The Supreme Court on Thursday stayed its February 13 order related to the eviction of lakhs of tribals from forests across the country.
The top court, however, asked 21 states to file an affidavit detailing the steps taken on rejections of the tribals' claims under the Forest Rights Act 2006 and if the due procedure was followed.
A three-judge bench presided over by Justice Arun Mishra allowed a plea made by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who said the Centre wanted to convene a meeting of states to find out if the tribals were informed of their rights of appeal or not and if the states set up a review committee or not.
The bench, also comprising Justices Navin Sinha and M R Shah, questioned the Centre for "being in slumber" all this while.
"It is not our job to find out if proper procedure was followed or not. We can't do all this. You go in slumber. When we passed our order, why you did not object," the bench asked Mehta and other counsel, representing states.
The court pointed out that the eviction order was passed on January 20, 2016, and the February 13 order was just a follow-up.
Mehta said forest dwelling tribals are essential part of the forest and both have co-existed in the world over.
The court said the government has to be careful and ensure that nobody under the garb of being tribals was allowed to encroach upon the forest.
The Union government has on Wednesday approached the court for modification of the February 13 order to 21 state governments for eviction of lakhs of Forest Dwelling STs (FDSTs) and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs) whose claims have been rejected under the Forest Rights Act, 2006.
"The FDSTs and OTFDs are extremely poor and illiterate people and not well informed of their rights and procedure under the Act. They live in remote and inaccessible areas of the forest. It is difficult for them to substantiate their claims before the competent authorities," the Centre had said.
The court had then directed chief secretaries of various states, including of Karnataka, to explain as why after the rejection of the claims, which have attained finality, eviction has not been made.
In its application, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs said it was uncertain whether the data furnished by the state governments accurately indicated, whether the rejection orders were passed after observance of due process of law, compliance with principles of natural justice and whether appeal mechanisms have been properly exhausted.
“A large number of tribal and other forest dwellers would be liable to be evicted by the state governments without observance of due process of law. In the respectful submission of the applicant, under the Act, the rejection of a claim does not ipso facto lead to the eviction of a tribal. There is no provision in the Act that provides for eviction after a claim is rejected," it said.
The government said it was a historical fact that in the colonial era, the British had diverted abundant forest wealth of the nation to meet its economic needs. While the procedure for settlement of rights was provided under statutes such as the Indian Forest Act, 1927, these were hardly followed on the ground.
As a result, tribal and forest-dwelling communities, which had been living within the forests in harmony with the environment and the ecosystem; continued to live inside the forests in a precarious state of tenurial insecurity, a situation which continued even after independence due to highly marginalised nature of such communities, it added.
The top court's order has caused a huge furore with political parties asking the government to seek its review for its possible adverse impact on a large number of population.
In Karnataka, 48,432 claims have been filed by STs and 2,27,014 by OTFDs. Out of these, 35,521 claims of STs and 1,41,019 claims of OTFDs have been rejected.