While the Supreme Court gears up for its regular hearings on the Forest Rights Act case beginning November 26, tribals across India are protesting to make their voices heard. Over one million tribals and forest dwellers are currently living in the fear of eviction, as their claims to the lands that they have been living on for generations were rejected. In an order issued in February 2019, the apex court had specifically issued directions to the chief secretaries of each of the 17 states to ensure that in all cases where land ownership claims have been rejected, eviction is to be carried out.
In a bid to create public awareness over the same, Mahila Kisan Adhikar Manch (MAKAAM) and its affiliated organisations congregated in Delhi on November 20 to highlight the erosion of rights of forest dwellers through dilution of FRA. Women from across Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, among others spoke about the atrocities faced by the women forest dwellers. These women, alongside thousands of other tribals, are going to participate in a march in Delhi on November 21.
“We want our voices to reach the corridors of the Supreme Court. The FRA was put in place to correct historical injustices being meted out to the tribals and now those very injustices are being repeated again,” said Rajim from Chattisgarh. They also explained how women’s lives are intrinsically linked to forests as they possess no land of their own which is always in control of their fathers or their spouses. As a result, forest lands are their “only” land.
Also read: States Admit Due Process Not Followed While Investigating FRA Claims
Heera from Uttarakhand said, “We, as women in the forests, not only face the threat of violence from the forest department and the state administration but also of acute physical violence. The officials under unrestricted powers are not held accountable for their actions. Cases have been registered against 15 women for protesting and standing up to protect our lands.”
Explaining the tactics used by the forest department to evict people, she said, “An artificial pond for bathing elephants was dug right outside people’s houses in Sania Basti of the Terai region. This was done to scare people off so that they leave their houses. When this did not work, they ran JCBs (construction machines) on the fields of the tribals.” Talking about the flaws in the functioning of the Gram Sabha processes, Kushibai from Rajasthan said, “As per law, one third of the committees are supposed to be constituted by women, however, that does not happen. The biggest hurdle that we face is to get our land claim forms to be admitted by the forest department so that our cases can be taken further.”
Speaking at the conference, Desraj from Mandi in Himachal Pradesh explained the ordeal of his mother, “My mother was constantly threatened by forest officials and she died of a heart attack following a scuffle over the same. The forest officials call women outside alone and threaten them. Even an FIR was not registered and our case was weakened. This is not just the story of my mother but a lot of other women dependent on forests.”
Soma KP of MAKAAM added, “It is these very atrocities and the role of women which is made invisible. We want the women forest dwellers to be recognised. Additionally, we want to be free from the torturous fear of eviction.”
Also read: FRA Case: Ray of Hope for Forest Dwellers, as SC Admits Intervention Applications
The Supreme Court in the latest hearing in September had stated that action is required against “urban encroachers” on forest land. The three-judge bench, consisting of Justices Arun Mishra, Navin Sinha and MR Shah, made these remarks at the conclusion of the hearing on Thursday, September 12, which lasted over half an hour. In a significant development in the case, the bench had also admitted all the Intervention Applications (IA) submitted to it. These included 15 IAs from tribal organisations and social activists among others. The court also impeded the Forest Survey of India or FSI, as it admitted that it will take over 16 years to conduct a digital survey of forest land and produce satellite imagery to determine the extent of “encroachment” that has happened on the forest land.
Final arguments in the case are now scheduled to be heard November 26 onwards, with FSI also being made a party to the case.