The Supreme Court directed states to evict Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Other Traditional Forest Dweller (OTFD) whose claims over forest land have been rejected.
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- The apex court’s order came in connection with a PIL filed by the NGO ‘Wild Life First’, which challenged the validity of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.
- For wildlife protection groups, the issue is of India’s forests being relentlessly eroded by humans encroaching on animal habitats. There have been innumerable cases of villagers illegally living on protected forests meant exclusively for animals.
• Act recognized 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.
• Claim is made either for individual or community rights by the people/communities
• Land recognised under this Act cannot be sold or transferred
• Section 6 of the Act provides a three steps procedure for deciding on who gets rights.
o First, the Gram Sabha makes a recommendation
o The Gram Sabha’s recommendation goes through two stages of screening committees at the taluka and district levels.
o The district level committee makes the final decision. The Committees have six members – three government officers and three elected persons.
• If the claim is found to be not tenable by the competent authority then claimant is not entitled for the grant of any right under the Act.
- The petitioners sought the eviction of all forest-dwellers whose claims to land under the law had been rejected.
- 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. 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 court has directed chief secretaries of states to ensure eviction in all cases where rejection orders have been passed on or before July 24 and directed the Dehradun-based Forest Survey of India to submit a satellite-image based report on the encroachments removed.
Issues with judgement
- Forced eviction: Judgment led to forced eviction of over one million people belonging to the Scheduled Tribes and other forest communities.
- Against the FRA: Forest Rights Act contains no clause for eviction of rejected claimants and, in fact, section 4(5) specifically prohibits eviction until the process of implementation of the law is fully complete in an area.
- Against the fundamental right: Article 19(5) in the Fundamental Rights chapter of the Constitution specifically enjoins the state to make laws “for the protection of the interests of any Scheduled Tribe”. Many columnists argue that SC order is against this very right.
- Weaken the FRA: It may weaken the FRA, which exist to protect tribal rights and ensure the socioeconomic development of these communities. This could further alienate tribal communities from the mainstream.
- Contrary to earlier Samata judgement of SC: In Samata judgement supreme court upheld the constitutional right of tribal people and forbid government from any eviction of tribal population.
- Overlook of flaws in FRA
- Procedural flaws in processing claims: The petitioners declare that every single claimant whose claim has been rejected under this law is a bogus claimant. However, report of the High-Level Xaxa Committee found deep procedural flaws in processing claims under the FRA. The Xaxa Committee observed that claims are being rejected without assigning reasons, or based on wrong interpretation of the ‘OTFD’ definition and lack of evidence.
In several cases, the claims have been rejected based on flawed methodologies in violation of FRA Rules. For example, in Gujarat, claims were rejected only based on satellite maps. They were not based on ground surveys
- Right to appeal: In case of rejection of claim, the right to appeal is not being explained to tribal people nor its exercise facilitated.
The SC must safeguard the rights of tribal, especially those guaranteed by the Constitution, and must not set any precedent that would erode these rights in any way. Only the claim of illegal claimants should be rejected in order to protect forest from illegal encroachments. The government along with various tribal welfare group must evolve a procedure to re-affirms the claims of genuine claimants and protect the forest and wildlife from encroachers.