SC seeks reports on rejected forest rights claims from states

The apex court has been hearing a petition filed by retired forest officials and some conservation-related non-profits, who want the FRA to be struck down as unconstitutional

By Ishan Kukreti
Published: Thursday 14 February 2019
The Jog Falls in Karnataka, surrounded by forests. Credit: Getty Images

The Supreme Court, on February 13, asked state governments to report on steps taken by them in cases of claims being rejected under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA) and to complete reviews of such rejections within four months. Meanwhile, the Union government again failed to defend the Act in court.

The court also asked the Forest Survey of India to provide satellite imagery of forests to assess forest destruction.

The order came in response to a petition that the apex court was hearing. The petitioners claimed before the court that everyone whose FRA claim had been rejected, was an “encroacher” who should be evicted. 

There are nine court cases filed by retired forest officials from Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Maharashtra, and Karnataka, along with conservation organisations like the Wildlife Trust of India, the Nature Conservation Society, the Tiger Research and Conservation Trust and the Bombay Natural History Society. Their demand is to get the FRA or orders under it struck down as unconstitutional.

In January 2015, the Supreme Court transferred all the High Court cases to itself and clubbed the cases together. 

“More than 50 per cent of claims have been rejected by states without following due procedure. The rejected claims need to be reviewed by the states to correct illegal rejection of claims. The proceedings in the Supreme Court raise genuine fears of eviction of lakhs of tribals and forest dwellers, particularly those whose claims have been illegally rejected. This will also impact the ground level implementation of FRA,” said Tushar Dash of Community Forest Rights — Learning and Advocacy, an advocacy group of experts and activists working for creating awareness about FRA.

The concern was shared by others too.

“If eviction has to be done then there is a procedure to do that. There are central legislations like the Indian Forest Act and the Wild Life Protection Act, which have provisions dealing with eviction. At the state level too, there are legal provisions for this. An opportunity has to be given to the people being evicted to prove their case,” said Shomona Khanna, former legal advisor to the Minister of Tribal Affairs.   

Meanwhile, the Union government, yet again, failed to defend FRA during the hearing. The Centre (‘Union of India’), the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs and the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, which are respondents in the case, have been keeping silent in the hearings from the last four dates, despite the fact that one of their Acts have been legally challenged in court.

Just before February 13’s hearing, on February 4, leaders from the Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Congress, along with two platforms of Adivasis and forest dwellers’ movements, sent a letter to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs about its failure to defend the historic and landmark Forest Rights Act in the Supreme Court. Yet, the ministry seems unmoved.    

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