Though a million traditional forest dwellers are living in fear of eviction, Central government on Thursday has failed to turn up before the Supreme Court to defend the Forest Rights Act (FRA), when the case has come up for hearing.
The apex court asked where the Central government was and was told the Solicitor General was not present. The court then heard the matter, allowed all the requests for impleadment by a large number of organisations defending the Forest Rights Act, and also allowed the petitioners’ request to make the Forest Survey of India a party.
The court also said its order putting evictions of rejected claimants on hold will continue, and the matter will now next be heard on November 26 for final arguments.
It has granted four weeks time to the state governments and to other parties to supply data and to reply. CR Bijoy, environmentalist and tribal activist from Coimbatore, told Express that the court issued notice on the recent applications of the petitioners (NGOs and retired forest officials) to stop state governments from reviewing rejections of claims under the law, and to direct the Central government to release funds for the Forest Survey of India to conduct its survey using money from compensatory afforestation funds.
The Court clarified that its “interim orders will continue” and asked Forest Survey of India’s survey of forest ‘encroachment’, using data from States, to continue, based on the petitioners’ claim that satellite imagery can be used to verify claims under the Act.
However, sources in the Tamil Nadu tribal welfare department told Express that it was yet to send the shapefiles of geo-referenced boundaries of those land parcels on which claims of STs and other traditional forest dwellers have been rejected.
In June, at a review meeting at Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Tamil Nadu government had accepted that it rejected 10,656 claims filed by STs and other traditional forest dwellers without following due procedure. However, the government said review process was under progress.
Jaideep Singh Kochher, Economic Adviser, Ministry of Tribal Affairs, said the States have to follow the procedure as laid down in the FRA Act.
"The states should make their position clear regarding the number of claimants whose claims have been approved and other whose claims are finally rejected."
Official statistics show that Tamil Nadu has received the lowest number of claims among bigger States and was equally poor in granting titles.
Tamil Nadu has distributed 6,387 titles and the extent of forest land for which titles distributed is 8,607.26 acres.
In contrast, Chattisgarh has received 8,87,665 claims, distributed 4,16,359 titles and the extent of forest land for which titles distributed was 26.73 lakh acres.
Even a smaller state like Kerala is doing better with 24,599 titles been distributed.
Other southern states like Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have been implementing the FRA to larger extent. Tamil Nadu has 33 per cent rejection rate.