The Supreme Court on Thursday suspended its controversial February 13 order that could have led to eviction of around 11 lakh Scheduled Tribes and other traditional dwellers whose claims for forest land rights have been rejected by various state governments.
Giving stern warning that “the mighty and the undeserving” who have encroached on forest lands would be shown no mercy, the Bench led by justice Arun Mishra gave four months’ time to various states to file affidavits stating as to why whether tribals and other traditional forest dwellers (OTFDs) were ousted from forest lands on the basis of incomplete data and also give details about the due procedure followed by gram sabhas and authorities before rejecting their claims under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006(Forests Rights Act).
The bench came down heavily on the government’s plea, saying it was perhaps in a slumber when the previous “eviction” order was passed and that it cannot wake up one fine day with making new arguments.
“Were you in a slumber? Where were you when we passed this order? Go in a slumber, let the court pass its order and then come back for modification. You are rising now,” the bench said, but later agreed to examine the process followed by various states. The matter will now be heard in July.
The stay order came on an application filed by the Narender Modi-led government on Wednesday seeking stay of its February 13 order that have resulted in eviction of more than 11 lakh forest dwellers and tribals in 16 states.
The ministry of tribal affairs had urged the court to consider modifying its February 13 order. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta told the Bench that the eviction order had affected a large number of poor and illiterate families who have been residing in forests for generations.
Senior advocate Shyam Divan, for petitioner NGO Wildlife First, argued that the ministry’s data, collated from inputs supplied by the States, revealed that up to November last year 42,24,951 claims were received and titles were distributed to 44.83% of the number of claims received. Madhya Pradesh has the highest number of rejected claims, which approximately come to 3.5 lakh, followed by Odisha with nearly 1.5 lakh rejected claims. Uttarakhand has the least number of rejected claims at 51.
The Centre in its application had said that the apex court had issued its eviction order on the basis of data adduced by the state governments. “It is uncertain whether the data furnished by the state governments accurately indicates whether the rejection orders were passed after observance of due process of law; compliance with principles of natural justice and whether appeal mechanisms have been properly exhausted. Without such information and compliance with the mandate of law in letter and spirit, the eviction of such tribal, would amount to serious miscarriage of Justice,” the ministry said, adding that the Forest Rights Act being a beneficial piece of legislation deserved to be construed liberally in favour of the forest dwellers.