Asia Pacific / Social Issues

India's top court orders eviction of more than 1 million forest dwellers

Thomson Reuters Foundation

India’s Supreme Court has ordered the eviction of more than 1 million indigenous people and others who live in forests after the federal government failed to defend a law aimed at protecting their rights.

The top court’s order, dated Feb. 13 and delivered in written form on Wednesday, was in response to a petition against the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006, filed by some environmental groups who said the law impeded conservation efforts.

Under the landmark Forest Rights Act, which gave back to traditional forest dwellers the right to access and manage forest lands and resources within village boundaries, at least 150 million people could have had their rights recognized to about 40 million hectares (154,000 square miles) of forest land. But the law states that individual and community claims have to be settled before activity can be carried out on those lands.

The Supreme Court has asked officials in 16 states to submit details of rights claims settled, and “in the cases where claims have been rejected … to ensure that eviction is made on or before the next date of hearing” on July 24.

The order “is a major blow to the struggle of tribals and forest dwellers for justice,” advocacy group Campaign for Survival and Dignity said in a statement.

“Another historic injustice is about to be committed against tribals and other forest dwellers,” said Shankar Gopalakrishnan, president of the group.

India has more than 100 million indigenous people, who are also known as Adivasis, or original inhabitants.

The court’s order could affect claims of indigenous people in the remaining states and lead to more evictions, he said.

Campaigners say many states had rejected recognition of community forest rights on flimsy grounds as demand increased for land for mining and industry.

The government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has, over the last five years, introduced laws that activists say diluted earlier legislation meant to protect the rights of farmers and indigenous people over land and natural resources.

The Supreme Court order comes in the run-up to a national election that must be held by May.

Land rights and forest rights have come to the fore in recent state elections, and unrest among farmers and villagers — who make up a big voting bloc — could hurt Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist BJP party, analysts say.

Opposition leaders had earlier written to the tribal affairs minister, saying they were “dismayed at the utterly indifferent and callous attitude” of the federal government in relation to the FRA case.

Rahul Gandhi, leader of the opposition Congress party, which had enacted the FRA, earlier criticized the government for being “a silent spectator” in the Supreme Court.

“It is showing its intention of driving out hundreds of thousands of tribals and poor farmers from the forests,” Gandhi tweeted last week.