With two weeks to go before the next Supreme Court hearing on a writ petition pertaining to the constitutional validity of the Forest Rights Act on July 24, over one million tribals and forest dwellers are currently living in the fear of eviction. The Supreme Court had ordered the eviction of 11.8 lakh “illegal forest dwellers” on February 13. However, on February 28, the SC stayed the ruling and ordered the state governments to file affidavits on the number of final rejections by July 12. As the date approaches, across states, claims of tribals to their own land are being rejected blatantly through flouting of norms, often without any form of examination.
The Odisha government, after hearing several appeals, has rejected more than 10,000 claims under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. The state has also gone ahead and filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court. According to the affidavit, the state has completed the mammoth task of hearing around 11,000 suo motu appeals and the monitoring body has heard around 29,000 appeals. As these appeals do not account for all the rejections in the state, the Odisha government has sought another nine months from the court to hear them.
Sanjeev, working for tribal rights in Odisha, said, “A major discrepancy is rooted in the allocation of land. The government of the state, since it has now been in power for the last fifteen years is blatantly taking away land and livelihood of the people. The primary cause of concern is the type of Public-Private Partnership arrangement that the state has entered with various corporate firms to sell off the natural resources of the state, which is now targeting the lives of tribals.”
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This data submitted by the states is now with the apex court which will decide the fate of these “encroachers” in the July 24 hearing. Speaking to NewsClick, Rashmi from Sundargarh in Odisha said, “Before the elections, the state government was very actively raking the issue and making it a poll plank to seize tribal votes. Now, as the date of filing of the affidavit is here, the state has brazenly rejected claims without following any due process.” This trend is not just limited to Odisha but is being repeated in multiple other states.
Due Process Flouted
The FRA states that the reason for the rejection of claims is to be communicated in writing to the claimant, following which the claimant can appeal against the rejection with the Gram Sabha in 60 days. However, what is happening is that the claimants are being orally told that their land is being leased to somebody else. In many notices being sent out to the tribals, the clause that indicates that an appeal can be filed in 60 days has been struck out. In other instances, the notices being sent out do not have an issue date on them.
In many cases, arbitrary processes are being followed where the claimants are not being allowed to show proof or file appeals or even ask questions. More gruesome forms of intimidation tactics are also coming to the fore. In Madhya Pradesh’s Burhanpur district, the fields of adivasis were destroyed by forest officials, revenue officials and the police. When the adivasi villagers protested they were fired with pellet guns, injuring four.
The adivasis alleged that they had also submitted proof supporting their claims dating as far back as 1988 and 1989, to the officials but it was rejected. Speaking to NewsClick, Madhuri from the Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan said, “There are currently 3.5 lakh rejected FRA claims in the state. On May 1, 2019, the MP government had agreed to re-examine these claims. However, the Forest department is manipulating the process. When the claims are rejected, the tribals have to appeal to the Gram Sabhas but that is not being done.”
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Similar pattern has been noted in Rajasthan, where thousands of files containing FRA claims have gone missing. Around 48% of the total claims of the tribals have been rejected in the state. Speaking to NewsClick, Madhu of Soochna and Rozgaar Abhiyaan explained how the Gram Sabha is being subverted to hurriedly dismiss the claims, “There are two types of unprocessed claims by tribals, one which did not receive any response and are pending, the other being cases of reapplication or the ones which are neither pending or rejected. When one looks at the figures of these claims, it becomes clear that these are grossly under-reported. Thousands of claims as well as files containing those claims have been disposed off by the state and have gone missing, without any resolution by the Gram Sabha.”
She added, “There are nine clauses under which claims can be rejected. Out of this, one very important clause is regarding the physical improvement on the land, which requires a joint verification by a team of experts. However, in most cases this verification does not take place.”
In the light of these instances, various organisations representing tribals and forest-dwellers will hold demonstrations on July 22 in at least 12 to 15 states at the district and taluka levels. Civil rights groups that will participate and organise these demonstrations said that they hope to pressurise the state governments through these demonstrations to present a strong defence in the Supreme Court on July 24.
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In an utter disregard for the tribal rights – visible from its attempt to sell off tribal lands to the corporates – the BJP government had failed to defend the Forest Rights Act when the Supreme Court had questioned the states regarding the action taken against the tribals whose land claims have been rejected. The order was in response to a petition claiming before the court that everyone whose FRA claim has been rejected, is an “encroacher”, and should be evicted. The court, on February 13, had directed the states to review such rejections within four months. The Centre, the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs and the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change – which are respondents in the case – have kept silent in the last four hearings.
The order was passed by a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court, comprising Justices Navin Sinha, Arun Mishra, and Indira Banerjee on February 13. The order, which was made public on February 20, directed the state governments to ensure eviction of around 11 lakh people from forest areas spread across 17 states, latest by July 27. In an effort to control the damage done by the order, the Union government had filed a plea before the apex court to modify it, following which the Supreme Court had put a stay on the order, permitting states to temporarily withhold the eviction of the tribal families.