The Supreme Court order of 20 February that 11,27,446 adivasi households in the forest land across 16 states should be evicted, is extraordinary and causes concern. The apex court has asked the respective state chief secretaries to evict them and submit a report by 12 July 2019.
Despite being one of far-reaching consequences, the verdict does not seem to have captured sufficient headlines only because of the indifferent attitude of mainstream media and politial community towards adivasi communities. In terms of numbers, 11 lakhs households would multiply three or four times that of individuals who will come under the purview of the order. And that means millions of adivasis are going to be expelled from their ancestral dwelling areas. This includes 894 households from Kerala too.
It was in response to a petition by the voluntary organization, Nature Conservative Society that the three-judge bench led by Ashok Bhushan issued the verdict. The Forest Rights Act passed by UPA government in 2006, confers on the traditional forest dwellers a legal right to continue living in the forest land. The law permits families who have been living there for two generations, on production of necessary documents, to continue to dwell in their ancestral homes. The Forest Rights Act was in fact enacted as a historic correction of the Indian Forest Act of 1927 that portrayed the adivasis living in forestlands as encroachers. Naturally, the 2006 legislation was hailed as a progressive measure doing justice to the weaker sections. But 11 lakh households, who could not produce the 'evidence' and 'documents' as required in the Act within the time limit specified in it, are now ordered to be evicted. Technically, this may be fine. But the tribals who find it hard even to earn their daily bread, may have no clue about how to obtain 'evidence' and 'documents' to prove their stay. Then as a result, they will be thrown out of the habitat they have been living in for generations, for reasons not known to them.
The sangh parivar usually claim that they are the group working most sincerely for the uplift of the tribals. And an outfit of theirs, named 'Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram' is working solely to mobilise and Hinduise adivasis, too. But curiously enough, when the case regarding eviction of adivasis was being heard by the court, the counsel of the sangh parivar government at the centre did not even appear. Which speaks sufficiently for the cavalier fashion in which the central government is viewing this matter.
The Supreme Court has now ordered the eviction of 11 lakh people whose applications were rejected for reason of failure to produce sufficient evidence. If we add to this the people whose cases have not yet been disposed of after verification of documents and in case they also fail to submit sufficient documents, the list of evicted will get much longer. A few days before the Supreme Court order, Congress President Rahul Gandhi had sent letters to the chief ministers of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. The essence of his letter was that the cases of rejected applications should be reconsidered in such a way as to protect the spirit of the Forest Rights Act. But now, because of the disappointingly lackadaisical approach of the Centre, the door to such a possibility also looks closed.
Across the country, there is a move to expel the tribal residents from forest lands in the name of environment protection. Behind this move are outfits known in different names, and outwardly bearing optics of keen environment protectionists. But in reality, they are not people motivated by any love for environment, but instead the lackeys of monopoly mine lobbies. And they are behind the petition based on which Supreme Court issued the verdict, too. They pay hefty fees to top ranking lawyers and argue their case; on the other hand the Centre's counsels go missing when its arguments have to be presented. And the hapless adivasis, caught between these, get to know nothing of what happens there. Then the court issues verdicts solely on the grounds of legalities of the issue. Finally millions of human beings lose their very habitat. That is what happens. No doubt, in order to survive this court order, legal initiatives and popular interventions are imperative.