Statement On The Supreme Court Order On Eviction Of Forest-Dwellers

WSS condems Supreme Court Order on eviction of forest-dwellers

A death sentence for millions of Adivasis and traditional forest communities

Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS) is dismayed and outraged at the Supreme Court order of 13th February 2019, directing state governments to evict Adivasis and other forest dwellers whose claims under the Forest Rights Act have been ‘rejected’.

There can be no greater irony than this – that these communities are being dispossessed in the name of the Forest Rights Act, the law that claims to correct “historical injustices” and restore the traditional rights of Adivasis and other traditional forest-dwellers and forest-dependent communities.

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA) was the outcome of a long history of struggles for rights to jal, jangal, zameen. The FRA recognises and empowers the Gram Sabhas for democratic governance and protection of natural resources and recognises the role of women and traditional communities in sustainable management of these resources. It also invalidates and overturns the hegemonic control of the Indian state over land and forests, enforced through the forest bureaucracy which has continued the colonial project of domination over the forest-dwelling peoples of India who have been subjected to brutal violence, atrocities and repression by the forest department.

The FRA is an implicit indictment of a development model that has fuelled a vortex of ecological devastation through the blind promotion of mining, dams and large-scale commercial exploitation of natural resources. Thousands of people have been uprooted from their lands, losing their livelihoods and breaking their connections with their languages, traditions and spiritual practices. Women in particular have been subjected to brutal sexual violence by the state, which dismisses them as ‘collateral damage’ in the war for control of forests and natural resources

Since 2008 when it was operationalised, the FRA has enabled a series of landmark victories for forest communities and their gram sabhas. In Niyamgiri, the Dongria Kondh community successfully repelled attempts by the Vedanta corporation to take over and destroy their rich forests. Women from Adivasi communities in Balrampur launched a ‘new’ Chipko movement to claim their rights and halt massive tree-felling drives by the Forest Development Corporation. In Darjeeling, gram sabhas asserted their rights to demand compliance with environmental and consent provisions during the construction of the Rongpo-Sevoke highway. Forest communities are protecting the Aarey forests against the inflated ambitions of the bullet train project. In Lippa in Himachal Pradesh, communities have mobilised to save rivers choking under the weight of hundreds of dams.

There are innumerable such struggles all over the country, where forest communities, empowered by the recognition of their traditional rights under the FRA, are challenging displacement and dispossession. Each of these struggles has dealt a blow to the hegemonic power of the state. It is the beneficiaries of this power – the forest department, former zamindars and conservationist NGOs – have now come together in an unholy alliance to claim that the FRA is endangering animal habitats and threatening “development”.

The present order of the Supreme Court has the potential to unleash the largest dispossession of peoples in human history. About 20 lakh households- more than 10 million women, men and children – now stand to be evicted from forests across the country.

The order conflates rejections with illegality, overturns the guarantees of due process and allows bypassing of statutory processes of fair hearing, re-verifications and appeal, all of which are enshrined in the FRA and other forest-related laws and legislations. The order violated not just the spirit of FRA but also ignores the Constitutional mandate and powers of the Gram Sabha under PESA. It accords a flimsy cover of legality to the wholesale and completely illegal rejections of FRA claims through the machinations of local power-holders – a dynamic that has been repeatedly recognised by various state governments and has been validated by the Gujarat High Court.

In one stroke, the SC order legalises the wholesale rejection of claims, driven by the forest department, ex-zamindars, elite-controlled conservationist groups and corporate interests who have connived with local administrations to subvert the implementation of the FRA.

WSS condemns and denounces the Government of India for its refusal to appear in the mater and fulfil its Constitutional duty to represent and protect the interests of Adivasis and forest dependent people. The Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs – the nodal agency for implementing and monitoring of the FRA – did not even send in its legal counsel to argue the case in favour of the forest dependent people. These failures and silences cannot be dismissed as mere coincidences – they are clearly a reflection of a considered contempt for the rights, dignity and lives of millions of citizens.

WSS condemns and calls out the culpability of State governments who, regardless of political affiliations, have deliberately dragged their feet in implementing the FRA and have actively attempted to hijack, derail and dilute it. WSS has investigated and documented the price paid by women in states like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa where State governments have brazenly colluded with corporate interests to sell out Adivasi and forest-dwelling communities.

WSS also calls to account the conservation lobby led by a few elite organisations, who claim to be torch bearers of ‘protecting forests’ even as they aid and abet the corporate takeover of natural resources, propagating a colonial notion of conservation that flies in the face of both modern science and traditional wisdom.

WSS stands in solidarity with the Adivasis, forest communities, forest dependent people and with movements and organisations fighting for the rights of these communities.

We demand:

  • Immediate steps by Government of India and state governments for review and recall of the SC order.

  • Action by state governments and human rights institutions to prevent the forest bureaucracy from carrying out forced evictions to establish control over forest lands;

  • Re-affirmation by the courts, the Government of India and State governments of the rights and authorities of the gram sabha under the FRA in democratically protecting and conserving forests, and safeguarding the rights of adivasis and forest-dwelling peoples;

  • Pro-active interventions by national human rights institutions to upholding of the constitutional rights and dignity of Adivasis and other traditional forest dwellers.

26th February 2019

जो ज़मीन सरकारी है, वो ज़मीन हमारी है!

अमु अक्खा एक छे!

लोक सभा न विशां सभा, सब्सी बड़ी ग्राम सभा

Women, Adivasis and Dalits unite, for our survival we shall fight!

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