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Millions of forest-dwelling indigenous people in India to be evicted

Critics say supreme court ruling constitutes ‘mass eviction in name of conservation’

Millions of Indians face eviction after the country’s supreme court ruled that indigenous people illegally living on forest land should move. Campaigners for the rights of tribal and forest-dwelling people have called the court’s decision on Wednesday “an unprecedented disaster” and “the biggest mass eviction in the name of conservation, ever”.

The ruling came in response to petitions filed by various wildlife conservation groups, which wanted the court to declare the 2006 Forest Rights Act invalid. The act gives forest dwelling people the right to their ancestral lands, including those in specially “protected” areas that contain sanctuaries and wildlife parks to conserve wild life. The groups told the court that “tribal” people in 17 states had encroached illegally on these protected areas, jeopardising efforts to protect wildlife and forests.

The conservation groups said state governments should see if families could prove their claim under the act and, if they could, they should be allowed to live and work on the land. If they failed to prove their claim, they should be evicted by the state government.

The supreme court has ordered the 17 state governments – where claims were considered by special committees – to act on about 1.1m claims now rejected as bogus and evict the families. Depending on the size of the families, more than 1m claims could translate to about 5-7 million people being evicted by 27 July.

Survival International’s director, Stephen Corry, said: “This judgment is a death sentence for millions of tribal people in India, land theft on an epic scale and a monumental injustice. It will lead to wholesale misery, impoverishment, disease and death, an urgent humanitarian crisis, and it will do nothing to save the forests which these tribespeople have protected for generations.”

Groups campaigning for the tribal people – among the poorest, most neglected and marginalised of India’s communities – say that many of them would not have understood the need to produce the relevant documents proving their right to the land to the assessing committees.

That claim has been rejected by wildlife groups who said that, given that millions of claims were filed on this issue (of which about 1.2m were accepted), there was widespread grassroots awareness of the need to stake their claim and how to do it.

For wildlife protection groups, the issue is of India’s forests being relentlessly eroded by humans encroaching on animal habitats. There have been innumerable cases of villagers illegally living on protected forests meant exclusively for animals.

Debi Goenka, the head of the Conservation Action Trust, said that human rights activists and other groups who opposed the court order seemed to think that India could live without its forests.