A group of Baiga women in Madhya Pradesh, 2003. Representative photo: Simon Williams/Ekta Parishad
- Ahead of the Supreme Court’s final hearing of the case challenging the constitutionality of the Forest Rights Act, the law remains poorly implemented and tribals and forest dwellers have no respite.
- If the apex court upholds its previous eviction order, about 78 lakh individuals will be evicted from their land – an unprecedented scale of forced eviction undertaken by a democratic nation.
- In Madhya Pradesh, officials have rejected at least 2.36 lakh individual claims that were previously rejected or were kept pending and whose claimants had applied for a review.
New Delhi: More than 16 lakh tribal people and forest-dwelling families face the threat of eviction as their claims over forest land have been rejected across states.
Their fate now hangs on a final hearing in the Supreme Court on November 10, when it will conclude the case challenging the constitutionality of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006.
The FRA recognises individual rights, community rights and other forest rights of tribal and forest-dwelling communities who had possession of forest land on or before December 13, 2005. In the same case, on February 13, 2019, the apex court had directed states to evict anyone whose claims had been rejected. Yet lakhs of claims to forest-land rights were to be filed at the time.
The court had also directed states to review rejected claims and submit reports or affidavits within four months.
The eviction order was stayed on February 28 after the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) – the nodal ministry for implementing the law – intervened. It contested the order by highlighting gaps in the rejection orders passed by state governments.
According to the latest MoTA data, as of June 2022, around 38% – or 16.33 lakh claims – had been rejected of the 42.76 lakh individual claims filed.
Similarly, of the 1.69 lakh community claims filed, 40,422 claims had been rejected.
At the same time, in the three years between the 2019 eviction order and June 2022, the number of individual claims across states had increased by 1.92 lakh and community rights by 20,752.
Review of the rejected orders at various levels was expected to work in favour of the forest-dwellers. However, the official data said otherwise.
The 2019 eviction order was going to displace nearly 17.1 lakh individual households; more than 16.3 lakh families are still to be evicted if the Supreme Court upholds its previous order.
According to the National Family Health Survey, the average size of the Indian household is 4.8. This means 78 lakh individuals will be evicted from their (putative) land – an unprecedented scale of forced eviction undertaken by a democratic nation.
After the review process reportedly conducted at the time, the number of individual claims rejected came down only marginally – from 17.10 lakh to 16.33 lakh, and community claims from 45,045 to 40,422.
The last time the Supreme Court ordered evictions in the case, it triggered large-scale protests led by tribal organisations, which pushed the Union government to urge the court to withhold the order.
The FRA’s purpose is “to end the everyday harassment meted out to forest dwellers by local forest officials over conflicts on ownership of the forest lands,” Budhaditya Das, assistant professor in the School of Human Ecology at Ambedkar University, Delhi, told The Wire Science.
“For genuine applicants whose claims are rejected, such harassment will again become normalised. Wherever development and conservation projects are proposed or planned on forest lands, they may be forcibly evicted without their consent or meaningful rehabilitation,” Das added. “This will be a violation of Section 4(5) of the FRA.”
According to Section 4(5) of the Act:
“Save as otherwise provided, no member of a forest dwelling Scheduled Tribe or other traditional forest dweller shall be evicted or removed from forest land under his occupation till the recognition and verification procedure is complete.”
Rejections at three levels
The claims process goes through three levels of scrutiny. Before them: Individuals and communities claiming forest land rights are required to file applications at the gram sabhas of their respective villages.
At the first level, forest rights committees – consisting of gram sabha members and villagers – scrutinise the applications and recommend valid claims to the next level, the sub-divisional level committee (SDLC), for further checks.
The SDLC is headed by a sub-divisional officer and populated with forest officers and panchayat officials as members. It recommends claims for consideration at the final level, of the district-level committee (DLC).
The DLC is headed by the district collector, with the divisional forest officer or a deputy conservator of forests as one of its members. If the DLC approves a claim, the government grants a land title.
