The February 13, 2019 order of the Supreme Court to several States to evict lakhs of claimants finally rejected under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) is an outcome of the consistent stand taken by the top court in the case since 2016 that encroachers should be evicted from forest land after due process.
On January 29, 2016, a three-judge Bench of Justices J. Chelameswar (now retired), A.M. Sapre and Amitava Roy (retired) held that “if the claim is found to be not tenable by the competent authority, the result would be that the claimant is not entitled for the grant of any patta or any other right under the Act, but such a claimant is also either required to be evicted from that parcel of land or some other action is to be taken in accordance with law.”
Two years later, on March 7 last year, an Bench of Justices Madan B. Lokur, Kurian Joseph (both retired) and Deepak Gupta again sought information from the States concerned about the “action taken against those claimants whose claims have been rejected” and “the status of eviction of those claimants whose claims have been rejected and the total area from which they have been evicted,” among other directions.
The February 13, 2019 order was a follow-up of these two orders passed in January 2016 and March 2018. All three orders are based on a writ petition jointly filed by NGOs Wildlife First, Nature Conservation Society and Tiger Research and Conservation Trust in 2008.
The three orders do not question the three-tiered verification process, which forest rights claims undergo under the 2006 Act.
The process of verification of the claims of forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFD) is initiated by none other than the local gram sabha. The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Rules of 2007 mandates that the gram sabha coram should have adequate representation from Scheduled Tribes, primitive tribal groups and pre-agricultural communities.
An appeal would lie with the sub-divisional level committee against the gram sabha’s decision on claims. This committee is formed by the State government. A second appeal can be filed with the district level committee, whose decision over the claims of forest rights would be “final and binding.”
“Finally rejected” claims
It is these “finally rejected” claims that the Supreme Court is bothered about. The court has not interfered with claimants whose titles have proven to be genuine as per the three-tiered verification process under the 2006 Act.
In fact, statistics available with the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA), which is the nodal agency under the 2006 Act, show that lakhs of titles were distributed to genuine claimants even as several lakh claims were rejected across 20 States.
The MoTA’s data up to November 2018 shows that 42,24,951 claims from individuals and communities were received till November 30 last year. Of this, 18,94,225 titles were distributed and 19,39,231 rejected. The data, collated from inputs supplied by the States, show that titles were distributed to 44.83% of the number of claims received.
Reports have criticised the Centre for remaining a 'mute spectator' on February 13. In fact, the 2016 order records the stand taken by the Centre, represented by then Additional Solicitor General P.S. Narasimha, in the case.
The Centre made it clear to the Supreme Court on January 29, 2016 that it was entirely up to the State governments and its authorities to legally proceed against those who were unauthorisedly in possession of forest land within their respective jurisdictions.