THE SUPREME Court on Thursday put on hold its February 13 order directing states to complete the eviction of tribals and forest dwellers whose claims over forest land were rejected under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.
A bench comprising Justices Arun Mishra, Navin Sinha and M R Shah also directed the states to file affidavits detailing the procedure adopted while rejecting the claims made by the Forest Dwelling Scheduled Tribes (FDSTs) and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs).
The states have time to file their affidavits till July 10, when the court will examine the matter.
The bench was hearing a plea filed by the Union Tribal Affairs Ministry and the Gujarat government seeking modification of its February 13 direction.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta told the bench that the Centre wished to take a holistic relook at the matter in the larger interest of tribals, farmers and forest dwelling communities.
Saying that its order — asking states to furnish data regarding the number of claims rejected and action taken thereafter — was passed on January 29, 2016, the bench asked what the Centre was doing till now. “Were you sleeping for so many years,” Justice Misra asked.
Mehta submitted that there wasn’t enough assistance to the court from “our side”, and said the Centre had, however, been communicating with the states regarding the procedure to be followed while considering the claims.
Justice Mishra then asked if any review committee was looking into the matter. “We undertake to do that,” replied Mehta.
The bench sought to know if all those making claims were tribals or whether there were other vested interests too,
“We need to look into what the state authorities have done,” said Mehta. He said “this was a human problem more than a legal problem”. The bench then said “protection of forests is a human problem too”.
Mehta said the protection of forest dwelling tribes is consistent with the protection of forests. He said some states had not followed due procedure while considering the claims, despite the Centre’s directions.
Justice Mishra said it may not always be right to ask for documents from tribals as many of them may be having customary rights. Mehta said the Centre would convene a meeting in this regard.
The Tribal Ministry, in its plea, said “the Forest Dwelling Scheduled Tribes (FDSTs) and and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTDFs) are extremely poor and illiterate people and not well informed of their rights and procedure under the (2006) Act. They live in remote and inaccessible areas of the forest. It is difficult for them to substantiate their claims before the competent authorities.” It said that it has “time and again, attempted to sensitise the state governments while deciding their claims”.
The Centre said notwithstanding this, it has come to light that the claims of FDSTs and OTFDs were rejected in a summary manner, and due opportunity was not provided to the claimants. “It is also noted that in certain cases, eviction orders are issued even before the appeals under the Act are exhausted,” it said.
The government said it was still uncertain if the data furnished by the states accurately indicates whether the rejection orders were passed after observance of due process of law and natural justice and whether appeal mechanisms had been exhausted.
It asked the court to consider modifying its February 13 order, direct the states to file detailed affidavits regarding the procedure followed and details of the rejection of claims, and withhold the eviction till then.