The Problematic Issue of Evicting Tribes 

With the recent judgement of the Supreme Court regarding the eviction of the tribes, the issue of the tribes has come to the forefront. Although a very big problem, it has not received the kind of attention needed to bring out the magnitude of such a judgement. On 13 February 2019, the Supreme Court in its judgement ordered for the eviction of around 1.1 million tribal people from across 17 states in the country. This would mean that by June, the state governments and the respective forest departments are required to ensure that these people move out of the forests which had been their home for centuries.

This judgement comes as a major blow to the rights of tribes and forest dwellers in the country. When we try to decode this particular judgement, the essence of it is to evict forest dwellers and tribes whose claim for forest land has been rejected. This means that there is a procedure to establish an ancestral link to the forests and thereby seek ownership. So those whose claims have been accepted will stay on and those whose claims have been rejected will have to leave.

To give a little context, this judgement was passed in a long-standing petition that was filed by a conservation body called Wildlife First. This organization, like many other of its kind, aims to promote conservation through seclusion of the animals from human intervention. They filed a petition questioning the constitutional validity of the Forest Rights Act of 2006.

When we look at the Forest Rights Act, it is a legislation that recognizes the rights of the indigenous people in accessing and making use of forest resources for their livelihood and living. The Indian Forest Act of 1927 secluded these communities and a change to our approach was brought about by the 2006 Act representing a step towards the redressal of the historic injustice meted against tribes. Now, a stay has been made on the judgement to further inquire into the process of selection and rejection of claims.

The first problem is associated with the process of selection itself. The applicants are required to submit more than 15 documents to establish ancestral claims over forest lands. This would be a highly difficult task even for the educated and literate, leave alone the illiterate tribes. It becomes very difficult for a community which does not have the idea of rights or even forest rights to understand notions of ownership. For communities that have solely lived on those forests for centuries, the idea of rights or ownership may seem very alien and complex. How are they to produce a dozen documents to prove that they have indeed lived in those forests forever when all they have ever seen would probably be those forests?

There is a clash of values and understanding right from beginning of this entire process. Though it is understandable for the government to expect proof of existence, it becomes difficult to explain this to a set of people who may not have such values or understandings.

The second set of problems is associated with the consequences that the implementation of the judgement could have. Let us assume that the government would indeed evict them from the forests. The question that we would have to ask is what happens next? What are we to do with them? Where would they live and how would they earn their incomes? When a large number of people who were earlier self-sufficient and living in harmony with nature and the existing society are introduced into alien environments, how would they earn a living? This would cause major upheavals and social tensions as they would have to compete with the existing population of that region for resources and for jobs. How are we to settle them culturally?

History shows that tribals are acculturated into the Shudra varna of the Indian Caste system which would further endanger their position. Their rich tribal heritage and their identity, in the long run, would be eroded and they would find themselves in a rather unstable and problematic position.

The final problem would be in terms of the larger picture of conservation and forest rights that we adopt. The 2006 Act was a step forward in providing the community with a place in the forests. It comes from the recognition that the tribals and forest dwellers indeed know how to sustainably use the forest and its resources. The global narrative in forest protection focuses on protecting the forest through a practice of community engagement where the forest dwellers are included in the process. There has been a realization that forests can be better managed by involving the communities that know them well than through the government or by adopting a universal policy. This judgement would invariably mean going behind in terms of the progress.

The mainstream understanding of forests and forest rights have always been considered to be exclusively the one right option. We need to recognize the limitation in our understanding and become more sensitive to the ways of the different communities. From an individual, social and environmental perspective, the judgement of the Supreme Court runs into odds with many important issues. We have made an advance in terms of our understanding of forests and the recognition of the rights of the people who inhabit them and it is not an advisable step to move back at this critical juncture. Drastic moves such as these endanger the livelihood and the future of several communities merely because of the clashes in values. The recent stay is a welcome and a wake-up call for us to redefine the ways in which we understand rights and ownership.

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