New Delhi: On the morning of June 10, 2002, more than 1,000 paramilitary personnel, police and forest officials descended upon Wan nu Phukripara, a forest hamlet in eastern Assam’s Sonitpur district. The officials and hired workers burnt down houses, cut down orchards, and took away cash, ornaments and utensils. Those who tried to resist were beaten up. “I was horrified,” recalled Peta Basu Mantary, a villager, at a national-level public hearing organised by land rights activists in New Delhi a year later. “I have dared to come here though it is risky for my life.”

The horrific scene was repeated across India that year when the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests ordered the eviction of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people from 150,000 hectares of forest land roughly the size of Delhi National Capital Territory based on a Supreme Court order. Although the ministry had claimed that the evictions were to root out “powerful lobbies” illegally felling forests, the scene on the ground was vastly different.

Paramilitary forces and even elephants were sent to destroy huts. Standing crop was set on fire or bulldozed, and many people were killed. Widespread anger against those brutalities gave rise to a forest rights movement, which then compelled the government to enact a law to protect the land rights of Adivasis, India’s indigenous communities. The law would come to be known as the Forest Rights Act of 2006. As per the law, indigenous communities and forest dwellers could claim rights over forest land if they could provide documents at local government offices to show they had been using that land for generations.

Thirteen years later, the same Forest Rights Act or FRA is being deployed to evict nearly 2 million indigenous families--even though the Act contains no provisions to evict people, rejection of applications is being used as a pretext for eviction. On February 13, 2019, the Supreme Court of India directed 21 states to evict those families whose applications under FRA had been rejected.

That led to a furore and evidence poured in to show that many rejections had been wrongful, leading the court to suspend its order two weeks later and directing the state governments to find out if any genuine claims had been rejected. At the upcoming hearing on July 24, 2019, the court will review its direction. The final number of rejections will be known closer to the day of the hearing when the states file affidavits in court.

Activists and forest dwellers fear a repeat of the evictions in 2002 if the court revives its February 13, 2019, order. Those evictions comprised massive human rights violations, and had stoked a widespread resistance movement.

Brutal evictions

Peta Basu Mantary’s account was one of the many testimonies recorded in July 2003 at a public hearing organised in New Delhi by the Campaign for Survival and Dignity or CSD, a coalition of grassroots groups that was formed in the aftermath of the evictions.

The hearing drew testimony from 12 states and led to a report, Endangered Symbiosis, which is today the only documentation of the evictions that happened in 2002. “There were horror stories from across the country,” said Madhu Sarin, a land rights activist associated with the campaign. “In one case, a woman who was in labour was dragged out of her hut.”

Assam had the largest number of evictions from an area spanning 71,740 hectares or the size of Bengaluru, as per government data. Debraram Musahari from the state alleged at the Delhi hearing that not only were women and children beaten up but 10 people were shot dead. “There was no prior notification or information from the department concerned,” Musahari’s statement recorded in the report said. “Nobody knows what is happening.

Assam’s use of elephants was captured in a photograph published in one of the national magazines, Frontline. The photograph conveys the horror of the evictions at a time when there were no camera-phones. “That one photo led to a lot of outrage,” said Ashok Chowdhury, general secretary of the All India Union of Forest Working People or AIUFWP, a network of people working for the rights of indigenous communities. “And it brought all Adivasi rights activists together.”

The CSD report mentioned that other than Assam, the Maharashtra government had also sent elephants to demolish houses. Armed units of the state police had been deployed in all the states from where indigenous communities were to be evicted.

Eviction-related deaths had been from a number of locations but the total number of dead is unknown. There is no official record of how many people were evicted because the environment ministry counted only land area, not people.

Of the land area recorded, the data do not show how much was homestead and how much agricultural land.

The CSD estimates that one family was affected for each hectare covered by the eviction. That comes to 150,000 families or approximately 700,000 persons.

Source: Lok Sabha

In Uttar Pradesh’s Sonbhadra district, two children died a day after their homes were demolished in July 2002 because they were forced to spend the night out in the rain, Munnar Gond, an Adivasi from Bahuar village, told this reporter recently. The children’s grandmother passed away in shock the following day, Gond said. “Suddenly we were surrounded from all four sides,” he described the eviction. Tractors that were used in the fields were thrown into wells.

Gond has since become a tribal rights activist, and was in the national capital in July attending a conclave of civil society groups ahead of the Supreme Court hearing.

Loss of livelihood

In 2002, the loss of lives was followed by loss of livelihood for many Adivasis who cultivated small patches of forest land for food.

In Amba, a forest village in Rawatbhata block of Chittorgarh district in Rajasthan, Bhil Adivasis were not evicted from their homes but their agricultural fields were demolished and the standing crop destroyed. Twenty families who were living there cultivated about one hectare each, which provided them food and left a small share that they sold in the market.

These families were forced to take up daily-wage work in large agricultural farms or in stone quarries. Devi Lal, an elderly Adivasi, now works for seven days a week in quarries. He walks one hour each way over rough hilly terrain to earn Rs 200 a day--the price of a cup of coffee in a Mumbai cafe. His children have migrated to cities to work as construction workers. Lal’s land claims under the Forest Rights Act were rejected without following processes of the Act, as IndiaSpend reported in March 2019.

