In a significant step, the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), India’s foremost nature conservation organisation, has withdrawn from the array of parties who filed a petition in Supreme Court as long back as in 2008 challenging the constitutional validity of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights), Act 2006 (FRA, 2006). The first petitioner in this case is Wildlife First- a Bengaluru based NGO.
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“The FRA petition in which the Hon. Supreme Court has recently passed a judgement is by several NGOs of which the first petitioner is an organisation called “Wildlife First” and not Wildlife Trust of India (WTI),” the WTI said in its statement. Clarifying that WTI was historically one of the petitioners to a different litigation which was filed in 2008, WP(C) 50/2008 and that it “was for the Act to be brought up for debate within the legislative framework”, it said that in this petition it partnered with All Assam Tribal Youth League and Wildlife Society of Orissa as co-petitioners to “ensure views of the tribal people are included and represented in the court of law when making a case for wildlife conservation and habitat protection”. It said that the petition was framed in the context of “not allowing vested interests to appropriate national natural heritage in the name of forest dwellers.”
The WTI said that since the FRA, 2006 was rolled out many of its initial fears were allayed with relation to the Act and as a result it has not been involved in the court through its lawyers or by personal appearance for over 10 years in this case. It noted, “Our name may be attached to the initial case only as PILs cannot be withdrawn once filed.”
Significantly, the statement by WTI and its subsequent withdrawal from the case is a vindication of what researchers, ecologists, tribal rights advocates have been saying all along… that forests and forest dwelling people share a symbiotic relationship. And that their rights need to be recognised.
WTI stated, “Wildlife Trust of India recognises the rights and role of the indigenous people in wildlife and habitat protection, yet we have been witness to the degradation and unchecked encroachment of wildlife habitats by people migrating in, settling in new areas and expanding their land usage. We stand by the rights of the indigenous forest residents and people who historically have been a natural part of the forest areas and we hope that the most powerful aspect of the Act that vests these indigenous people with the right to conserve and manage forest resources, serves to check further fragmentation of habitat and secure our natural heritage.”
Senior SC lawyer and former legal advisor to Ministry of Tribal Affairs called this “a welcome development.”
Three wildlife non-profit- Bengaluru based Wildlife First and Maharashtra based Nature Conservation Society (NCS) and Tiger Research and Conservation Trust (TRACT)- had filed an application before the SC in January, 2015, in which they sought re-examination of the rights granted to forest dwellers under the Act and to curb their rights in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. The three NGOs together, had filed a petition in the SC in 2008, questioning the constitutional validity of FRA.
The case came up for hearing in February 2019 and created a furore as the highest court of India ordered the “eviction” of millions of Adivasis and forest dwelling communities. Because of subsequent protests etc. the SC stayed its order. In subsequent hearings, the SC asked various state governments to file affidavits on the process they adopted to reject claims.
Several states admitted that the procedures were faulty and full of lapses.
Meanwhile, even as this was going on, more than 30 of India’s top ecologists, scientists and wildlife conservationists demanded that the petitioners withdraw their case against the Forest Rights Act . In February 2019, soon after the order of supposed eviction, the group had said, “We do not regard this order as pro-conservation. On the contrary, it is a real setback for conservation in India. We do not agree with the claim of the petitioners in this case that their positions represent the interests of conservation.”
The group included wildlife biologists, scientists and conservationists from Nature Conservation Foundation, Aziz Premji University, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati, Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Indian Statistical Institute, Indian Institute of Science, Madras, Institute of Development Studies and several independent voices.
They had highlighted the role of indigenous communities in sustaining forests. Their statement had highlighted, “The rights of local communities are an integral part of any sustainable and just model of conservation, as is now recognised in international law. Furthermore, the Forest Rights Act not only recognises these rights, it also legally empowers communities to protect their forests and wildlife as well. It is the first and only law in India that gives those who live in and with forests the power to protect them.”
Taking note of the challenges that communities face while claiming their rights, the group of wildlife biologists had said, “It is incredibly difficult for local communities who have long been oppressed by the state Forest Departments to secure their rights. We believe that those interested in conservation should be working to strengthen the transparency, community and democratic potential that the FRA creates – not seeking to attack forest dwellers or the law.”
Since then a batch of more than 15 intervention applications have been filed in the SC including one by academics Nandini Sundar and Sharad Lele. Another has been filed by forest rights leaders Sokalo Gond and Nivada Rana, with the support of All India Union for Forest Working People (AIUFWP) and Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP).
This significant step poses the question if other wildlife and conservation groups will take heed and withdraw their challenge. This step is bound to weaken the forest bureaucracy and corporate lobby.
Also read:Sokalo Gond and Nivada Rana lead the campaign for Forest Rights in SC
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