The idea of heaven for an Indian forest dweller is miles and miles of forest without a forest guard, wrote celebrated anthropologist Verrier Elwin in 1941 on the colonial administration’s subjugation of tribes to an array of laws, such that each “breaks one forest law every day of his life". The Forest Rights Act, 2006, was a landmark legislation to correct historic injustices and legally recognize the community rights of forest dwellers over their land. The Act allowed forest dwellers to file claims for land titles inside forest areas and as a community to use the forest commons. State governments were put in charge of verifying and approving the claims. On 13 February, the Supreme Court, while hearing a petition filed by conservation groups who questioned the constitutional validity of the Act, ordered the immediate eviction of more than a million households on forest lands, apparently to protect wildlife. The court agreed with the petitioner’s contention that households whose claims to forest land were rejected have to be evicted by July—ordering a mass eviction, the largest till date in independent India. The court’s decision is in sharp contrast to how it recognized the rights of the Dongria Kondh tribes in 2013 against a bauxite mining project in Niyamgiri, Odisha, following a rigorous process of local consultation. The utter irony in this fiasco is that a progressive legislation has been turned on its head to evict the people it was enacted to protect, when the law itself did not have any provisions for eviction.
The court proceedings also showed the callousness of the central government. During the hearing, the centre did not put up a strong defence of the rights of the tribals, though the ministry of tribal affairs is aware that claims of impoverished tribals are often rejected at the insistence of the powerful forest bureaucracy who are part of the local and state-level committees that review claims. While state governments are unlikely to implement the court order, at least before and during the general election, many fear that the judgement may be used selectively in the future, for instance, in cases where tribals oppose mining or other industrial projects. After all, such projects will not need people’s consent if there are no people to begin with.
However, one can hope that the judgement may force some overdue introspection and debate. It is undeniable that the forest cover India has lost is due to urbanization, industrial, and mining projects and the spread of commercial agriculture, while the tribal forest dwellers lived and protected for centuries the land that held valuable minerals like coal, bauxite and iron ore underneath. The loss of green cover has hurt their daily lives as much as it has hurt the wild animals. To designate tribals as encroachers on their own land is not just a travesty of justice, but is also seeped in ignorance of the history of development. India’s first environment movement in 1973 to protect the forests was not started by staunch conservationists or the forest department—it was started by the local residents of Chamoli in Uttarakhand who stood up against commercial logging and led the Chipko movement. Enclosing forests and displacing indigenous communities will only lead to more destruction of India’s green cover.