The recent Amazon wildfires brought everyone to a choking standstill as the world’s largest tropical rainforest and the lungs of our planet were going up in flames. Environmentalists blamed the far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who pushed for development of the protected land reserves and is against environmental fines. Speculation is rife that the fires started with a deliberate attempt by loggers and farmers to clear the forests.
Half a world away, hosts of Indians can relate to this from personal experience as a struggle continues to rage over enforcement of India’s Forest Rights Act 2006, which came into effect to protect the marginalized socio-economic class of citizens living in forests and to balance environmental protection with the right to life and livelihood.
A key moment came when Supreme Court on February 13 this year ordered the eviction of scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers across 21 states whose applications under the act had been rejected. State governments had argued that people had been taking undue advantage of the Forest Rights Act to encroach upon forest land.
Joseph Hoover, a Bengaluru-based wildlife activist, agrees, up to a point. “Those who are indigenous to forests have the right to live in forests,” he told Asia Times. “But due to the Forest Rights Act, now those who are not the original settlers are claiming land in forest, especially in Karnataka. They have become greedy and are now pushing for it.”
Hoover said there is a need for a fool-proof system to curb people from taking undue advantage – but at the same time ensure that legitimate forest dwellers are able to retain their land. “Also, if the government wants to move the tribals, then they should give them facilities and help in relocation. Even the big businessmen who own state lands should be asked to move out. The present government in the name of development is carrying out this process at a time when there is a climate emergency. The need of the hour is to be sensible and considerate and most importantly that the environment is intact.”
Two million face eviction
As of the 2011 census, an estimated 104 million people belonged to traditional tribes in India and were spread over 170,000 villages in forest areas, which cover about 22% of the geographical area.
Due to the order by the top court, about two million forests dwellers could face eviction. The order sparked widespread protests by the forest dwellers and indeed it has been found that there was a lapse in the system that was in effect while these claims were being rejected. The Supreme Court’s order was based on the affidavits filed by various states but it does not clarify if due process was followed while rejecting the claims.
Being illiterate and poor, the tribals were unaware of the procedure. Moreover, the rejected claims were not even communicated to them. On February 28, the Supreme Court stayed its order after the Ministry of Tribal Affairs intervened with a review petition. The court then decided to examine if due process was followed by villages and small towns governed under the gram panchayat system. At least eight states – Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh. Jharkhand, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Uttarakhand – in their affidavits told the top court that due procedure under the law was not followed while deciding the claims.
At least 10 states have also asked for extension of time to complete the review process with some requesting an extension until July 2020 to review the process. This has led to widespread concern.
During multiple hearings, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs and the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change were either not present or did not speak up in support of the forest dwellers. This was highly criticized by the organizations working for forest rights. Further, the non-profit organizations also allege that the government put up a weak defense and due to the deficiencies in the system many valid claims were rejected.
Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Odisha had the highest number of rejected claims. These states comprise 20% of the total claims for land ownership submitted by those residing in forests across India under the Act.
In 2000, a similar attempt was made to clear the forests of “encroachers,” following which the Forest Rights act, 2006 was enacted. Since then, 4.22 million applications were filed out of which nearly 1.94 million were rejected, according to a report by Ministry of Tribal Affairs.
The doubts on the constitutional validity of the Forest Rights Act were raised by retired forest officials, wildlife activist and conservation non-profit organizations in 2008. The arguments that they put forth were that the federal government has no power to frame a law on forest land as it is a state subject. They claimed that recognition of forest dwellers will lead to disappearance of forests wildlife. Also, that about 7.2million hectares of forest land is at risk under the Forest Rights Act.
A senior Forest official said, “When the option of filing applications was available for rights over forest land, there were people who were encroaching. Under the Act, one of the condition is that the tribals have to prove that they have lived on the specific forest land for 75 years before December 31, 2005. Many could not satisfy this condition and their claims were rejected.”
“I suggest that a way to verify if the claims are right is by checking the satellite and aerial imagery from 1978-1980. The picture will clear that a sizable number is not eligible and have been claiming unauthorized land,” the official said.
Of big corporates also owning land in these areas, he said, “We are fighting 64 cases right against these corporations. But the issue is that they have influence and good lawyers to fight for them.”
Only 5.28 million hectare land has been recognized till date under the Forest Rights Act, two-thirds of which comes under community land (common property resources). The remaining 1.7 million hectares is recognized as individual occupational rights. But it was revealed that not all land was not forests but agricultural land, wrongly categorized due to historical factors.
It has been noted that the Forest Rights Act does not have any clause regarding eviction of rejected claimants. The Act specifically prohibits eviction until the process of the implementation of the law is complete in an area.
Besides the Forest Rights Act-related issues, there are other threats to Indian forests.
When the Statue Of Unity, the world’s tallest statue built to pay tribute to India’s first Home Minister, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, was unveiled last year, nearly 72000 tribals went on protest. They claimed that the families who were displaced did not receive a proper rehabilitation package by the government. They also alleged that many trees were cut down for the approximately US$3 billion statue.
In March of this year, Union environment ministry gave environmental clearance for open cast coal mining in Parsa in Chhattisgarh’s dense Hasdeo Arand forests that could have far-reaching consequences for the conservation of forest lands. Spanning about 170,000 hectares with 30 coal blocks, one of the mines will be operated by a unit of Adani Enterprises Limited. This clearance was given despite a forest advisory report of 2014 stating the area cannot be opened for mining.