The Gauhati High Court has today dismissed a PIL through which seven Scheduled Tribe petitioners sought the recognition of forest dwellers’ rights for themselves and other villagers who have been residing in ‘forest villages’ inside Chariduar Reserved Forest (RF) for 35-40 years since early 1980s. The petition was filed under the Forest Rights Act, 2006.
A division bench comprising Chief Justice of the High Court Ajai Lamba and Justice Soumitra Saikia, instead directed the respondents (the Chief Secretary to the Government of Assam and other top officials of the Environment and Forest Department/Ministry) to ensure that the “encroachers” are removed from all forest lands after following due process provided under the Act of 2006 and other related legislations. The FRA 2006 has no provisions for “evacuation” at all.
The petitioners had prayed for their villages have being declared as “forest villages” within the meaning of the relevant section of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, and as such their rights are required to be recognized under Sections 4 and 5 of the Act of 2006. Counsel of the petitioners argued that the petitioners had settled in the “forest villages” in 1980s, and also that their names were entered in the voters list of 2005.
Respondents’ counsel D Mazumder referred to the counter affidavit of Sonitpur Deputy Commissioner Narsing Pawar wherein he has stated that “the forest villages were established prior to 1972 and no forest village was established in 1980 in Sonitpur District and under Sonitpur West Division… Consequent upon coming into force of the Act of 2006, various guidelines were noticed and implemented. The process of vesting rights started.”
The bench said that “the pleadings in the petition read in conjunction with the responses given by the Deputy Commissioner and the Divisional Forest Officer raise seriously disputed questions of the fact. Any adjudication by us in this lis is likely to frustrate the objects and reasons for which the Act of 2006 has been enacted. This observation is being made by us particularly for the reason that the documents appended with the counter affidavit do establish that that relevant exercise has been conducted by the respondents for identifying individuals and communities who are entitled to reside in such forest villages, as also for identifying the number of encroachers”.
The bench added that “there is no material available on record which would indicate that the petitioners have any established right to reside in the forest villages”. This is despite the law itseld: the Forest Rights Act, 2006.
The Order of the Guwahati High Court may be read here: