Vol. XLIII No. 28 July 14, 2019

Stop Eviction of Tribals

FOUR organisations, (Adivasi Adhikar Rashtriya Manch, Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Mahasabha, Campaign for Survival and Dignity and Bharat Jan Andolan) with lakhs of members from adivasi communities have written a letter to Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, seeking his intervention to stop the attacks on tribals and forest dwellers by the central government. Below we reproduce the letter:

We are writing to express our deep concern at the active attempt to attack the rights of tribals and forest dwellers by your government. We wish to draw to your attention on three specific examples of this wholesale assault:

  • Since 2008, cases against the Forest Rights Act have been running in the Supreme Court. From 2008 up to 2016 the central government played its constitutional role and defended this crucial law before the court. From 2017 onwards, for no reason, the central government's counsels in the case did not make a single statement in defense of the law. We had raised this matter as early as February 4, 2019. As a result, the petitioners' view prevailed and on February 13, the court passed an order to evict lakhs of families solely on the ground that they were unable to prove their claim under the law. After a nationwide uproar, your government rushed back to court and managed to persuade the court to put this order "on hold." The next hearing in this matter is on July 24, 2019. It is a matter of extreme concern to us and to the crores of forest dwellers of this country that your government has not made a single statement in public on this matter after February 28, 2019. We fear that your government is again planning to try to sabotage the Forest Rights Act by remaining silent and thus allow for a mass eviction once again.
  • On March 7, 2019 the ministry of environment and forests sent a "proposal" for amendments to the Indian Forest Act, 1927, to all state governments. If this proposal becomes law, forest officials will acquire extraordinary powers that no other agency, including the security forces in disturbed areas, has ever had in the history of this country. Forest officials will be able to end people's rights merely by paying cash compensation (s. 22A(2), s.30(b)); to use fire arms against tribals and forest dwellers with impunity (s.66(2)); to take confessions from accused and have them admissible as evidence in court (a provision that does not exist in any other law) (s.64C); to shut down people's rights in forests for flimsy reasons such as "willfully causing fires" (s.26(3)); to end shifting cultivation entirely; and so on. If these proposals become law they will be the single biggest attack on this country's tribals and forest dwellers since the first British Forest Act in 1865. Your government will have committed a historic atrocity on the crores of tribals and forest dwellers in this country.
  • In 2016, when the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act was passed by your government, it did not even contain a mention of forest rights. The ‘rules’ framed under the act, contrary to assurances to parliament, also allow forest officials to override tribals and forest dwellers and plant trees on their lands. This has already led to atrocities against tribals and violence, including most recently in Telengana and Maharashtra. Compensatory afforestation money is being wasted, siphoned off by corrupt officials, used as a pretext for evicting tribals and seizing their lands, and spent on buildings and guns, when by rights it should belong to the country's forest communities.
  • When the Mines and Minerals (Regulation and Development) Act was amended in 2015 and 2016, much fanfare was made of how a "mineral development fund" would be set up for the development of mining affected areas and communities. As of December 2018, more than Rs 22,800 crore had been collected by state governments in these funds, but only Rs 5,529 crore, less than a quarter of the total had been spent. We call upon the central government to investigate and reveal where the remaining Rs 17,271 crores is. This is a further injustice on the country's tribals.

In this context we call upon the central government to:

  • Actively defend the Forest Rights Act in the Supreme Court, and place before the court the correct legal position, under which evictions only for the inability to prove a claim are not justified in law and in any case are not related to the case before the court.
  • Immediately withdraw the proposed amendments to the Indian Forest Act and instead amend that law and other forest laws to bring them into accordance with the Forest Rights Act and to prosecute officials who violate forest rights.
  • Ensure that money collected in the name of compensatory afforestation is only spent with the consent of affected gram sabhas and subject to plans prepared by them rather than by bureaucrats.
  • Announce a transparent audit of expenditure under the ‘district mineral funds’ and take action against any officials or agencies who have diverted money in these funds, and alter the rules under this fund to ensure that any expenditure is subject to the consent of gram sabhas and is decided by bodies with representation from tribals and other affected communities.