EARLIER THIS MONTH the Supreme Court passed a judgment ordering the eviction of tribals and other traditional forest dwellers in different states who could not prove their ownership of land in forests across India. Approximately one million people were affected by the judgment. This led to a chorus of protests across India. On February 28th, the court stayed its judgment.
The court’s earlier judgment came in response to a challenge to the validity of the 2006 law that granted rights to forest dwellers who had lived there for a long time but could not produce formal titles to land and their homesteads. The law was challenged in 2008 and the litigation has continued for a long time. The number of claims that have been rejected are huge in states such as Odisha, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Ultimately, the Union Government woke up when the court passed eviction orders. Had these orders been implemented, a near chaotic situation would have developed across India. Now the Centre has asked various state governments to file appeals against the judgment.
Apart from the inherent problems in uprooting people from their habitat, implementing the order would have created serious internal security problems as well. Most tribals dwell in precisely those locations where left-wing extremism remains entrenched. The displaced and disaffected population of tribals would have simply turned into a recruiting pool for Maoists. A flick of a pen would have created a major headache for the paramilitary forces.
There is, however, another aspect to the matter that has been highlighted in the petition: conservation of India’s vast but imperilled forest resources. There has been some debate on the matter whether the poor are the key to conserving forests. On one side are ranged civil society activists who claim these dwellers of forests have lived there for hundreds of years and have played an active role in conserving their habitat. On the other side are forest conservation activists and state governments who have implicitly argued that it is cruel to expect poor people to give priority to conservation over consumption of forest resources. There is some truth in the latter assertion: at very low levels of consumption, there are few incentives to save, be it money, resources or environmental assets. This is a vexed debate that is unlikely to be resolved by evidence and pronouncements by courts.