for a third of the population. It’s not hard to argue that this scenario of poor implementation wouldn’t have arisen if the Centre chose to defend and back the Act. In a way, its inaction in prioritising their needs ends up defeating the purpose of the legislation.

The Centre’s apathy is perhaps the biggest enabler of yesterday’s SC’s verdict that provided the cruelest blow on undermining the FRA, the only act that concerns itself with protecting not just marginalised communities, but also the forest itself. The forest department was designed to focus on mining the forest as a resource – for tourism, hunting, or for timber. But the generations of adivasis and tribals who have dedicated their lives to conserving and protecting the forests are labelled “encroachers”.

The biggest irony remains that the Forest Rights Act – which the petition blames for deforestation – was introduced to redress the “historic injustice” of the denial of adivasi rights. But yesterday’s SC verdict proved that India is still nursing a colonial hangover when it comes to recognising adivasis and other forest-dwellers as the deserving owners of forestlands.

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