Rights of Tribal Communities under Threat
CPI(M) Polit Bureau member, Brinda Karat has addressed a letter to Prakash Javadekar, minister for environment, forest and climate change, government of India on the ongoing petition in the Supreme Court challenging the Forest Rights Act. The full text of the letter sent on September 13, 2019 is published below.
THIS is to draw your attention to the ongoing petition in the Supreme Court challenging the Forest Rights Act. Your ministry is the main respondent in the case even though it is the ministry of tribal affairs which is the nodal ministry for the implementation of the act. It is a matter of deep concern and objection that on crucial dates of the court hearing, there is no senior legal representative of the central government to defend the law. Yesterday, that is on September 12, while taking up the case, the court specifically asked whether the solicitor general was present, but he was conspicuous by his absence. There was no one to argue against the fresh applications moved by the petitioners against the interests of lakhs of tribal communities who are forest dwellers.
You are well aware that ever since the February orders of the Supreme Court for the eviction of lakhs of tribal families, who have been wrongfully denied their rights under the FRA, a sense of deep insecurity and vulnerability haunts tribal communities since the subsequent stay order on the evictions is temporary and tenuous. On that crucial date too, the solicitor general and, indeed, all senior counsel were missing.
You will understand why after yesterday’s court hearing, there is a strong feeling of unease that the absence of top law officials is not coincidence but connivance. This feeling gets strengthened when it is known that the ministry of tribal affairs had specifically written to concerned people to ensure the presence of the SG.
There were three applications moved by the petitioners, all of which should have been strongly opposed by the government.
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 application demands 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 filed an application for impleading the Forest Survey of India to make out a case about satellite pictures of forest encroachment.
In the absence of opposing arguments, the court accepted the impleading of the FSI as a party in the case.
For the last year and a half, step by step, the outrageous legal challenge to the FRA is going forward without any defence by the central government.
In a recent response to my concerns regarding the draft amendments to the Forest Act 1927, you had said that your ministry is committed to protect the rights of tribal communities. I regret to say that this is not seen in the role of the MOEFCC in most critical issue of challenge to the Forest Rights Act in the Supreme Court case.
The next date of hearing is fixed for November 26. I hope you will personally give it some attention so as to take corrective measures.