Big Story 10

Government plea sees India's top court halt eviction of millions of forest: dwellers

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - India’s Supreme Court on Thursday stayed its earlier ruling that had ordered the forced evictions of millions of indigenous people whose land claims were rejected, after the central government said states needed more time to examine claims.

Earlier this month the Supreme Court issued an order to remove forest-dwellers in 21 states where nearly 2 million land claims, each potentially representing a household, were rejected under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006.

“We stay and hold our February 13 order,” the court said on Thursday, directing the states to file affidavits with details on how they had processed claims.

The FRA, passed by the Congress government, which is now the main opposition party, aimed to improve the lives of impoverished tribes by recognizing their right to inhabit and live off forests where their ancestors had settled.

Under the law, at least 150 million people could have their rights recognized to about 40 million hectares of forest land.

But more than half of the claims were rejected, often on flimsy grounds with no reason given, activists said.

Following the earlier order, protests had flared in several states, with indigenous groups threatening nationwide rallies.

“This is the right decision by the court. It gives the state governments a chance to correct their mistake and consider all claims carefully,” said Alok Shukla, president of land rights group Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan (Save Chhattisgarh Movement).

“We hope that at least now, everyone - including civil society organizations, local officials and the tribal affairs ministry - will give the FRA law the attention that it deserves,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

India’s 104 million tribal people - also known as Adivasis, or “original inhabitants” - make up less than 10 percent of the population.

Yet they accounted for 40 percent of people forced from their homes between 1951 and 1990, according to New Delhi-based think-tank the Center for Policy Research.

A growing population and increasing demand for industrial projects are placing greater stress on land in India. Resource-rich tribal areas are particularly under pressure.

The government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has, over the last five years, introduced laws that activists say diluted earlier legislation meant to protect the rights of farmers and indigenous people over land and natural resources.

The Supreme Court’s earlier order was in response to a petition by environmental groups which said the FRA had caused deforestation and impeded conservation efforts.

The removal order was a “death sentence” for tribal people that would lead to the “biggest mass eviction in the name of conservation”, human rights group Survival International said.

Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Robert Carmichael. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit