The Supreme Court on Thursday ordered the eviction of around 10 lakh families of forest-dwelling tribal communities in at least 16 states. The order came in response to a public interest litigation (PIL) filed to challenge of the Forest Rights Act of 2006, which empowered traditional forest dwellers to "access, manage, and govern" forests within their villages.
According to reports, the verdict came over the state governments' rejection of the claims over forest land of around 11 lakh families. The petition demanded that those whose claims were rejected be evicted.
The apex court also asked 21 states to apprise it about the action taken over the eviction, PTI reported. A bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra was dealing with a batch of petitions on the issue that were filed in the apex court over a period since 2006.
The 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.
The court also said that if there was any difficulty in implementing the latest order, the states have to approach it with the details about issues. It has asked chief secretaries of these states to file their respective affidavits by 12 July and posted the matter for hearing on 24 July. "In case the eviction is not carried out, as aforesaid, the matter would be viewed seriously by this court," the order reportedly said.
Adivasi rights groups allege neglect from Centre
However, several Adivasi rights groups have alleged that the Centre's lawyer, who was to present its defence of the Act, was absent on 13 February, the day of the final hearing. The central and state governments also "failed to react and give viable solutions" when the matter was taken up in court, reports said.
A report by The News Minute said, "The Centre not jumping on board to defend the Act has made the preponderance of tribals and other traditional forest dwellers more vulnerable and denied them their rights, thus defeating the very purpose of this legislation.
"Several activists have pointed to the inaction from the forest department officials in granting forest rights to these tribal and forest dwellers, issuing land rights documents and other identity cards."
Opposition slams Centre over order
On 14 February, Congress president Rahul Gandhi slammed the Centre over the case and said that the ruling BJP "remained a silent spectator" in the Supreme Court while the Act was being challenged. "It is indicating its intentions to drive out lakhs of tribals and poor farmers from the forests," he said.
The CPM on Thursday also demanded that the Centre issue an ordinance to protect all tribals and traditional forest dwellers after the Supreme Court order. "In the wake of the Supreme Court order for eviction of over one million Adivasis and traditional forest dwellers from land in their occupation, the politburo of the CPM demands that the Modi government should, without any further delay, issue an ordinance to protect all Adivasis and traditional forest dwellers from eviction," the statement from the party claimed.
The party in a statement claimed the Adivasis were being "punished" for no fault of theirs but because of the "utter failure" of Central and state governments to implement the law. "According to the latest figures in December 2018, of a total of 42.19 lakh claims received across the country, only 18.89 lakh or just over 40 percent claims have been accepted," the party said.
"The rejections are often arbitrary, against the recommendations of the gram sabha and driven by lobbies who want to handover the forests to private parties and businesses. Lakhs of appeals are pending against the rejection," the statement said.
"This betrayal of the rights of Adivasis was the culmination of the connivance of the ministry concerned with the petitioners. Many of the petitioners in the case are retired officers of the Forest department. At no point in these years did the legal representatives of your government take a strong position in court in defence of the rights of Adivasis and traditional forest dwellers," Brinda Karat, politburo member, wrote.
With inputs from PTI