Is apex court going against forest-dwellers’ rights?

According to government records, claims of around 1.5 lakh forest dwellers belonging to Odisha has been rejected

By: Aurobindo Rout

Forest-dwellers are basically the tribals and other indigenous communities, who have been staying inside the forests since time immemorial.

Several researchers also have mentioned that tribals are the original inhabitants of India. They live inside the jungle, consider it their mother and worship it. They protect the forest and manage it in their traditional way. However, kindness rules them.

The tribals have never opposed the entry of non-tribal people to their forests. Also, they have never raised their voice against the formulation of any law over their forests.

In such a scenario, it is unfortunate that the laws which are formulated over their forests term their rights over the forests as a crime. Criminalizing their rights over forests, the forest department has been torturing them in several ways.

A forest dweller’s house

Protesting against the torture and unjust treatment by the administration, several forest-dwellers’ associations and the individuals concerned for their issues have raised their voice. And as a result of their constant protest, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, popularly called Forest Rights Act was enacted to undo the historical injustice meted out to the forested communities.

Rules of the Act were formulated in 2007 and it came for implementation in 2008. This Act has given the forest dwellers, rights over their land they have been cultivating and staying for generations. It also empowered them to collectively manage the forest and exercise their rights over the minor forest produce on which they have been depending upon for their livelihood.

This right empowered them to keep the jungle mafia at bay. Vesting of rights on the forest-dwellers, however, was not taken up kindly by a few so-called conservationist groups. Some of these self-acclaimed conservationist groups and a few retired forest officials filed petitions with the Supreme Court of India in protest against the process of FRA implementation.

The summary of the order issued by the three-member Supreme-Court bench that heard the petitions on February 13 is as follows: First: Chief Secretaries of respective states would file affidavits regarding the steps taken by the state to evict the people from the forest land if their claims are rejected; Second: The Secretaries should ensure that the people whose claims over the forest land were rejected are evicted before July 24; Third: In the places, where the state governments have started review of the rejection cases, should complete the process within four months of the issuance of the SC order; Fourth: The Forest Survey of India should conduct a survey to verify the land acquisition process through satellite imagery.

The traditional forest dwellers were shocked by the SC order and it created agitation among all the forest-dwelling communities across the country. Over 19 lakh forest dwellers belonging to 17 states did not accept the SC order.

According to government records, claims of around 1.5 lakh forest dwellers belonging to Odisha have been rejected. Forested communities across the country and various tribal outfits, forest protecting groups, Gram Sabhas and civil society organisations who support the rights of the people over forests protested against the SC order. At that time the general election of India was round the corner. In such context, another bench of the SC issued a stay order on its previous ruling on February 28 giving temporary relief to thousands of forest dwellers.

The February 28th order can be summarised as follows: First: The State Governments have to state the procedure adopted for rejection of FRA claims; Second: States have to state that under which provision of law the eviction has to be made and who is the competent authority to pass such orders; Third: The February 13th order of the SC regarding eviction was withheld till the next hearing; and Fourth: The FSI should survey the encroachment through satellite imagery.

As this order did not dismiss, only withheld its earlier order of eviction, the forest-dwellers still remained a lot worried. The Sub-Divisional-Level Committees (SDLCs) and the District-Level Committees (DLCs) were also worried, because, out of the 1.5 lakh IFR claims which were rejected, were intimated neither to the claimants nor to their respective Gram Sabhas. Besides, the proper process was not followed to reject the claims and the causes of rejection shown in the notices issued are not justified.

Also read: Odisha’s Ajay Bahadur Singh Provides Free Coaching To Poor Students For NEET

The more worrying factor is that there is no evidence that the DLCs and the SDLCs have implemented the FRA provisions properly by according due importance to the Gram Sabhas and the Forest Rights Committees. Even the DLCs and SDLCs are confused about providing proper information on the process followed by them to reject a claim. All these reasons added to the worries of the State government.

It made the state government speed up the process of the issuing rejection notices to the claimants and reviewing the process. It sent notices to the claimants, whose cases were rejected already and issued them a date of a public hearing and continued the process of hearing the so-called review petitions.

The FRA provides a particular process to hear the petitions filed by the claimants. But, both the DLC and the SDLC violated the law by not following the proper process.

According to Rules 14 and 15 of the  Amendment Rules 2012 of the FRA, if any claimant has any complaints regarding the decisions of the Gram Sabha, then he/she can appeal the SDLC against the Gram Sabha decision within 60 days of receiving a notice from it regarding its decision. The SDLC should fix a date of hearing and notify the petitioner 15 days prior to the date. But neither the SDLC nor the DLC has followed the norms.

Throughout the state, the petitioners are asked to appear before the hearing venue within two days of the issuance of notice. The reasons mentioned in the notices can never be the cause of rejection if we go by the provisions of the FRA. However, the Act mentions that if a piece of particular evidence is not attached with the claim form, the claims should be returned back to the Gram Sabha for review.

Another incongruity is that while the SDLC has rejected a claim citing a particular reason and reviewed the case, the DLC has rejected it again citing another reason.

Sam Sundar Singh on his cultivating forest land

From all these, it is obvious that the administration is hell-bent on rejecting the claims by any means. In this context, the issues of other traditional forest dwellers (OTFDs) who are not tribals, have been pushed into a corner. Even though they are the original inhabitants of a particular place, it is impossible for them to collect evidence of their 3-generations (75 years) stay at that particular place. While the Act provides that statement of the village elderly can be taken as a piece of evidence, in this case, the administration is not taking it into consideration. It is obvious that even after 12 years of the promulgation of the Act, the implementing officers are ignorant of its provisions. If this is not true, then they are manipulating the provisions of the Act in order to create roadblocks in the way of rights recognition process of the forest dwellers. And in this context, the SC hearing has given them adequate opportunities to materialise their intentions best known to them.

The officials are contemplating to legalise the rejections which were done illegally. However, they should be aware that history is full of examples of mass protest of deprived people for land rights. The officials have misinterpreted the SC order and hastily issued notices to the claimants citing arbitrary reasons and took steps to conduct hearings in a way that violates most of the provisions of the Act.

It is high time now that the administration accepts that it has followed the wrong process of rejecting the claims. It should review the claims again by empowering Gram Sabhas and by following the provisions of FRA. In this way, a mass revolution can be avoided.

About the author: The author is a Forest Rights Activist.

N.B. – The claims made and views put in the article is solely of the author. should not and cannot be liable for any statement made by the author in the article.

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