NEW DELHI :
The Supreme Court on Thursday stayed its previous order to evict forest dwellers in over 16 states, in a major relief for over a million people affected by the order.
On 13 February, the apex court had directed state governments to evict Forest Dwelling Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers, whose claims over forest land were rejected under the 2006 Forest Rights Act.
On Thursday, a bench of justices Arun Mishra, Navin Sinha and M.R. Shah stayed the eviction proceedings and gave the state governments four months to submit detailed affidavits about procedures followed to assess the claims.
The court also sought information on whether the claims were rejected after following due process of law and if state-level committees had actually monitored the processes, as per the mandate of the Act.
The directions came after the Union ministry of tribal affairs approached the court pleading for modification and a temporary stay on the implementation of the eviction order. The ministry maintained that Forest Rights Act is a welfare legislation and under the Act, the rejection of a claim does not ipso facto lead to the eviction of forest dwellers and tribals.
The ministry had also expressed concern over the high rate of rejections of claims and submitted that since the details of rejection claims have not been provided by the governments, it is possible the poor and illiterate forest dwellers may not have got due opportunity to substantiate their claims.
“It is uncertain whether the data furnished by the state governments accurately indicates whether the rejection orders were passed after observance of due process of law. Without this information, such eviction would only cause serious prejudice to tribals residing in those forests for years," stated solicitor general Tushar Mehta.
The Forest Rights Act, 2006 grants legal recognition to the rights of traditional forest-dwelling communities to land and other resources denied to them over decades.
While the court heard the arguments, it also reprimanded the ministry for its delayed response on the issue and asked if it was in slumber all this while. The court had first sought details of number of claims rejected and the subsequent action in 2016, following a petition seeking eviction of forest dwellers whose claims were rejected.
The court also made strong note that the undeserving cannot be permitted to masquerade as forest dwellers and encroach upon forest land.
According to data submitted by state governments, there are nearly 1.18 million forest dwellers in as many as 16 states including Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh whose claims have been rejected. All of them could face possible eviction as per court orders.
Meanwhile, a satellite survey by Forest Survey of India is also underway to determine the positions of encroachments. The next date of hearing is 10 July.