NEW DELHI — The Maharashtra government has blamed the state’s own bureaucracy for unlawfully rejecting the forest rights claims of tens of thousands of Adivasis and other traditional forest dwellers, thereby putting some of India’s most marginalised citizens at the risk of forcible eviction from their lands and homesteads.
In two separate affidavits filed before the Supreme Court, the state government blamed the District Level Committees— staffed by officers of the departments of Revenue, Forest and Tribal Affairs of the state administration and three nominated members from Panchayati Raj Institutions—for rejecting at least 22,509 forest rights claims across Maharashtra without appropriately assessing the evidence submitted to support these claims, or for rejecting these claims by giving irrelevant reasons.
Under the Forest Rights Act of 2006, each “claim” denotes the rights of an individual or community to continue to live, farm, or gather forest produce on a specific plot of forest land. A claim is first made to the Forest Rights Committee of a Gram Sabha followed by the Sub-Divisional Level Committee, both of which evaluate it in different ways, before it is finally sent to the District Level Committee for approval.
Holding the DLCs responsible for wrongful rejection of forest rights claims is significant as it directly contradicts petitioners who have asserted in a Supreme Court case that the “claims have been rejected after due verification and an appeals process.” Some of the petitioners are retired forest department officials.
A subsequent affidavit, filed by the Maharashtra government on September 4, 2019, suggests the number of wrongful rejections might even exceed 22, 509.
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The Maharashtra government affidavits cited in this story were filed in the context of a clutch of Supreme Court petitions on the implementation of the Forest Rights Act of 2006. On February 13, 2019, the court ordered the eviction of all forest dwellers whose rights claims were rejected, provoking concerns that 1.89 million forest dwellers could be forcibly evicted. One estimate put this number at 9.5 million forest dwellers.
On February 28, 2019, the court put its order on hold and asked state governments to explain how and why these claims were rejected, and if the forest dwellers were given an opportunity to provide evidence to support their claims on their lands.
The Supreme Court’s scrutiny, the Maharashtra government claims in one of its affidavits, has prompted the state to rethink its approach to evaluating claims under the Forest Rights Act, suggesting the rights of even more vulnerable families could have been summarily dismissed without proper evaluation.
“The close examination of the rejected cases under the directives of this Hon’ble Court has proven to be very insightful,” the state claimed in its affidavit filed on September 4, 2019. “It has come to the notice of the government that several similar cases have been rejected by the DLCs. The government further intends to study these cases in a manner similar to that of the 22, 509 cases.”
What Maharashtra Government’s Affidavits Reveal
In its most recent submissions before the Supreme Court, the Maharashtra government said that it has conducted a study of every one of the 22, 509 forest rights claims rejected by their district level committees.
This study found that, to prove their rights over specific forest lands, claimants attached “documentary evidence” like forest offence notices, forest fine receipts in 51% cases, while evidence such as voter ID, ration card, genealogy, statement of elders were attached in 38% cases.
“It appears that in most of the rejected cases the DLC has not been able to appreciate the admissible evidence,” the state government said in its July 11 affidavit. “In several instances, the reason for rejection has been given on extraneous grounds.”
And what are these extraneous, or irrelevant, grounds for rejecting forest rights claims?
The affidavit mentions one kind of ground: “For example, in the case of Scheduled Tribes claimant the DLC has rejected the claim application on the ground that the claimant has been unable to prove the residence of three generations which is required in case of Other Traditional Forest Dwellers, and not Scheduled Tribes under the said Act”.
Observing that the Forest Rights Act is “key to food security and livelihood of tribals and OTFDs” and therefore “should not be diluted in any manner”, the Maharashtra government added, “It is therefore submitted that there is a need to review the wrongfully rejected cases based on the findings of the study. That this is a rights based legislation and should not be curtailed in any manner.”
Maharashtra is not alone in its admission that the state had not assessed forest rights claims with the requisite rigour and fairness. In late July, HuffPost India reported the detailed discussions in a closed door meeting at the Ministry of Tribal Affairs in which nine other state governments admitted they had rejected over 13 lakh claims without following due procedure.
The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the case again on September 12.