A multidisciplinary group of well-known scientists and social scientists, including Dr Sharachhandra Lele and Professor Ramchandra Guha, have filed an application before the Supreme Court seeking directions for Central and state governments to implement the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, in letter and spirit and to dismiss the writ petition filed in 2008 by Wildlife First, Nature Conservation Society and Tiger Research and Conservation Trust.
Calling the writ petition “grossly misleading”, the application also asks for the apex court to recall its February 13 order on evicting forest-dwellers whose claims under the FRA were rejected.
Contending that the petitioners have created an incorrect impression that the Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest Dwellers (Protection of Rights) Act, 2006, was about regularising encroachments on vast tracts of forests, the application states that aspersions are being cast on the intent and implementation of the FRA, even as its original promise, to undo historic injustices to forest-dwellers and to strengthen community-based forest conservation, remains unfulfilled.
The application has been filed Lele, an interdisciplinary environmental scientist and distinguished fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bengaluru; Guha, an environmental historian; Professor Amita Baviskar, sociologist at the Institute of Economic Growth; Geetanjoy Sahu, assistant professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences; Arupjyoti Saikia, an environmental historian at IIT Guwahati; Professor Raman Sukumar, elephant biologist and forest ecologist at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru; Nandini Sundar, sociologist and professor at the Delhi School of Economics; Dr M D Madhusudan, conservation biologist and senior scientist at the Nature Conservation Foundation; and Pradip Kishen, director of the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park in Jodhpur and chief planner and executor of the Kishenbagh Desert Park in Jaipur. Their application for directions is among nearly 15 intervention applications filed in the matter, including by woman adivasi farmer Sokalo Gond along with the All India Union of Forest Working People and the Citizens for Justice and Peace; the All India Kisan Sabha of the CPI (M) and the Adivasi Sanghatana.
Significantly, the application states that there is no provision in the FRA for evictions, at least not until the claims process is final, through the completion of appeals to the sub-divisional level committee, district level committees, and then to the high court and Supreme Court of India.
“Any evictions based on the currently rejected claims would be illegal and a gross miscarriage of justice,” it states.
On February 13, the SC had directed the eviction of lakhs of claimants whose claims had been rejected. On February 28, it temporarily stayed that order, giving state governments time to file affidavits on whether due process had been followed in rejecting these claims.
The matter is now scheduled to be heard on Thursday, and several state governments have filed affidavits. Stating that the “real problem” lies in the incomplete implementation of the FRA by state agencies, the application challenges the original petition point by point.
It states that the petitioners’ use of the terms “regularisation of encroachment” and “distributing the forest land” is itself a misunderstanding of the FRA, “which is about rectifying historic injustice, ie, recognising rights to settlement, cultivation and forest use, which existed before the takeover of forests by the colonial government”.
About the poor implementation of the law, it says Individual Forest Rights claims for settlement and cultivation have “erred grossly on the side of over-caution”, including rejections on vague or technical grounds and their non-communication to claimants the reasons for rejections and their right to appeal.
On the original petition’s contention that the FRA’s provisions on Critical Wildlife Habitats have not been implemented, the application states that the FRA’s position is that historical rights of forest-dwellers to live in, use and manage forests extended even to areas designated as wildlife sanctuaries or national parks, viewing that co-existence of forest-dwellers with wildlife is feasible. If difficulties of co-existence are acute, such areas will be designated as Critical Wildlife Habitat, and the forest-dwellers’ rights modified or resettled. “However, the FRA requires inter alia that a) the process of recognising and vesting of rights in these areas is first completed, and b) the possibility of co-existence is examined carefully and participatorily and ruled out after due process. Unfortunately, neither of these steps have been adequately followed,” it states, also citing the example of the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka, where tiger numbers have increased even as the Soliga tribe lives in and uses the forest.