The Supreme Court order of February 13, directing states to evict Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Other Traditional Forest Dweller (OTFD) whose claims over forest land have been rejected, notes that Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Telangana are the states that rejected maximum claims, and where more than 4 lakh claimants are set to be evicted.
According to the affidavit filed by the states before the three-judge bench of Justices Arun Mishra, Navin Sinha and Indira Banerjee, at least 6,60,388 ST claimants are set to be evicted from forest land across the country. The data shows that 22,87,225 ST applicants sought claim over the forest land, meaning that 29 per cent of the STs who claimed forest land are likely to be evicted.
The data also shows that in case of OFTDs, 6,84,485 filed claims over the forest land, and as many as 4,44,493 claims were rejected by the respective state governments.
The Supreme Court has ordered that for the 17 states where rejection order has been passed, the chief secretary will ensure “eviction will be carried out on or before the next date of hearing”. The court will hear the matter on July 24. “Forest Survey of India (FSI) make a satellite survey and place on record the encroachment positions and also state the positions after the eviction as far as possible,” the order states.
Polls near, order may have political repercussions
With 47 seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes in the Lok Sabha, the Supreme Court order on eviction of tribals from forest land is likely to have political ramifications. The apex court order comes in connection with a PIL, that essentially is a legal tussle between forest rights and tribal rights. Just months away from the elections, there is a possibility that the issue may be raised politically, even before the SC takes up the matter on July 24.
Madhya Pradesh received 4,26,105 claims by STs and rejected 2,04,123 of them. The state received 1,53,306 claims by OFTDs and rejected as many as 1,50,664. Odisha received the maximum claims by STs —- 5,73,867 —- and rejected 1,22,250. It also received 31,687 claims from OFTDs and rejected 26,620 of them. Telangana received 1,83,252 claims by STs and rejected 82,075 of them.
Maharashtra was second in terms of number of claims by STs. Of the 2,54,042 claims, the government rejected only 13,712. Kerala received 39,999 claims by STs and rejected 894 of them.
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.
Abhay Xaxa, national convenor of the coalition National Campaign on Adivasi Rights, said that the silence of the ministries of Tribal Affairs, Environment and Forests and Prime Minister’s Office was in keeping with the trend witnessed so far, wherein the rights of Dalits, minorities and Advasi communities are disregarded and laws meant to protect them diluted.
“Under the Forest Rights Act, until the claims process is on, Adivasis (STs) and OTFDs should not be evicted. Lakhs of claims are in process, as also the appeal process against rejected claims. The process is taking so long due to bureaucratic delays. There is also the issue of corruption, where to suit the agenda of powerful mining and other private companies, genuine claims are rejected. The fate of over a million Adivasis, who are worse off than minorities and Dalits, has taken a disastrous turn and they don’t have a voice in this decision,” said Xaxa, adding that many Adivasi rights organisations are planning to regroup to challenge the eviction process.
Several Adivasi rights groups have issued statements against the Supreme Court order. These include the All India Forum of Forest Movements, National Advocacy Council for Development of Indigenous People, Bhumi Adhikar Andolan, Campaign for Survival and Dignity, and National Alliance for People’s Movements.
“Traditionally the Adivasi and OTFD communities never had a concept of ‘ownership of private property’. They treated forest land as common land and didn’t obtain documents for the land in their use. Culturally, Adivasis and OTFDs are instrumental in maintaining biodiversity and protecting wild animals. It is the development of tourism, wildlife sanctuaries, biodiversity parks, that disturb wildlife, then why was this not questioned by the bench?” said Ramesh Nathan from National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights.