The People’s Climate Network (PCN) is dismayed by the recent order, on 13 February, of the Supreme Court of India directing that forest dwellers whose claims for rights under the Forest Rights Act, 2006 have been rejected, be summarily evicted. The Chief Secretary of each concerned state government has been directed to ensure that “eviction will be carried out on or before the next date of hearing” (24 July). This order potentially affects the lives and livelihoods of over a million Adivasis and other forest dwellers across 16 states in this country. It runs contrary to the provisions of the Indian Constitution. Instead of putting pressure on the States to correctly implement the Forest Rights Act (2006) (FRA) including a review of the rejected claims via due process, and enforcement of the right to appeal, the Supreme Court ruling undermines the FRA, whose enactment and process of implementation is a consequence of several years of people’s struggles.
Forests form the ecological base on which all life on earth is supported. The presence of forests are vital as a carbon sink, in halting soil erosion, in preventing sedimentation and siltation of rivers and in maintaining soil fertility. They are also home to indigenous communities all across India and in other parts of the world. India is a signatory to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which urges member states to “move forward together on the path of human rights, justice and development for all.”
The Forest Rights Act, 2006 was enacted in this spirit, but the recent Supreme Court order to evict over a million Adivasis is in direct contravention of the UN Declaration. It is rather shameful that the Government of India did not launch a vigorous defence of the FRA, which protects the rights of the most vulnerable people of India. Instead, through its silence, it backed the position of the petitioners who believe that Adivasi communities do not belong in the forest.
If so, the petitioners, the Government of India and the Supreme Court are in error. There’s no contradiction between the protection of forests and the rights of Adivasis since we know that indigenous communities have been the most important stewards of forests everywhere in the world. While the main petitioner in the recent Supreme Court order on forest rights—Wildlife First—believes that the presence of Adivasi communities in forests is a danger, the truth is otherwise. A recent study by the Wildlife Conservation Society along with the University of Queensland, Charles Darwin University, University of Maryland, and others shows that “Indigenous Peoples are critical to maintaining intact forest landscapes that are essential for avoiding catastrophic climate change.”
Therefore, we find it mystifying that the Supreme Court of India has directed the eviction of over 1 million forest dwellers in the name of conservation. The Supreme Court order sets a dangerous precedent for continued erosion of our environment.
The order carries the potential danger of further making way for the exploitation of our forests and forest lands by large companies, other commercial interests, and the state. This would have deeply hazardous implications for people’s livelihoods, their access to forests and the commons, and carries the danger of polluting rivers, water bodies, the soil and groundwater. Such intensified deforestation also directly contributes further to global warming, by both destroying and reducing a carbon sink and adding to carbon dioxide emissions from deforestation.
(Editor’s note: Responding to the nationwide protests against the order, on February 28, the Supreme Court stayed the implementation of its earlier order evicting more than 10 lakh families of Adivasis and other forest-dwellers from forest lands across 16 states.)
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