September 15, 2019

New Attempts to Attack Forest Rights Act

Five tribal organizations –  Adivasi Adhikar Rashtriya Manch, Campaign for Survival and Dignity, Bharat Ekta Andolan, Jindagi Bachao Abhiyan and the All India Forum of Forest Movements have jointly submitted the following memorandum to Arjun Munda, minister for tribal affairs on September 11, regarding the new attempt to attack the Forest Rights Act in the Supreme Court.

ON September 12, the Supreme Court is scheduled to once again hear the ongoing case against the Forest Rights Act. 

We wish to draw to your attention to three fresh applications petitioners in this case have filed before the Court.  These applications amount to asking again how people could be denied their rights and threatened with eviction on the basis of illegal rejections and a biased interpretation of the law.

The first application asks for the court to bar state governments from reviewing rejections, to stop gram sabhas from inviting fresh claims, and to notify critical wildlife habitats.  In other words, they are seeking to freeze a process that even the government admits was illegal and resulted in millions of people being denied their legal rights.  This is a blatantly illegal and unconstitutional demand.

The second applications demand that the forest survey of India should produce data on "encroachment" in forests on the basis of its existing maps, without even getting details of which claims were made under the Act.  The idea, apparently, is that all forest destruction after 2005 should be blamed on forest dwellers.  This claim is being made even though the ministry has already issued several orders, and the Gujarat High Court has also held that satellite imagery, on its own, is useless in verifying forest rights.

Finally, the petitioners are also filing an application for impleading the Forest Survey of India.  These petitioners started with a constitutional challenge to the Forest Rights Act, then impleaded all the state governments, then tried to convert their case into a case for eviction, and now apparently want to make the case into a case about satellite pictures of forest encroachment.  

Between 2016 and February 2019, the ministry and the central government watched all these maneuvers in silence.  After February 13 order of eviction, millions of tribals and forest dwellers have lived in fear of being evicted from their homes and having their livelihoods destroyed as a result of this case.  

As the nodal agency for the Forest Rights Act, it is the constitutional duty of the ministry of tribal affairs to defend this law in court, and to ensure that all agencies of the government – including the Forest Survey of India – do not connive with the petitioners in endorsing their illegal, unconstitutional and anti-people stand. We hope that the ministry will fulfill its duty and not betray the tribals and forest dwellers of this country.