United Nations experts have expressed their concern over the impending evictions of thousands of allegedly illegal forest dwellers following a February 2019 Supreme Court order.

Leilani Farha, the special rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context, called for a “national moratorium” on forced evictions, a letter sent by the UN experts to the Centre on June 19, said. The letter was released on Sunday.

Farha also raised concerns about the alleged forced evictions and housing discrimination. The communication was signed by Farha, special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, and special rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons Cecilia Jimenez-Damary.

The letter observed that UN experts have raised similar concerns in both 2017 and 2013 but received no replies. The experts also sought a response on the initial steps that the Centre has taken to ensure that the rights of the Adivasis are protected, but there has been no response from the Centre so far, the UN Resident Coordinator’s Office said.

In February, the Supreme Court, acting on a petition filed by wildlife groups, ordered the eviction of all forest dwellers in India, whose claims under the Forest Rights Act had been rejected. This number was as high as 1.89 million forest-dwelling families, according to a 2018 report of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs. The scale prompted the Centre to intervene, and the court stayed its order, asking states to disclose whether they had followed due process while rejecting the claims.

Documents subsequently filed by nine state governments showed that at least 1.3 million of the claims have been rejected without following the due process. The Supreme Court is currently hearing the case and the next hearing is scheduled for September 12.

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“We are deeply concerned with the serious impact on the lives, culture, lands, territories and security of the millions of tribal persons affected by the pending Supreme Court’s order to implement the eviction notices, which would cause massive displacement,” the letter said, adding that the experts were also concerned about the risk of violence that the order’s implementation may elicit.

Acknowledging the Supreme Court’s stay on the process, the experts said this was a reprieve for the affected people. But, they added, “we are gravely concerned at the prospect that millions of forest dwellers may lose access to their habitat, livelihoods and spiritual culture as a result of the failure to adequately implement the forest rights claim process”.

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, more commonly known as the Forest Rights Act, was passed in 2006. It gave back to traditional forest dwellers their rights to access, manage and govern forest lands and resources within village boundaries, which had been controlled by the forest department since colonial times. The law makes the gram sabha the statutory body for managing forestlands and protecting them. It provides that no activity should be carried out in these forests until individual and community claims over them have been settled.

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The UN experts said that while passing the law was a significant step in recognising the rights of Adivasis, there was concern in the lack of implementation. “Gaps in implementation of the Forest Rights Act are also leading to an alienation of tribal peoples and their village assemblies (Gram Sabha) in decisions that are directly affecting them, as the procedure set out in the Act is reportedly not respected,” they said.

“We also appreciate that the role of the State authorities is to ensure that any industrialists or any non-indigenous people do not illegally occupy protected forests,” the communication said. “We are however deeply concerned that the Forest Rights claim process – as currently implemented – is having a discriminatory effect on the very population the Act seeks to protect and may lead to irreparable damage for the affected communities as well as for forest conservation, as these peoples play a major role in maintaining biodiversity and sustainability in the forests.”

Special rapporteur Farha recommended that the government ban all forced evictions and enact laws that stipulate that such evictions can only occur in exceptional circumstances. “She also stressed that when evictions are required as a result of valid health and safety risks, governments must ensure that resettlement takes place in a time-bound manner, ensuring meaningful consultation with those who are directly affected, that fair compensation is awarded and that resettlement housing is adequate, as prescribed by international human rights law,” the letter added.