With two weeks to go before the next Supreme Court hearing in a writ petition pertaining to the constitutional validity of the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, 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 they hope to lean on state governments through these demonstrations to present a strong defence of the law in the Supreme Curt on July 24.
On February 13, the SC had ordered the eviction of lakhs of tribals and other traditional forest dwellers whose claims under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, had been rejected following a three-tier process. The eviction was later stayed temporarily by an order on February 28, giving state governments time to file affidavits on whether due process under the law was followed before claims were rejected.
“Following a two-day consultation on the subject in Delhi, attended by over 200 representatives of tribal communities from 20 states, we sent letters of appeal to all state governments urging them not to accept the impression that the February 13 order of eviction does not need to be withdrawn or recalled,” said Ashok Choudhary of the All India Union of Forest Working People.
He added that though the order of evictions, which would have affected at least 11 lakh forest-dwellers, were put on hold, state governments that are in effect implementing the law must agree that rejection of claims for rights over the land does not imply impending eviction.
Besides the demonstrations scheduled for July 22, plans are also afoot for a large rally in New Delhi in November, when Parliament is in session.
“The Nashik movement of tribals forced the Maharashtra government to review tens of thousands of claims under the law. We are now seeking, among other things, a nationwide review of claims made and rejected,” said Hannan Mollah, national general secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha, affiliated to CPI(M). The Kisan Sabha had in March 2018 led a rally of over 40,000 mostly tribal farmers, who walked 180 km from Nashik to Mumbai, drawing national attention to the issue of pending claims under the FRA.
Mollah said the Kisan Sabha is also consulting other groups on becoming a party in the original petition regarding the constitutional validity of the law. Choudhary said some groups of researchers and intellectuals are also planning an intervention in the SC.
Meanwhile, Citizens for Justice and Peace is set to file an intervention plea in the SC, along with the All India Union of Forest Working People, on behalf of adivasi women leaders. Since the end of June, tribal women have been holding agitations in various parts of the country seeking implementation of the FRA and inclusion of tribal women’s land rights in the process.
On July 5, thousands of tribals, including a large number of women, participated in a four-hour protest in pouring rain at the office of the additional collector at Jawhar, Palghar. They were demanding action against forest officials who had allegedly attempted to evict them from forest land.
Independent forest rights researcher Tushar Dash said several organisations believe that the February 13 order significantly dilutes the FRA, and that the central government alone can respond adequately. With some states interpreting this order of evicting those whose claims are rejected as the law, there is a real fear of evictions being undertaken by forest department officials across the country.
Researchers and civil society groups have also been trying to engage with state governments, using independent research, on some wildlife groups’ contention that the FRA has led to depletion of forests. “It is the central government, which did not even represent itself when the February 13 order was passed, that has allowed large corporates to acquire and use forest land,” said Mollah