India’s forest-dependent communities are to petition and protest against a court order to evict more than 1 million indigenous people whose land claims were rejected, land rights campaigners said yesterday.
Earlier this month, India’s Supreme Court asked officials in nearly two dozen states to submit details of claims that were settled under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006, and evict those whose applications were turned down before July 24.
The FRA, passed by the Congress government, which is now the main opposition party, aimed to improve the lives of impoverished tribes by recognizing their right to inhabit and live off forests where their ancestors had settled.
Under the FRA, at least 150 million people could have their rights recognized to about 40 million hectares of forest land, but government data showed that more than half the claims have been rejected.
Congress party President Rahul Gandhi, who has made land rights a key part of his campaign ahead of national elections due by May, on Saturday asked chief ministers of Congress-led states to file petitions against the court order “to preempt large scale evictions”.
The Tribal Affairs Ministry on Friday said it would defend the constitutional validity of the FRA, and “do everything to safeguard the interests of the tribals.”
Its assurance is too late, said Geetanjoy Sahu of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, who has researched FRA.
“The ministry should have ensured states implemented FRA properly, and helped claimants who were rejected, as they got no explanation and had no clue about the appeals process,” he said.
“Civil society organizations that focused on submitting claims and failed to follow up, are also to blame for where we have ended up,” he said.
A growing population and increasing demand for industrial projects are placing greater stress on land in India.
Resource-rich tribal areas are particularly under pressure, despite the FRA and a 1996 law that gives indigenous people the right to govern their land.
India’s 104 million tribal people — also known as Adivasis, or “original inhabitants” — make up less than 10 percent of India’s population, but accounted for 40 percent of people forced from their homes between 1951 and 1990, according to the Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has, over the last five years, introduced laws that analysts say diluted legislation meant to protect the rights of farmers and indigenous people over land and natural resources.
The Supreme Court order was in response to a petition by environmental groups who said the FRA impeded conservation efforts.
“Any eviction of claimants who were rejected is illegal while their claims are under process,” said Alok Shukla, president of land rights group Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan (Save Chhattisgarh Movement).
“We are asking the state to expedite the claims process, and mobilizing indigenous people to protest the order,” he said.
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