India's Supreme Court - en route to destroying millions of livesPublished by MAC on 2019-02-23
According to environmental journalist Nitin Sethi , it could be the "largest mass scale, legally sanctioned eviction of tribals in independent India".
He was referring to a ruling by the country's Supreme Court that forest areas, inhabited by millions of indigenous people, may soon be evicted - thanks to government and corporate pressures..
Historian Ramachandra Guha says these communities are facing a "triple resource crunch",characterised by living in India's "densest forests, along with its fastest-flowing rivers and atop its richest veins of iron ore and bauxite".
Meanwhile, the Dongria Khondh at Nyamgiri threaten strong resistance to any attempt to force them off their territory:
SC orders eviction of millions of forest dwellers, FRA threatened
22 February 2019
If the 21 states summoned by court follow the orders, it could become the largest mass scale, legally sanctioned eviction of tribals in independent India.
New Delhi: On February 13, the Supreme Court ordered the eviction of millions of people belonging to the Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs) categories across 21 States whose claims as forest dwellers were rejected under the Forest Rights Act of 2006. Approximately 11 lakh tribal and Adivasi families will be affected if the order is implemented.
A petition was filed by the Wildlife Trust of India, Nature Conservation Society and Tiger Research and Conservation Trust. Even when the FRA was being drafted, the Forest Rights Act was criticized by the Union Environment Ministry and wildlife groups like Bombay Natural History Society, Wildlife Trust of India and Wildlife First. They said the Act would encourage further encroachment on India’s already battered forestlands.
The case has dragged on for around 10 years under various benches and activists believe that this order reeks of a colonial mindset against forest dwellers.
“Evicting of more than a million forest dwellers whose claims under the Forest Rights Act has been ‘rejected’, is in line with the sustained attack by the pro corporate and conservation lobby since enactment of the Act in 2006 in the name of public interest. By blocking the process of claiming and reclaiming of forest rights of the forest dwellers this order will make the process of implementation of FRA 2006 dysfunctional,” Forest Rights Alliance – Bhumi Adhikaar Andolan said in a statement.
The Forest Rights Act, which was passed during the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance’s first tenure, requires the government to hand back traditional forestlands to tribals and other forest-dwellers against laid down criteria.
The Act is intended to provide a framework 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.”
The Act, passed in 2006, has seen opposition from within ranks of forest officials as well as some wildlife groups and naturalists who believed that FRA was against the Constitution and would cause widescale deforestation and encourage squatters.
There are over 100 million people who make up India’s tribal population, 4 million of which reside in protected forest areas made up 500 wildlife sanctuaries and 90 national parks. The FRA gave them and other forest dwellers living on forest land before December 2005, the legal right to live and work on the land for three generations.
What the SC order means
Some 1.8 million claims have been accepted and land titles handed over to families living on 72,000sq km of forest land, an area equivalent to the north-eastern state of Assam. But more than a million claims have been rejected, so an equal number of families face eviction. Environmental journalist Nitin Sethi calls this the "largest mass scale, legally sanctioned eviction of tribals in independent India,” BBC reported.
The Union Government failed to present its lawyers in defence of the Forest Rights Act on February 13, leading a three-judge bench of Arun Mishra, Navin Sinha and Indira Banerjee to pass orders giving states till July 27 to evict tribals whose claims had been rejected and submit a report on it to the Supreme Court. The written order was released on February 20, 2019.
The court said that the state governments would “ensure that where the rejection orders have been passed, the eviction will be carried out on or before the next date of hearing. In case the eviction is not carried out, as aforesaid, the matter would be viewed seriously by this Court.” The next date of hearing is set for July 27 – the effective date by when states would have to evict tribals to comply with the court orders.
The total number of rejected claims from 16 states that have reported rejection rates so far to the apex court add up to 1,127,446 tribal and other forest-dwelling households shows an analysis of the court order. Several other states that have not provided details to court have been asked to do so. Once they follow suit these numbers are likely to swell.
The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 (FRA)which was passed during the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance’s first tenure, requires the government to hand back traditional forestlands to tribals and other forest-dwellers against laid down criteria.
The Act, passed in 2006, has seen opposition from within ranks of forest officials as well as so-called wildlife groups and naturalists.
This, combined with the fact that at the ground level, it is the forest bureaucracy that has to administer the law, that has made the implementation difficult and tardy.
The absence of the government’s lawyer during the hearings only reinforced the predominance of colonial mindset against forest people in this legal process and how the government views their rights and welfare, Bhumi Adhikar Andolan said. Sabrang India had reported how the lawyers failed to make compelling arguments in the court and remained absent for many hearings, hinting at NDA and BJP’s complicity with forest officials.
The case itself is being fought since 10 years under multiple benches, with the Supreme Court yet to answer questions on the constitutional validity of the law.