If a claim is rejected however, the claimants can appeal to the gram sabhas.
“The main reason for such a high number of rejections can be attributed to the wrongful or illegal rejections done by the forest officials in SDLCs and DLCs in violation of the legal procedure,” Tushar Dash, an Odisha-based independent researcher on forest rights, said.
Specifically, claims turned down by the DLCs and the SDLCs are returned to the gram sabhas for re-verification. The FRA also requires the committees to specify the reasons for rejection.
But often, “claimants and gram sabhas are not informed about the reasons for rejections, depriving claimants from appealing,” Dash said.
According to MoTA data, at least 10 lakh individual claims were rejected or were pending at the SDLC and the DLC levels as of June 2022.
“If there are any fraudulent applications, they get rejected at the gram sabha level itself, as the village communities are aware of who owns how much and which part of the forests,” said Shomona Khanna, a senior lawyer at the Supreme Court.
So according to her, lakhs of rejections at the SDLC and the DLC levels indicate either that a review process wasn’t conducted in many states or that the process was compromised in favour of forest departments.
In addition, while all state governments were supposed to file affidavits on the status of FRA implementation and review of rejected claims in four months, only a few have been up front about it.
From February 27, 2019, to August 30, 2022 – the day last hearing of the case – only nine states (Jharkhand, Goa, Nagaland, Gujarat, Manipur, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal) and two Union territories (Puducherry and Andaman and Nicobar) had filed their affidavits.
What happened in Madhya Pradesh?
In its February 2019 ruling, the Supreme Court had also asked states to provide details as to whether “the Tribals were given opportunity to adduce evidence” when their claims were rejected.
Nearly five months later, on July 8, 2019, the Madhya Pradesh Tribal Welfare Department issued a circular directing the DLCs to pass a resolution to review rejected claims. (Madhya Pradesh received the third highest number of claims after Chhattisgarh and Odisha.)
The state went digital to implement the FRA process. In May 2019, the department signed a memorandum of understanding with the Maharashtra Knowledge Corporation, Ltd. – an entity of the Maharashtra government – to develop a web portal called ‘Vanmitra’ with which to conduct the review process.
The portal was launched on October 2 that year.
On this portal, applicants whose claims were rejected could upload their claims. The government formed forest rights committees (FRCs) and directed assistants in the department of panchayat and rural development with gram panchayats to assist applicants in filing claims.
The FRCs, the SDLCs and the DLCs were tasked with subsequently reviewing the applications on the ‘Vanmitra’ portal itself. (Madhya Pradesh is the only state that conducted the review process digitally.)
Shivank Jhanji, a legal researcher on forest rights, filed an application under the Right to Information Act and obtained some telling information.
Before the review process commenced, some 3.49 lakh individual claims had been rejected in the state. Of them, per RTI data accessed by the author, around 2.69 lakh tribal individuals and forest-dwellers reapplied to have their claims reviewed on ‘Vanmitra’. And of them, at least 2.36 lakh claims – or 87% – were rejected once again or kept pending.
Around 80,000 claimants whose claims had been rejected earlier didn’t apply for a review.
Between October 2019 and June 2021, 4.19 lakh claims were uploaded on ‘Vanmitra’. Of them, the FRCs identified 2.69 lakh as previously rejected claims and the remainder as new or unverified claims at the time.
Subsequently, the FRCs approved 59,460 claims, the SDLCs approved 39,137; and the DLCs approved 32,935.
As of June 2022, 5.85 lakh individual claims had been filed in the state – and more than half, or 3.10 lakh claims, had stood rejected.
This was after conducting the review of rejected claims. While many states are yet to submit affidavits on the status of review of rejected claims – as the Madhya Pradesh government hadn’t communicated the reasons for rejection to most claimants – questions over the procedure that officials adopted in the review process remain unanswered.
Prudhviraj Rupavath is a researcher, land and forest governance, at Land Conflict Watch, an independent network of researchers studying land conflicts, climate change and natural resource governance in India.