Millions of forest-dwelling indigenous people in India to be evicted
Posted on Feb 22, 2019
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.
He said: “What they don’t realise is that, barring two, all of India’s rivers are forest-dependent. Satellite imagery has shown tribal encroachments into protected forests. Can a country survive without forests? If they think India can survive without forests and without water, so be it.”
The issue is expected to become more heated in the coming weeks. Wildlife groups insist that all the court has done is tell state governments to recover forest land from people who made bogus claims which, after due process, were rejected. Those with genuine claims will be given title deeds to the land.
On the other side of the debate are politicians such as the Communist party leader, Brinda Karat, who has written to the prime minister, Narendra Modi, in protest against the court’s decision. She said: “It will be highly unjust to … traditional forest dwellers if an ordinance is not passed immediately to protect them from eviction … It will be a virtual declaration of war.”
BY Amrit Dhillon
India orders ‘staggering’ eviction of 1 million indigenous people. Some environmentalists are cheering.
Supreme Court decision would render vulnerable population homeless
India’s Supreme Court has ordered its government to evict a million people from their homes — for the good of the country’s wildlife.
The ruling, issued Wednesday, was a startling conclusion to a decade-long case that has pitted the rights of some of India’s most vulnerable citizens against the preservation of its forests.
The court told the government to evict over a million people — mostly members of indigenous tribes — from their homes in public forest land because they had not met the legal criterion to live there.
With more than 700 tribal groups, India is home to over 100 million indigenous people. While the forest land is legally controlled by the government, people have lived in such areas for centuries.
A landmark law passed in 2006 gave legal rights over forest land and its produce to tribes and forest-dwelling communities provided they could prove their families have stayed there for at least three generations.
The battle for mineral-rich forest land isn’t new in India. The ruling is the latest flash point in the competing interests of industry, wildlife conservationists and forest communities.
In the past 30 years, the government has diverted 5,400 square miles of forest land, the size of Connecticut, for industrial projects — many of which were opposed by the indigenous people. Wildlife groups contend that granting “wide-ranging” rights to people on forest land leads to fragmentation of forests at a time when the country’s forest cover is shrinking. Critics, however, say that neither accounts for the rights of the indigenous people who rely on the forest for daily needs and for their livelihood.
Now the court says that those whose claims were rejected must go — by July 27. The number of affected people is estimated to reach up to 1.89 millionwhen more states comply with the order.
Human rights groups and activists were stunned by the ruling. Nicholas Dawes, the acting managing director of Human Rights Watch, wrote that it had “staggering” implications for India’s most marginalized.
Forest Rights Alliance, a grass-roots advocacy group, called the judgment “draconian.” Another group advocating for the rights of forest dwellers, the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, called the order a “major blow.” It also noted that thousands of claims for land rights under the law — the Forest Rights Act — get “wrongly rejected.”
Wildlife groups first challenged the law back in 2008, arguing it threatened “long-term conservation of forests and biodiversity.” Praveen Bhargav of Wildlife First issued a statement on behalf of the petitioners welcoming Wednesday’s ruling as an “extremely important order.” The statement noted that “ineligible” and “bogus” claimants under the Forest Rights Act “continue to occupy a huge area of forestland.”
C.R. Bijoy of the Campaign for Survival and Dignity fired back. He said the environmental groups that brought the case represent a “vanishing” way of thinking about conservation, which excludes people from the process.
The ruling comes just weeks before India is slated to begin national elections, putting state governments in the highly awkward position of being instructed to evict voters from their homes. As a result, few believe the order will be carried out in the mandated time frame — plus it will almost certainly face an additional legal challenge.
One big question is the Indian government’s own position on the issue. It failed to defend its own law in the current court case. The result was a lopsided proceeding where judges heard arguments in favor of the wildlife groups.
Rahul Gandhi, leader of the Indian National Congress, the country’s main opposition party, criticized Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government last week for being a “silent spectator” in court. Gandhi also asked three states governed by the Congress party to reexamine cases in which land claims had been rejected.
Back in 2002, the government had ordered evictions of unauthorized dwellings on a similar directive from the top court, sparking large-scale protests by indigenous people and forest rights groups.
BY: Niha Masih