Recent Supreme Court order on the Forest Rights Act: HRF Press Release

February 26, 2019

Press Release

The Human Rights Forum (HRF) rejects the atrocious February 13 order of the Supreme Court that calls for eviction in a summary and time-bound manner of those whose claims for forest rights under The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act (FRA) have been rejected. This amounts to an attack on the rights of adivasis and other forest dwellers, some of the poorest people in our land. If carried out, it will lead to mass-scale evictions and forced dispossession of over a staggering 20 lakh Adivasi and other forest dwelling households! 

We are shocked at the manner in which the apex court has approached a historic and landmark legislation in such a cavalier and unjust manner. The FRA was enacted in 2006 to remedy historic injustice to adivasis, who were treated both during colonial and post-independence times as encroachers on their own land. The Supreme Court, in its majesty, ought to have chided and pulled up Central and State governments for tardy and improper implementation of the FRA. Instead, it has issued orders that have the potential of trampling upon the livelihood and cultural rights of adivasis. Why did the SC see fit to swallow the vacuous and factually and legally unsound contentions of petitioners in the instant case — wildlife enthusiasts, ex-officials of the forest department and some former zamindars — rather than uphold Constitutional values and stand by the adivasis? The adivasis are now to be dispossessed from land that they have historically resided in, and contained in the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution. The order was pronounced in a manner that seems to think that the lives of adivasis do not matter. 

On its part, the Central government has done virtually nothing to defend the law and is squarely party to this disgraceful wrongdoing. Government lawyers were not even present in court on February 13 when the order was passed and according to reports there was no senior law officer from the government in court over three important hearings during last year! It is also well known that in most States, claims have been rejected on the basis of erroneous processes that are clearly vitiated and not in keeping with the letter of the FRA. Across States, deficiencies in implementation have resulted in many valid claims being rejected. In fact, there are numerous reports, both official and independent, which confirm that forest officials have a track record of preventing people’s rights from being recognised. The Tribal Affairs Ministry has on occasion even admitted that many rejections of claims are flawed and require review. However, these important facts were not brought to the notice of the court by the government. Despite its assertion to the contrary, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs has failed to uphold and defend the Constitutional validity of the FRA. 

Rejection of claims, according to the FRA, does not lead to automatic evictions by the State. To do so would not be in consonance with the law. In its enthusiasm to evict, the court has ignored the centrality of the Grama Sabha and its Constitutional agency in all matters related to forest rights recognition, which also includes rejection of claims. This slur on the FRA is another instance where a good law is systematically beaten down. The tragedy is that the highest court of the land is party to it. Disquietingly, such retrograde orders affecting the marginalised are becoming frequent — the Supreme Court order diluting critical provisions of the SC, ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act on March 20 last year comes to mind.

In a sense, we are back to square one. This government and its corporate friends as well as some NGOs peddling dubious conservation rhetoric have never reconciled to the egalitarian vision of the FRA and have time and again challenged and sought to dilute it. It is common knowledge how the forest department has been forever enthusiastic to inflict violence on adivasis resident in the forest. The department has at times sought to and driven away adivasis even in brazen violation of court orders staying eviction. What is more, if this repugnant order is implemented it will facilitate an accelerated loot of precious natural resources, destruction of forests and biodiversity and will further imperil the lives and livelihoods of adivasis.

It is the adivasis who are the true custodians of our forests. Their struggle for livelihood, culture and dignity is intrinsically linked to the preservation and health of the forests and no one knows this better than the forest dwellers themselves. This unjust order comes at a time when adivasis and organisations working with them are engaged in ensuring proper implementation of FRA given the enormous irregularities in the settlement of claims under it.  

We call upon all democratic forces in the country to oppose this attack on the FRA. The Central and State governments have to take immediate steps to ensure that the forest department does not proceed with evictions in light of the court’s order. We demand that the Central government immediately bring forth an ordinance to protect the forest dwellers so as to obviate any forced evictions.

VS Krishna                                                                                S Jeevan Kumar

                    HRF AP&TS Coordination Committee members

Visakhapatnam, 24-2-2019