In a fine humanitarian gesture, the Supreme Court stayed its own order to evict more than a million forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers. The Centre and Gujarat deserve credit for bringing to the court’s notice the disruptive consequences of about 12 lakh forest dwellers being told abruptly they cannot continue to live in territory they have been staying in for decades without land rights and access to proper housing in Independent India while they eke a meagre living out of forest produce. How the court ruled in the first place to uproot such dispossessed tribals and forest dwellers is a mystery as the order seemed to show little concern for such citizens who have nothing going for them even as facilities and funding seem invariably directed at semi-urban and metropolitan development.
Forest dwellers have been one of the most disregarded sections of society with none to speak up for them around the country even as urbanisation has encroached into what were forest or fringe forest areas in the foothills of mountains. The Forest Rights Act of 2006 was meant to be a beneficial legislation and not divest anyone of the rights they may have been enjoying since before the days of the Raj. In its shocking order, the court had ruled on February 13 that all those unable to establish their claim for their land and houses should move on. But where would these people go for a living as they know little, save gathering minor produce? A minuscule proportion may engage in illegal tree felling and wildlife hunting in collusion with mafias dealing in illegal goods like sandalwood, red sanders, teak and timber, but that should not lead to condemnation of whole communities.
A minimum support price programme for forest produce has been in the pipeline for a while, but in typical disregard of forest dwellers, the fruits of the scheme have not yet trickled down to the intended beneficiaries. The government is now promising to extend the Van Dhan scheme to cover larger sections of forest dwellers. The reprimand from the top court may also help wake the tribal affairs ministry to look after such disenfranchised people who may not even have understood the processes by which they could have established their claims to land and a livelihood dependent on the natural wealth of the forests. Invariably, such wealth has been exploited by mining licences that strip hills for building townships and resorts in the hills for city dwellers to enjoy their leisure. There is sufficient time on hand before the next hearing on July 10 for states to revisit the adjudication process and ensure that no one is meted out injustice.