SC stays Feb 13 order for eviction of tribals, forest dwellers
Directs States to file affidavits to show process of verification of claims, rejections was fair
The Supreme Court on Thursday stayed its controversial February 13 order directing the eviction of lakhs of Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers whose claims for forest land rights have been rejected under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006.
The Bench, led by Justice Arun Mishra, however, said "the mighty and the undeserving" who have encroached on forest lands would be shown no mercy.
The Bench acknowledged the need to further delve into whether due process was followed by gram sabhas and States' authorities under the FRA before the claims for forest rights of forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes (FDST) and other traditional forest dwellers (OTFD) were finally rejected.
Over 11 lakh ST and OTFDs across 16 States faced the brunt of the apex court's order of eviction on February 13.
The apex court has now given the States four months' time to file affidavits responding to allegations that there was a high rate of rejection of claims, non-communication of rejection orders, unrealistic timelines in deciding claims, irregular holding of State Level Monitoring Committee meetings, lack of support from the district administrations concerned in providing revenue or forest maps, rejection of claims despite incomplete or insufficient evidence, etc. In fact, the court wants to know whether tribals and OTFDs were ousted from forest lands on the basis of sketchy, incomplete information and data.
The order was passed by the Bench, also comprising Justices Navin Sinha and M.R. Shah, on the basis of an application by the Centre to modify the February 13 order.
The government, represented by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, submitted the order has affected a "large number of families". The Centre said the States should first file proper affidavits on the procedure followed in the verification of forest rights claims before any such eviction.
"The eviction of the tribals may be withheld... the eviction of tribals, without such information, would cause serious prejudice to them who have been residing in forests for generations... Many are poor and illiterate," Mr. Mehta submitted.
To this, initially, Justice Mishra asked whether the Centre was in a "slumber for the past three years". Justice Mishra observed that the February 13 order was only a follow-up of the court's order on January 29, 2016, which had also directed the eviction of encroachers into forest lands. The court asked why there were no mechanism in place in the States or in the Centre to review the rejection orders.
Senior advocate Shyam Divan, for petitioner NGO Wildlife First, countered that lakhs of genuine claims were honoured under the FRA. He showed the MoTA’s data up to November 2018 that 42,24,951 claims from individuals and communities were received till November 30 last year. Of this, 18,94,225 titles were distributed while 19,39,231 claims were rejected. The ministry data, collated from inputs supplied by the States, show that titles were distributed to 44.83% of the number of claims received.
To this, Justice Mishra said "are they (rejected claimants) really tribals or normal people encroaching on forest lands?"
Justice Sinha said the Rules under the 2006 Act comprehensively cover every stage of the process of verification of claims and the provisions were self-explanatory.
"This is a human problem more than a legal problem," Mr. Mehta responded.
"Encroaching forest lands is a serious problem," Justice Shah addressed Mr. Mehta.
"But forests and tribals are to co-exist," the Solicitor-General responded.
The Centre argued that the 2006 Act is a beneficial legislation which should be liberally construed in favour of the poor.