United Nations (UN) human rights experts have urged the Central Government of India to prevent the “potential eviction” of up to nine million people from forest dwelling communities, after the Supreme Court (SC) ordered eviction on February 13 for those whose land claims had been rejected. Though the SC stayed its order and asked various state governments to present reports on the methods adopted to reject these claims as well as review the process, the threat of eviction still looms large on the communities. The next hearing is scheduled for July 24.
Criticising the order, the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz said, “The basic premise of this decision, which treats tribal peoples as possibly illegal residents of the forest, is wrong ‑ indigenous peoples are the owners of their lands and forests.”
She drew a parallel to this situation with the condition of indigenous communities across the world saying, “This is a phenomenon seen around the world. Indigenous peoples and local communities are treated as squatters when in fact the land is theirs, and they have protected and stewarded their holdings for generations and play an important role for conservation.”
On February 13, 2019, the Supreme Court of India, hearing a petition filed by wildlife conservationists and former forest department officials, directed the state governments to evict “encroachers” or “illegal forest dwellers”. The official defender in the case, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA), was conspicuous by its absence in the courtroom. A week later, the order was temporarily stayed after the Central government, under pressure from several quarters and forest rights groups, was compelled to move the same bench for review.
Despite the enactment of the FRA in 2006, most states have failed to implement it in its true spirit. Since the enactment, 4.22 million claims have been filed. While the total forest land under occupation prior to 2005 was 112,000 sq km., only 54,591.07 sq. km. has been recognised. States like Maharashtra, which have stood out in terms of recognizing Community Forest Rights (CFRs), have also only achieved about 15 percent of their full potential in terms of implementation of FRA.
The Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, LeilaniFarha said that evictions are only “human rights compliant” after “all alternatives” to eviction have been exhausted. She added, “In 2016, I recommended a national moratorium on forced evictions be instituted”, said the Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, LeilaniFarha.
The experts warned that the Governments must seek “free, prior and informed consent from the indigenous people affected and ensure compensation is adequate and that any resettlement plans are determined through a meaningful consultation.” They said that any eviction resulting in homelessness is a serious violation of human rights.
The experts said many indigenous peoples in India have already lost their homes in the name of conservation, often to make way for tiger reserves. Yet again research shows that the presence of indigenous peoples actually improves tiger populations.
“For generations, India’s tribal peoples have lived in harmony with the country’s wildlife, protecting and managing vital natural resources. It is because of their sustainable stewardship that India still has forests worth conserving. To truly protect wildlife, recognising the rights of forest guardians would be a far more effective strategy than rendering them homeless,” the experts said. “We urge the Government of India to uphold the spirit of the Forest Right Act by safeguarding the inherent rights of scheduled tribes and other traditional forest-dwelling peoples.”
The government must provide the necessary resources to conduct a transparent and independent review of the rejected claims and to ensure no indigenous peoples are aggrieved. Where there is absolutely no alternative to eviction consent of affected people, adequate redress, and compensation are required.
The Ministry of Environment has recently proposed a series of amendments to the 1927 Indian Forest Act, which, if adopted, would result in further violation of rights of tribals and forest-dwellers, the experts said. “The draft law would significantly increase the policing and discretionary powers of Forest officers against local communities.”
The experts have shared their concerns with the government of India but to date have not received a response.
* The experts: Ms Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples; Ms LeilaniFarha, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context; Mr David R. Boyd, Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
The Special Rapporteurs and Independent Experts are part of the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.