Many demands have made from the tribal families living in forest areas right from providing proof of residence, evidence that they are indigenous to that region to satellite images of the land that they are staking claim to. These are families who live on forest produce and were asked to provide satellite images as evidence.
The forest bureaucracy that has to administer the law has made the implementation of FRA difficult and tardy.
The states are required to carry out a three-step verification of more than four million tribal occupancy claims, each requiring 13 different kinds of evidence of each family living on forest land.
Last year, Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) told chief secretaries of states that it has noticed 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 to file an appeal.
The process of recognising rights has been poorly implemented. Of the 41 lakh claims filed so far, 18 lakh have been approved, 3 lakh are still being processed and the remaining 20 lakh have been rejected. activists claim that they were purposely rejected when it became daunting for Adivasis to prove an abstract concept of their rights. States are wary of vesting forest rights since this could hinder their ability to divert forest land for industrial activities.
The 21 states that have come under the scanner of the top court are Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Goa, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Tripura, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Manipur.
Activists on the ground have been asserting that the government is doing its best to not recognise the FRA, and manipulate the tribal records to make the process of their eviction much easier.
Speaking to Newsclick, Rahul Choudhary, an environmental lawyer, said, “Under the FRA, there are three levels of committees. It also comes down to the opinions of the committee; we have been constantly witnessing cases where the government is deliberately not doing enough to defend the Act for its ulterior motives.” Citing the example of Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh, he said, “Lease for the land was very conveniently given to the dam project despite opposition from the tribals. In another instance in Chhattisgarh, the government is not taking into consideration linear projects such as that of roads and railways under its ambit.”
Aradhna Bhargav of the National Alliance of People’s Movement (NAPM) said, “We have been working with the tribals for a while now. We condemn the behaviour of the government towards the tribals and their right to livelihood. The government is furthering the agenda of forceful acquisition by the hands of the corporates.”
Speaking to Newsclick, she added, “Other policies protecting the tribals have been completely weakened, they (the corporates) are making inroads even into the buffer zones, while the government is doing nothing to safeguard their rights because of this hand in glove mentality.”
The last time country-wide evictions took place was in 2002-2004, by an order issued by the MoEF, under the Bharatiya Janata Party led National Democratic Alliance government, (that too with a passing reference to a non-existent Supreme Court order of 23 November 2001) in giving a wrong impression that evictions had been ordered by the Supreme Court to all the state and union territories, stating that approximately 12.50 lakh hectares of forest land is under encroachment and that ‘all encroachments which are not eligible for regularisation should be summarily evicted in a time-bound manner and in any case not later than September 30, 2002, Bhumi Adhikar Andolan said.
Those evictions led to many cases of violence, deaths and protests in the central Indian tribal forested areas and uprooting of around 300,000 households, researcher C R Bijoy noted in his published research.
Villages were set on fire, houses demolished, crops damaged and people killed in police shootings. "Tribespeople and other forest dwellers become encroachers simply because their ownership rights have not been recorded and settled by officials as stipulated by forest laws," wrote Mr Bijoy in a paper.
What wildlife and forest authorities gain
The hostility of forest authorities towards the claimants is mainly due to the right of collecting and selling the minor forest produce (MFP) they (Adivasis and forest dwellers) get under the FRA act.
MFP is a major source of revenue and forest authorities do not want to lose it. States earn more revenue from MFP than they earn from timber. For instance, Andhra Pradesh earns almost double the income from MFP than it does from timber. Other states also earn more than 50 per cent of all revenue from MFP like mahuwa, gums, tendu leaves and several flowers, a report said.
Result of evictions
This order, if followed, can become a pretext for forest officials to attack lakhs of forest dwellers across the country, preventing which was the very purpose for enacting the law.
At least two-thirds of the country's forest lands are tribal lands under the Vth Schedule of the constitution. The implementation of this order will definitely see more unrest in various parts across India which will be leading to the impoverishment of the tribals and the other forest dwelling communities. With this draconian order even the status of right holders, who have already received the rights will be endangered. In all probability, they would also be attacked by the Forest department and by the mafias engaged by the companies, Bhumi Adhikaar Andolan said.
Bring an ordinance
Communities across the country are still struggling to ensure proper implementation of the Act since governments have not shown any political will and made every attempt to dilute the law and also violate it in name of development and conservation.
CPM leader Brinda Karat, who was also part of the Select Committee constituted to look into the proposed bill during UPA–1, wrote a letter to the prime minister to pass an ordinance to protect the tribal people from eviction.
“This is a total betrayal of Adivasis by the Narendra Modi government. Not only was the Forest Rights Act not represented properly before the Supreme Court, but also the state governments run by the BJP have been on the forefront, diluting and changing laws under the patronage of the Modi government. It has now come to a stage where they want to evict tribal people. So, we have demanded that the Modi government immediately issue an ordinance. They can issue an ordinance on Triple Talaq, but are not bothered about the Adivasis,” said Brinda Karat.
