The SC’s February 13 order on FRA was consistent with its earlier stand
The Forests Rights Act was designed to undo “historical injustice” to those who have primarily resided in and who depend on the forest or forests land for bona fide livelihood needs prior to December 2005. But since there is no cutoff date for receiving new claims, and gram sabhas are empowered to extend the 90-day window, this process has continued for 13 years and seems to be a never ending one.
On February 13, the Supreme Court (SC) asked 17 state governments to evict an estimated one million tribal and other households living in forests after their claims of individual forest rights like agricultural encroachments were rejected under The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA). The SC said the evictions must be carried out by July 12, and also directed the Dehradun-based Forest Survey of India (FSI) to submit a satellite image based report once the encroachments are removed. After the order was passed, several FRA activists and politicians alleged that the petitioners are hand in glove with the NDA government and that millions of tribals will be displaced after the SC ruling.
These allegations are untrue and facts of the case must be made public. The petition was filed in 2008 when the Congress-led UPA I was in power at the Centre. So the hand in glove allegation is baseless. This order is an outcome of the consistent stand taken by the apex court in the case since 2016 (see orders of January 29, 2016, and March 7, 2018) that encroachers should be evicted from forest land after due process.
Many FRA activists admit that tribals will not become homeless as feared. This is because FRA deals with pre-existing rights; it is not a land distribution law. Senior FRA activist, Mohan Hirabai Hiralal, who works in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region, says that the bogus claims made after the legal cutoff date of FRA (December 13, 2005) should not be allowed. Dilip Gode of the Vidarbha Nature Conservation Society, who works in 450 villages in the region to protect community rights, also wants the eviction of post-2005 encroachers. He says that many gram sabhas (village councils), the most powerful decision-making body at the grassroots level, have also evicted encroachers.
According to the affidavits filed by the states in the apex court, about 11,72,931 (1.17 million) land ownership claims made by scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers under the FRA have been rejected on various grounds, including absence of proof that the land was in their possession for at least three generations.
Of these rejected claims, over 14.70 lakh have been weeded out at the gram sabha level. When an entire village has community rights over a forest land around it, how can they allow a few people to encroach upon the community forest land and thereby lose control over vital forest resources? We must remember that landless forest dwelling families depend on forests for grazing their cattle, fuelwood and forest produce. But the Union ministry of tribal affairs (MoTA) data show that forest dwellers are more interested in claiming individual forest rights (IFR) than community rights.
Despite the support of political parties, many claimants could not gather even the minimum of evidence, such as a supporting statement from a village elder; proof of village residence/occupation before cutoff date to bolster their case. Hence their cases were rejected. In fact, the requirement of a statement from a village elder has been extensively abused in respect of claims by Other Traditional Forest Dwellers in cases in which proof of 75 years (three generations) of continuous occupation had to be established.
According to the FRA, claimants have two levels of appeal to ensure natural justice. Several advisories were issued by the tribal ministry from 2006 onwards asking for effective and lenient (pro-tribal) implementation of the FRA. The ministry even repeatedly wrote to states to “reconsider” rejected claims.
The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) examined this issue in Maharashtra. The institute provided satellite images of 1748.45 hectare of forest area where forest cover existed prior to 2005 but appeared to have vanished after that. It also reveals an increasing tendency at the village level to claim more than the 4 hectare maximum limit of the FRA. A Gujarat government report revealed that 80% of IFR claims in the state were bogus. The Forests Survey Institute’s State of the Forest Report has showed that 67,900 hectares of forests have been lost in the 188 tribal districts in the country between 2009 and 2011 due to encroachments.
The FRA was designed to undo “historical injustice” to those who have primarily resided in and who depend on the forest or forests land for bona fide livelihood needs prior to December 2005. But since there is no cutoff date for receiving new claims, and gram sabhas are empowered to extend the 90-day window, this process has continued for 13 years and seems to be a never ending one.
Kishor Rithe is a former member of the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife. He has been working in the tribal development and wildlife conservation sectors in central India for 30 years.
The views expressed are personal