03/07/2019 3:40 PM IST | Updated 03/07/2019 5:47 PM IST

10 Lakh Adivasis Face Eviction From Their Land – It All Hinges On One SC Order

Over 200 land rights and Adivasi activists met in New Delhi this week to discuss two key legislations that could impact India’s Adivasis in the near future. All eyes now on the hearing in SC on July 24.

BIJU BORO via Getty Images
Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures while addressing a Bharatiya Janata Party rally, dressed in traditional Khasi tribe attire and Garo tribe headgear, in Shillong on December 16, 2017. 

NEW DELHI—The wrinkles on Balkeshwar Singh’s forehead sharpen as he emphasises his words. As the sun overhead beats down unforgivingly in Delhi’s summer, the Adivasi activist from Bihar speaks without a halt.

“We are being labelled as Maoists because we talk about the rights of the people. We have not been given pattas by the forest department. In my block, there were 1600 applications for pattas under the Forest Rights Act but all of them were dismissed. One of these was my own application for forest land of 4 hectares,” he said

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But Singh, who was born into the Khairwar community of Adivasis, said it was not only the denial of rights that irked him. It was the labelling of a peaceful movement for land rights by Adivasi communities as Maoists by the state.

In Adhaura, his block in the Kaimur (Bhabhua) district of Bihar, the forest department has hardly recognised any genuine rights of claims over land titles. According to Singh, since the Kaimur Mukti Morcha—a local organisation campaigning for the proper implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) with which he is associated—has taken up this issue, it has been in the line of fire of the state. The forest department has refuted the local residents’ claims over some parts of forest land saying it was the department’s land. 

Singh travelled all the way from his village Bahabar to Delhi early this week to participate in a two-day meeting called by the national Land Rights Campaign—a platform of like minded organisations from across the country working for proper implementation of the FRA and other land rights related legislation. 

The two-day national consultation, a statement put out by the Land Rights Campaign said, was organised in the backdrop of the Supreme Court ruling in February 2019 that put Adivasi communities across the country at immediate risk of eviction from their homesteads. A proposed amendment of Indian Forests Act, 1927 (IFA) could put these communities further at risk.

The campaign is planning a series of protests before July 24, when the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the controversial FRA case again, and is considering other options including legal intervention, and lobbying with chief ministers and members of Parliament.

The campaign is planning a series of protests before July 24, when the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the controversial FRA case again, and is considering other options including legal intervention, and lobbying with chief ministers and members of Parliament.  

More than a hundred Adivasi activists like Singh attended the event. Munnar Gond from the Uttar Pradesh’s Sonbhadra district heads the Forest Rights Committee of his village gram sabha.

“Out of 102 applications for pattas, only one was accepted and given patta but others weren’t,” Gond said.

What was the reason for denial of his and others’ claims?

Most of those who filed their claims over land were unlettered people, Gond said, explaining that they could not produce documents to prove their Scheduled Tribe status or to confirm that they had been staying on the forest land for three generations. Though he had the documents to show that his family has been farming on the land since 1963, he did not have a caste certificate, Gond said. Socially, in his area, Gond is considered to be an Adivasi person.

The predicament of these two Adivasi activists offers a glimpse into the real-life limitations that forest dwellers across India, who wish to claim their rights over forests under the FRA, encounter and are often unable to surmount.

Balkeshwar Singh (Left) and Munnar Gond (Right) in different but related ways offer a glimpse into the real-life limitations that forest dwellers across India, who wish to claim their rights over forests under the FRA, encounter and are often unable to surmount 

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, better known as the FRA is considered to be a landmark law. It was passed in 2006 to undo the “historical injustice” to the tribals and other traditional forest dwellers, and recognise their rights over forest land and other resources which have been a source of their livelihood for centuries.

In an order given on February 13, 2019, the Supreme Court directed 21 states to evict tribals and other traditional forest dwellers since it considered them to be encroachers after their claims over land titles under the FRA had been rejected. The order caused an immediate furore as an estimated 10 lakh forest dwellers faced the threat of eviction from their homes as a consequence. 

The Supreme Court’s directions came in response to a bunch of petitions filed in 2008 by wildlife groups and former forest officials. Advocate Shomona Khanna, a former legal consultant to the Narendra Modi-led government’s Ministry of Tribal Affairs, who worked on this case for years, told HuffPost India at the time that, “This order is completely incorrect in law because it proceeds on the basis that an order of rejection of the forest rights claim is somehow an eviction order; it conflates the two.”

Khanna faulted the government, and not the judges who gave the controversial order, because, “There’s no one else to tell them (judges) the other side of the story. MOTA (Ministry of Tribal Affairs) has not argued its case at all. In matters of this nature, there won’t just be two sides of the story. There will be multiple sides to the story. So the tribal rights organisations were also in court but they were also not given a chance to argue.”

Though, after much controversy and requests from the Centre, the Supreme Court suspended its order till July 10, the threat of eviction has not disappeared. With the court now scheduled to take up the matter once again on July 24, the Adivasi rights organisations are preparing themselves in advance this time. 

How our laws impact forest dwellers

Singh and Gond were among more than 200 activists, working in 12 states, who gathered in Delhi on Monday and Tuesday to deliberate how two key legislations — the FRA and the IFA — could impact India’s Adivasis in the near future. 

The IFA also became a concern after the Modi government, within weeks of the Supreme Court’s controversial order, circulated the draft of proposed amendments to the colonial-era law. There are fears that some of the draft amendments may override the FRA as well. Of greater concern is the immunity to forest officials for using firearms, which the rights groups consider to be dangerous. 

It is evident that both land rights and Adivasi rights groups see the Supreme Court order and the draft amendments to the Indian Forest Act as an attack on Adivasi communities. A statement put out by the Land Rights Campaign after the two-day-long meeting said, “The House rejects the proposed amendments to the Indian Forest Act, 1927 and demands that the Forest Rights Act be enforced effectively. The movements have demanded for years that Forest Act, 1927 should be changed and therefore, the organizations present in the House will prepare a new draft for this law.” 

The rights groups have planned a series of activities to build public opinion and register their protests. They include: a) protests condemning government actions, forest act amendments will be organized on 22 July at the village, block, district and state levels, b) appeals to chief ministers across India to present the case in favour of the FRA and the Adivasis in the Supreme Court, c) intervene collectively in the ongoing case in the Supreme Court, d) Reach out to the progressive and SC/ST MPs of the ruling party and the oppostion to inform them of FRA and other laws and their approach to the issue and e) massive demonstrations jointly organised by land and forest rights movements in Delhi on Sansad Marg, Delhi on 28 November. 

Will these actions help turn the tide against anti-Adivasi laws that threaten to harm the forest communities? Balkeshwar Singh said he will keep a keen watch on how the Narendra Modi-led government as well as the government in his home state respond.