“Since more than a decade of its enactment and implementation, despite all limitations and failures, the FRA had been a beacon of hope to millions of forest-dependent people in the country for securing their tenure over land and access to forests. However, this order has turned the wheel backwards and also has the potential of deterring claimants from filing claims, thus sounding a death knell for the critical and historic FRA. It is a landmark legislation for recognizing the equal right of women of land titles, this order of the Apex Court does a monumental disservice to the ownership rights of women who have managed forests for centuries,” National Alliance for People’s Movements (NAPM) stated.
“Union Government must issue an Ordinance forthwith to stop any execution of this order leading to unjust evictions of forest people across the country. All State governments must immediately intervene in the Supreme Court with affidavits seeking time for review and fair implementation of the Act. An Independent Commission needs to be set up to review, state-wise, the gaps in the implementation of FRA and reasons for such large scale rejection,” NAPM stated.
Uncertain tribal future
Already over 56% of the Scheduled Tribes are displaced due to development projects and forest conservation plans. Now, this order makes adivasis into a miserable situation. Historically, the whole forest and natural resources were protected and conserved by the tribal people. Forest Department that was formed in 1862 began a new history use of timber, the Forest Act of 1864 curtailed rights of local people, then the Indian Forest Act 1927, and further the Wild Life (Protection) Act (1972) are forced for migration pushed tribals into starvation.
In the name of environment conservation, how can the indigenous people who have living historically with nature as their mother can be displaced? This eviction order should not have made and the Supreme Court needs to consult the adivasi leaders and the concern tribal department, because it is about millions of people who are true citizens of this country. It is the question of “Right to Life as per Article 21 of the Constitution”.
India's tribespeople, according to historian Ramachandra Guha, suffer from what he describes as a "triple resource crunch", living as they do in India's "densest forests, along with its fastest-flowing rivers and atop its richest veins of iron ore and bauxite". Over the years they lost their homes and lands to dams, mines, and factories. Now a mass court-mandated eviction from forest land, again, proves how vulnerable they remain, the BBC report said.
Rahul Gandhi urges Congress CM’s to undo changes
Congress President Rahul Gandhi asked the party’s chief ministers in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh to undo changes that previous Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) governments in these states made to the land acquisition law and related regulations.
He wrote similar letters to Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel, Madhya Pradesh’s Kamal Nath and Rajasthan's Ashok Gehlot. “The Modi government tried to dilute the (land acquisition) law in 2015 by severely curtailing its provisions. It was forced to withdraw these amendments in the face of nationwide protests led by the Congress party. However, in a sleight of hand, the BJP government urged the states where it was in power to dilute the law through state laws, rules and practices”. Gandhi has written in separate but similarly worded letters to each of the three state chief ministers.
In another set of letters that focus on the Forest Rights Act, Gandhi told the chief ministers, “My attention was brought to several writ petitions filed by environmental NGOs challenging the constitutional validity of the Forest Rights Act and the legislative competence of the Parliament to enact the same. Given the significance of the case, I request you to ensure competent legal representation for the above-mentioned matter and to review the implementation of the Act.”
“It is equally important to reopen the rejected cases and aid claimants to secure their rights under FRA. We must honour the people’s mandate by effectively implementing the Forest Rights Act,” he wrote.
(Compiled by Preksha Malu)
Niyamgiri’s Dongria Kondh gird for ‘resistance’ after SC order
23 February 2019 Nyamgir:
Tribals got land titles, but habitat rights were not honoured’
With a recent Supreme Court order triggering panic among forest dwellers over possible eviction, Odisha’s Dongria Kondh tribals have resolved to resist any attempt to force them out.
The tribe shot into the limelight for their successful resistance against the Vedanta Group’s plan to mine bauxite in the ecologically and mineral-rich Niyamgiri hill range.
The Dongria Kondh are currently holding their annual ‘Niyamraja festival’ on the picturesque hilltop of Niyamgiri.
The issue of possible eviction of tribals, whose applications for regularisation under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, had been rejected, came up for discussion at the festival.
The Dongria Kondh’s habitations dot the Niyamgiri hills in Kalahandi and Rayagada districts.
As per official records of the distribution of titles under FRA, 562 claims were received from 591 households under the Kutia Kandh Development Agency, Lanjigarh. Gram Sabhas had approved all 562. However, 310 claims involving 313.80 acres were approved by the District Level Committee and certificate of titles were distributed. Under Dongria Kondh Development Agency, Chatikona and Dongria Kondh Development Agency, Parsoli, of 2,126 applications, Gram Sabhas approved 1,895. All applications were approved by DLC and certificates involving 3,088 acres of land were distributed. The rights sought by the Dongria Kondh have not been met, says Niyamgiri Surakshya Samiti, and it fears that the government might push its mining agenda in the future.