SC stay on eviction welcome

SC stay on eviction welcome

The Supreme Court has done well to stay its recent order for eviction of forest dwellers whose claim on land had been rejected under the Forests Rights Act, 2006. The original ruling had ordered ouster of over a million forest residents in various parts of the country by July 13. These are people who could not prove that they are traditional forest residents and have depended on forest produce for livelihood for 75 years before the cut-off year of 2005. The Forest Rights Act had made proof mandatory, but the rules had prescribed liberal provisions for the proof. The Centre and the Gujarat government sought a review of the judgement. Other governments, political parties and social activists also expressed concern over the eviction of such large numbers of poor people who did not have other means of livelihood. 

The Forests Rights Act tried to reconcile the need for preservation of forests with the rights of tribals who live there. It accepted the principle that the traditional dwellers of forests have a right to live there, use the forest produce and earn their livelihood with forest-related work. This was also rightly taken to be necessary for preservation of the forests. A large number of people who were to be evicted as per the ruling did not pass the test of tenure because the due process was not followed in the tests. Recognising that documentation of tenure would be difficult to get, the rules had allowed multiple pieces of evidence, like the statements of village elders, presence of houses and farm plots, etc. But there are many complaints that gram sabhas involved in the decisions did not consider all the admissible evidence. That has led to denial of due process to many forest dwellers. The situation was in some ways similar to the determination of illegal migrants in Assam.

The court has said due process should be followed by the gram sabhas and state authorities in deciding the claims of all those who now face eviction threat. The court will take up the matter again on July 10. It must be ensured that no one who has a legal right to live in the forest should be denied the right because they are poor, illiterate or ignorant, or because of the callousness of the authorities. At the same time those who have been planted in forests as proxies or cover by vested interests should not get the protection of law. This is because it is vitally important to protect the forests. Governments should also relocate and rehabilitate those who deserve to be helped among those who fail the test of tenure.