In February this year the Supreme Court passed an order of eviction for over a ten lakh tribal people across the country and put another ten lakh in risk of eviction for want of legal claims. This maybe the biggest eviction order in history. 7,67,467 claims from members of Scheduled Tribes and 4,45,047 claims from other forest dwellers were rejected in 17 states. In south India, 3,74,818 claims were rejected. In Karnataka 35, 521 claims from Scheduled Tribes and an additional 1,41,019 claims from Other Forest Dwellers were rejected. The Supreme Court stayed this order.
According to the law, it is the Central government that failed to defend the Forest Rights Act. The Forest Rights Act came into force in 2007. According to the Forest Act, persons who have been either lived in the forests for over 75 years or have traditionally depended on the forest for livelihood may hold claims to these areas. The Forest Rights Act transferred the authority to protect and manage forests from the state through the Forest Department to Local Gram Sabhas. The Act gave executive and judicial power to those Grama Sabhas to recognise the rights of people from the forest. There are sabhas at ward level to recognise tribal hamlets. There are also Sub-Divisional Level Committees and District-Level Committees. The Forest Rights Act also guarantees resettlement of alternative packages in certain situations where the state must evict them.
The Forest Rights Act has been a valuable tool in protecting the rights of people of the forest and protecting the forests themselves from industrial intrusion. These rights can be used simultaneously to protect the natural environment as well as to empower the communities that been custodians of that environment. In India, evictions and decimation of the environment go together.
To be effective, the law requires awareness and access to institutions. Traditional forest dwellers have less access to the details of the law and are less aware of their rights, making implementation rare. The government has been slow in even regarding recognition of people of the forest. Basic work had not been done, leading to many forest dwellers holding an ambiguous legal status. In January 2016, the Supreme Court directed States to file affidavits to show the status of claims. The next month in February, the Central government failed to even present lawyers to defend the Act. The callousness of the government has led to the precarious situation we have today.
While no Indian government has been supportive of the rights of Adivasis, the current government reversed many of the hard-earned rights of those people. The Forest Rights Act has been subverted by the state to remove any democratic protections forest dwellers have had. Initially they took measures to remove the need for approval by the Gram Sabhas for permission in ecologically sensitive areas. This has led to a breeding ground of corruption where Evictions have been coming in the name of massive state projects, including roads, irrigation, the proposed bullet train, and mining projects.
This has turned into a tool for massive land grab of Forest lands by the state without any involvement of the local Gram Sabhas.
In 2015, government set up the Subramanian Committee to suggest changes in India’s forest governance. One of its key recommendations was to amend colonial-era Indian Forest Act. From the onset, the amendment process has been hidden from public debate. The Ministry of Tribal Affairs, the nodal ministry for Forest Rights Act, was not included. Amendments to the Indian Forest Act now give forest rangers powers of detention without any hearing, search without due process, and discretionary powers to kill people found in the forest without any accountability. Penalties for offenses were increased, including imprisonment which has been increased from one month to seven years. Terms in the Forest Rights Act have also been redefined to promote industry, and to weaken rights of the forest dwellers.
A second NDA term will further erode the Forest Rights Act. The government is keen on passing a National Forest Policy. The draft does not make any mention of communities traditionally from the forest, and focuses on forests primarily as an economic resource. They also want to amend the Indian Forest Act from 1927 to empower the state administration and increase penalties against those found in violation of the law, which will very likely be used against those who have not been given proper identification.
Mineral-rich states, such as Odisha, Chattisgarh and Jharkand have been accruing forest land under Land Banks for use by corporates for years, often without the knowledge of any of the local forest dwelling communities.
As seen in Madikheri in Karnataka, forests are a salvation of many Adivasi communities from the Feudal and Capitalist oppression they face outside. Traditional forest dwellers, who are evicted from the forest, were kept in oppressive systems of indentured labour, and only by guaranteeing them rights and autonomy, do they have any hope of freedom. This benefits local land owners, as in the case of Madikeri, where the nexus of feudal plantation overs, and prominent coffee retailers preferred the system be kept oppressive to ensure a servile labour force. In Madikeri, resistance from the community have yielded some gains.
Evictions of Forest Dwellers would lead to a huge scale impoverishment of the people. Many would be forced to find new forms of livelihood in a socio-political environment that has historically excluded them. Many have not had the opportunity to cultivate skills that work outside of the forest. In Karnataka, there is a fear that exploitation by dominant communities near the forests that might include bonded labour.
At the same time, the forests will suffer without the people who have traditionally grown with them. Removing the people of the forest is usually a first step to destroy the forest. Most governments of India have had a poor track record with regards to the forest, but the NDA has been especially bad. Since coming to power, the NDA reduced the radius of Eco-Sensitive Zones from 10 km to a shocking only 100 meters and has given industrial interests almost free access to the forest. While the number of proposals has been increasing each year, only 1.1% of industrial projects in eco-sensitive areas have been rejected between until 2018 during the NDA government, as opposed to 12% under the UPA –II, according to Centre for Science & Environment.
All of this points to the need to stand with those who have been facing the threat of eviction.