States reviewing forest rights claims
In a breather for hundreds of thousands of forest-dwelling scheduled tribes (FDSTs) and other traditional forest dwellers (OTFDs), state governments have told the Supreme Court that an exercise is under way to review their rejected claims of community rights over land they have occupied for generations, and asked for time to complete the process.
At least eight states have also admitted before the top court that the authorities had failed to follow due procedure under the law while deciding the claims of FDSTs and OTFD to forest land under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act of 2006.
A bench led by Justice Arun Mishra had on February 13 this year ordered the eviction of FDTs and OFTDs whose claims had been rejected. But the court stayed the order on February 28 after the Centre and Gujarat government rushed to the bench, seeking a modification to the directive following widespread concerns among tribal rights activists. The bench had then asked states to file affidavits explaining how the claims had been processed and if the rejections were justified.
Twenty-five states have filed their affidavits before the SC. The matter was listed for a hearing on Tuesday, but could not be taken up for hearing. Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Uttarakhand have admitted due procedure laid down under the Act was not followed in rejecting the claims.
Eleven states have undertaken a review of the rejected claims. Jharkhand has asked for time till July 2020 to complete the exercise, Assam eight months; Karnataka 18 months while Chhatisgarh has given itself a deadline of two years to complete the review. Gujarat and Telangana have requested the court to grant them six more months to finish the review and Bihar four months to decide on the claims. Karnataka has in its affidavit admitted that most of the cases had been rejected without a proper opportunity being given to the communities for adducing evidence and without following the principles of natural justice.
In some of its districts, Assam found that the rejection was only recorded in the proceedings, but no rejection order was passed. Assam assured no genuine forest dweller would be deprived of the rights to community land in the review.Jharkhand said that it was struggling to carry out the review given that a large number of case records have not been found. Bihar said that from a perusal of the reports received so far, it appears that due procedure in “totality has not been followed while passing rejection orders”.
The debate on whether forest dwellers whose claims were rejected should be evicted has polarised even conservationists.
Nine academics including Sharachchandra Lele, a fellow in environmental policy and governance at Ashoka Trust for Ecology and Environment (ATREE); author and historian Ramchandra Guha; and R Sukumar, an elephant expert from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, filed a petition in SC, saying that the implementation of the act in recognising community forest rights has been very poor and praying that states be directed to recognise community forest resource rights, which is critical for conservation.