Supreme Court Stays Eviction of Forest Dwellers


The Supreme Court has stayed its own order of 13th own order of evicting lakhs of dwellers living on encroached forest land. It has come as a huge relief for the people living in the forests for many generations. Around the world, as communities expand, and natural places are reduced, people and wildlife are increasingly coming into conflict over living space and food. If humans make proper use of space and food, it is possible to have enough for animals also. While key areas should be protected for wildlife, buffer zones need to be created and investing in alternative land uses are some of the solutions to tide over the problem of humans and animals’ conflict. Keeping the goal to avoid such conflicts the Forest Rights Act was passed in 2006, which says that those who are living in jungles would have to stake claims of their rights. Thereafter, it will be verified by the authorities but if they fail to fulfil the criteria as laid down in the Act, they will be evicted. Clutch of Public Interest Petitions were, nevertheless, filed in the Supreme Court for and against the implementation of the Act.

The aims and objects of justice are that it must have a human face. This has been the reason that even at the cost of health, hygiene and any planning the humans have been given utmost importance in the judicial pronouncements. The underline principle is that all human being is equal in dignity and rights. Equality is one of the fundamental factors, which enables everyone to live a life of dignity and enjoy its full potential. The Supreme Court has been striving hard, right from its inception, to dispensing justice in a manner that upholds the honour and the dignity of every citizen. This has been the reason that it has often come to the rescue and relief of those who are deprived and denied even basic human rights.

The Apex Court has been reminding and pulling up the authorities, time and again, to ensure that they fulfil obligations to the general public. And whenever the state or its apparatus have failed to fulfil the objectives, the Supreme Court has not hesitated in giving the rap on the knuckles of the concerned authorities. Way back in 1985 in ‘Olga Tellis and others vs Bombay Municipal Corporation’, the Supreme Court had made it mandatory for the authorities to provide alternate accommodation to the slum dwellers if their shantytowns were demolished.

However, that was the case of rich versus poor, where the poor were being ignored by the authorities but when it comes to the existence of humans and animals, the Court cannot sit idle in order to ensure the very survival of animals. The Court has always ensured that a balance should be struck between the humans and the animal. Needless to underline that due to the increasing conflict between humans and animals, the lives of animals have become very dangerous and difficult. Now in a petition filed by the Wildlife Trust of India, Nature Conservation Society and Tiger Reservation and Conservation Trust the Supreme Court has ordered all the state governments to ensure that the encroachment of forests by human beings should be evicted. This order will impact the lives of millions of people belonging to the Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs) and that is why a large number of organisations have come out demanding review of the Supreme Court order.

When the Forest Rights Act (FRA) was passed, it required the government to hand back traditional forestlands to tribal and other forest-dwellers even against the laid down criteria. It intended to provide a framework to recognize and vest the rights and occupation in forest land to Scheduled Tribes, who have been residing in such forests for generations but whose rights could not be recorded.

There are over 100 million people who make up India’s tribal population, four million of which reside in protected forest areas of nearly 500 wildlife sanctuaries and 90 national parks. It gave them the legal right to live and work on the land for three generations. According to the Supreme Court order, the claims of 18 Lakh dwellers have been accepted and their titles have been handed over to them and their families. But more than a million claims have been rejected, who face eviction. The Court has now said that the state governments would ‘ensure that where the rejection orders have been passed, the eviction will be carried out on or before 27th July 2019. In case the eviction is not carried out, as aforesaid, the matter would be viewed seriously by this Court.’

The order of the Supreme Court has caused a great deal of panic and anxiety for the state governments. As per the available records, approximately 12.50 lakh hectares of forest land is under encroachment and the Court ruled that ‘all encroachments which are not eligible for regularisation should be summarily evicted in a time-bound manner. The forest dwellers say that authorities have always been hostile towards them mainly due to the right of collecting and selling the Minor Forest Produce (MFP), which the (Adivasis and forest dwellers) get under the Forest Right Act. MFP is a major source of revenue and forest authorities do not want to lose it because states earn more revenue from MFP than they earn from timber.

This order, as expected, has acquired political overtones. Some parties and organisations have even asked the Central Government to bring an ordinance so that lakhs of forest dwellers are saved from eviction.  At least two-thirds of the country’s forest lands are tribal lands under the Vth Schedule of the constitution. The implementation of this order will definitely see more unrest in various parts of India, which is being seen to lead to the impoverishment of the tribal and the other forest dwelling communities.

However, the Supreme Court in its main order has tersely asked for its compliance. It said that once the orders of eviction have been passed, the eviction ought to have taken place without any compromise. The Court has asked the Chief Secretaries to the States to file an affidavit as to why the orders of eviction have not been carried out so far in respect of the incumbents whose claims have been rejected. In the case of Assam, the Court found that the total numbers of claims belonging to Scheduled Tribe is 74,364 and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers is 19966. The Court ordered that the Divisional Forest Officers, within their jurisdiction, to submit proposal to the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest & Head of the Forest Force to carry out eviction in respect of claims rejected by the District Level Committee and that steps should be taken for eviction of all the encroachers/claimants whose claims have been rejected. The Chief Secretaries to the States have also been directed to file an affidavit stating whether the incumbents in respect of whom the rejection orders have been passed, have been evicted or not? And if not, the reasons for the same must be recorded. More or less, similar orders for eviction have been passed in respect of other states.

In case of the State of Uttar Pradesh, it was found that 31,846 claims have been filed by STs and 50,442 claims have been filed by OTFDs, out of the above, 20494 claims of STs and 38167 claims have been rejected. Therefore, the Chief Secretary to the State of Uttar Pradesh will have to tell as to why after the rejection of the claims, which have attained finality, eviction has not been made. The Chief Secretary shall ensure that where the rejection orders have been passed, the eviction will be carried out on or before July 2019.

The court has also directed to the Forest Survey of India (FSI) to make a satellite survey and place on record the encroachment positions and also state the positions after the eviction as far as possible. The ideal position in any civil society is that there should be no encroachment but in India, it has become a rule rather than an exception.

Many organisations have welcomed the order of the Supreme Court as it will go a long way for saving wild animals, who have the inherent right to live in jungles, which is being endangered because of the encroachers. On the other hand, some parties are asking that forest dwellers need not be disturbed until a comprehensive rehabilitation policy is put in place. Whenever any orders by the Supreme Court or the High Courts are passed for evicting the encroachers, the politics come into play. As a result of it, the encroachers make the hay while the sun shines and the country, as a whole, suffers. Hopefully, the Court will have a holistic look at it. The humane consideration of justice is laudable, but it should not be stretched too far as to disrupt the ecological balance and cause constant conflict with animals.