India: Devastating Supreme Court ruling could render over a million indigenous people homeless
Bengaluru/ New Delhi: 21 February 2019 1:28 pm
Responding to a ruling by India’s Supreme Court ordering several state governments to evict indigenous people whose claims over their traditional lands have been rejected, Aakar Patel of Amnesty India said:
“This ruling is a body blow to Adivasi rights in India. It would be unconscionable for Adivasi people to be evicted from their homes and lands merely because their claims were rejected in a process that is known to be severely flawed.
“Many civil society organizations, including Amnesty India, have pointed out for years that the Forest Rights Act is poorly implemented. Adivasi people claiming legal recognition of their rights over their traditional lands often have to face corruption, overly bureaucratic procedures, and government apathy. State governments have themselves admitted that claims are often incorrectly rejected.
“Even where claims have been rightly rejected, the government must consider alternatives to evictions. The Forest Rights Act was enacted to correct the historical injustice faced by Adivasi communities in India. But this ruling, if implemented, could itself lead to catastrophic consequences.
“It is also outrageous that the central government did not adequately defend the Forest Rights Act at the hearings before the Supreme Court, and did not present its lawyers on 13 February, when the order was passed. The government has abjectly failed in its duty to respect and protect Adivasi rights.
“Forced evictions are explicitly prohibited under international human rights law and standards. The government must ensure that they explore all feasible alternatives and conduct genuine consultations with people who could be affected. No one should be rendered homeless or vulnerable to other human rights violations because of an eviction.”
The Supreme Court was hearing petitions filed by wildlife NGOs who contend that the Forest Rights Act has led to deforestation and encroachment of forests. The Court directed the state governments of Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Telangana,Tripura, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal to explain why they had not evicted people whose claims under the Forests Rights Act had been rejected. Over 1.12 million forest rights claims have been rejected in these states.
The Court also directed the governments of these states – and of Goa, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, which have not yet provided claim rejection numbers – to evict people whose claims had been rejected, on or before the next hearing of the case, scheduled on 24 July 2019. The order was passed on 13 February, but was published on the Court’s website only on 20 February.
The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of forest rights) Act, popularly called the Forest Rights Act, was enacted in 2006. It recognizes the customary rights of forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other ‘traditional forest-dwellers’ to land and other resources. Members of these communities can claim individual rights over forest land they depend on or have made cultivable. Communities can also file for rights over common property resources, including community or village forests, religious and cultural sites, and water bodies.
India is party to a number of international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibit forced evictions.
The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights defines a forced evictions as “the permanent or temporary removal against their will of individuals, families and/or communities from the homes and/or land which they occupy, without the provision of, and access to, appropriate forms of legal or other protection.”
Forced evictions constitute gross violations of a range of internationally recognised human rights, including the human rights to adequate housing, food, water, health, education, work, security of the person, security of the home, freedom from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and freedom of movement.
The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has emphasized that evictions may be carried out only as a last resort once all feasible alternatives have been explored and only after appropriate procedural and legal safeguards are in place.