India forest dwellers to fight mass eviction order with protests

by Rina Chandran | @rinachandran | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 25 February 2019 08:47 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO. Forest dwellers raise their hands and shout slogans during a rally in New Delhi December 15, 2011. REUTERS/Parivartan Sharma

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A growing population and increasing demand for industrial projects are placing greater stress on land in India

By Rina Chandran

BANGKOK, Feb 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - 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 on Monday.

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 recognising their right to inhabit and live off forests where their ancestors had settled.

Under FRA, at least 150 million people could have their rights recognised 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 FRA, and "do everything to safeguard the interests of the tribals".

But its assurance is too late, said Geetanjoy Sahu of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) 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 organisations that focused on submitting claims and failed to follow up, are also to blame for where we have ended up," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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 the country's population.

Yet they accounted for 40 percent of people forced from their homes between 1951 and 1990, according to New Delhi-based think tank Centre for Policy Research.

The government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi 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 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 mobilising indigenous people to protest the order," he said.

(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Michael Taylor. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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