On February 13, the Supreme Court ordered state governments to evict over 10 lakh forest dwelling families. The affected families had filed claims to forest land under the Forest Rights Act, 2006 which were rejected. Ironically, the court used a clutch of petitions challenging the constitutional validity of the Act to order the evictions. The court’s decision will hurt some of India’s most vulnerable communities. It could also be a death blow to the embattled Forest Rights Act.
The Act, which was passed by Parliament in 2006 and came into effect in 2008, was intended to correct the “historical injustice” done to forest dwellers. It was meant to “recognise and vest the forest rights and occupation in forest land in forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers who have been residing in such forests for generations but whose rights could not be recorded”.
The traditional rights of such communities were derecognised by the British Raj in the 1850s. India was late to pass corrective laws in the first place, compared to other countries with colonial pasts – Brazil recognised the rights of forest dwellers in 1980 and Mexico in 1986.
The 2006 law recognised individual rights to forest land and livelihood, community rights to forest land exercised by their gram sabha, and community forest resource rights giving gram sabhas the power to protect and manage their forest. Conservation plans and developmental projects in these areas would have to be approved by gram sabhas. Not only did the law recognise the rights of marginalised individuals, it gave local communities the agency to determine the future of their forest.
Over the years, the aims of the law have been frustrated by patchy implementation. Forest dwellers have had to contend with intransigent state governments and forest department officials. Claims to forest lands were slow to be processed and saw high rejection rates. As of April 2016, only 40% of the claims received across the country had been settled. In Chhattisgarh, where Adivasi communities account for a third of the population, over half of individual rights and a third of community rights claims were denied. Poor implementation has been compounded by the incumbent central government’s shoddy defence of the law in court.
The petitions challenging the law were filed by Wildlife First, a non-governmental organisation, and retired forest officials who blamed the law for deforestation and encroachment on forest lands. This draws on the old binary between conservation and the rights of forest dwellers that was popular with the early post-colonial state but has been contradicted by several recent studies. Moreover, for deforestation, indiscriminate clearances to large, potentially destructive projects must shoulder a large part of the blame.
If the Supreme Court’s order is implemented, only the poorest and most vulnerable will pay the price – and the Forest Rights Act may be permanently hollowed out.