Who owns forest land

The roots of the 2002 evictions lay in the way forest land has been governed since the British ruled India. The Indian Forest Act of 1927 made the government the owner of all forests. People living in those forests were deemed encroachers unless they followed a process to have their land “regularised”.

This system continued even after India got Independence from the British in 1947. Each state followed its own policy to regularise Adivasi land holdings until 1990. That year, the environment ministry issued centralised guidelines for all states to follow to “regularise” the “encroachments”. Committees consisting of officials from the revenue, forest and tribal welfare departments were formed in each state to verify land claims.

The evictions in 2002 were prompted by a letter sent to all states in May that year by the inspector-general of forests, a senior official based in the environment ministry’s headquarters in Delhi. The letter referred to a November 2001 order of the Supreme Court, based on senior advocate Harish Salve’s application that alleged widespread “encroachment” in forests. In response, the court had ordered the central government to stop these regularisations, which halted the environment ministry’s process to formalise forest dwellers’ land rights.

The inspector-general’s letter had said the central government’s funding to state forest departments would be linked to their “progress” on evictions, asking them to complete evictions by the end of September that year. This meant the evictions had to be carried out in the monsoons. The states swung to action.

‘All forest laws were anti-people’

Although the inspector-general’s letter had mentioned that “encroachments are generally done by powerful lobbies”, those that suffered were marginalised tribals.

“Encroachers are mostly poor tribal people and they need to be properly rehabilitated outside the forest areas,” the Madhya Pradesh government said in an affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court in September 2002.

The next month, the Maharashtra government submitted that the evictions would lead to “socio-economic problems” for the Adivasi population in and around forest areas and that any further evictions would “lead to widespread social unrest throughout the state which might be difficult to contain”.

In the same month, Maharashtra issued an order to speed up the process of verifying forest-dwellers’ claims for regularisation of their land holdings and put in place a system to verify the claims in village committees. The order even stated that in case of any discrepancy in the evidence, the benefit of the doubt should be in favour of the forest-dweller.

By 2003, the central government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)--the same party in power now--had also turned against the evictions. It had issued large advertisements in newspapers promising to regularise Adivasi landholdings, Ashok Chowdhury of the AIUFWP said, adding, however, that this was just a way to save face ahead of the 2004 national elections.

“All forest acts were anti-people. They only mentioned animals and resources,” said Chowdhury. “There is no mention of people.” Activists and scholars asserted the need for a law to protect the people living in and dependent on forests.

The BJP lost the 2004 elections. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance that came to power took up the matter.

Manmohan Singh, the newly appointed prime minister, held a number of meetings with bureaucrats, representatives from CSD and social activists such as Jean Drèze. At the end of one such meeting in November 2004, it was decided to stop evictions immediately. The government decided to implement Maharashtra’s system to verify claims at the village level across the country. A committee was formed under Maharashtra-based activist and CSD convenor Pradip Prabhu to draft a new law to regularise the land rights of forest-dwellers.

“We were told that whatever we drafted would be passed [as law],” Prabhu recounted to me. Two years later the Forest Rights Act was approved by parliament and came into force.

Fresh evictions

Now, 13 years later, the Supreme Court is mulling eviction of forest dwellers again.

The central government claims that after the states completed their review, the number of rejected claims has come down and is “pretty small”, and media reports have pegged the figure from “a few hundred” to about 100,000 households. But the process of the review was hasty and some forest-dwellers’ paperwork was unfairly rejected, as numerous examples attest.

The Odisha government, for instance, heard and disposed of appeals against nearly 40,000 rejections in the last two months. Adivasis living near the state capital Bhubaneswar were notified just four days before their appeal hearing date, and on that day they were not heard.

“There is really a systemic problem here,” said a Supreme Court advocate engaged in Adivasi land rights cases, who did not want to be named, adding that the Supreme Court did not hear any representatives of the Adivasis before issuing the orders of 2002 and 2019.

State forest departments also did not follow the procedure for evictions laid down by the Indian Forest Act of 1927, the advocate said. As per this law, notices have to be issued to the alleged encroachers and there is a system to appeal against the notices. The eviction orders require a senior forest officer to record reasons in writing. None of this was complied with.

Now, the Forest Rights Act is being misused--it does not prescribe eviction of those whose claims are rejected, land rights activists say. It says, instead, that claims should not be rejected as far as possible, and provides multiple avenues to review rejected claims, Prabhu, the activist, said. In many cases the rejections have been on flimsy grounds and the claimants not informed of the rejections, robbing them of their right to appeal, as IndiaSpend reported.

Also, although the Supreme Court stayed its eviction order in February 2019, some states still attempted evictions, activists have claimed.

In western Bihar's Kaimur district, the forest department demolished homes in the remote Bahuar village in March 2019, said Bal Kishwarsingh Kharwa, a resident, in early July 2019. “We asked them under what law they were demolishing houses? They said there is no law, it is the Supreme Court’s order.”

(Gokhale is a writer with Land Conflict Watch, an independent network of researchers and journalists documenting ongoing land conflicts across India.)

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