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Order of SC bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra to evict nearly 12 lakh forest dwellers across 16 States had been described by activists as insensitive and irrational

The Centre, on Wednesday (February 27), moved the Supreme Court seeking a stay on its February 13 order that had directed 16 State governments to evict nearly 12 lakh forest dwellers whose claims of land ownership, under the Forests Rights Act, had been rejected.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta mentioned the Centre’s application before the Supreme Court’s bench of Justices Arun Mishra and Navin Sinha, on Wednesday, and the matter will be listed for hearing on Thursday (February 28).

The Centre’s decision to challenge the order, delivered on February 13 by a bench of Justices Mishra, Sinha and Indira Banerjee had triggered a political uproar.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi had, last week, written to chief ministers of Congress-ruled States which were to be affected by the verdict – Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan – and asked them to move the apex court seeking review of the order. Soon after, chief ministers of some BJP ruled States, Assam in particular, had also decided to seek a stay of the order.

The Centre’s belated move to challenge the eviction order perhaps stems from the realization that its failure to do so could attract a heavy electoral price in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls, despite the renewed public euphoria in favour of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP in wake of the Indian Air Force’s daring strikes at Jaish terror camps in Balakot, Pakistan, on February 25, as an effective response to the recent terror attack in Pulwama, Jammu & Kashmir.

Sources told India Legal that with the Congress president drawing first blood on the issue of the court-ordered eviction of tribals and traditional forest dwellers by promptly asking his party’s chief ministers to challenge the move, the BJP felt it could see a reprisal of protests similar to the ones that had broken out across the country last year when the top court diluted the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

The top court’s verdict that diluted the Atrocities Act was nullified by the Modi government through an amendment to the Act hurriedly brought to and passed by the Parliament. The amendment is now under challenge in the Supreme Court which is set to hear the petitions against it for three days starting March 26. The apex court’s decision to dilute the Atrocities Act was attributed by the Opposition to the fact that the Centre had not taken the case seriously in the first place and hadn’t deployed its seniormost law officer, Attorney General KK Venugopal, to argue in defence of the strident provisions of the law

With general elections less than two months away, the Centre cannot allow the Congress-led Opposition to fan already gaining public sentiment about the BJP-led NDA coalition being anti-poor.

Not surprisingly, soon after Gandhi asked Congress chief ministers Kamal Nath, Bhupesh Baghel and Ashok Gehlot to move the top court seeking review of the eviction order, the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, an affiliate of the BJP’s parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), had issued a statement saying the Modi government must either bring an ordinance to undo the SC order or seek its review. The Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram is among the RSS-affiliates that has, for decades, been working among tribals and forest dwellers – a traditional Congress voter base – and trying to bring this significant electoral block, with evident success, into the BJP’s fold.

The SC order:

On February 13, the Supreme Court had ordered the eviction of over 11 lakh families of forest dwellers whose claims to forestland under the Forest Rights Act, 2006 had been rejected by respective state governments. The court has given the States time until July 24 to complete the eviction process.

The order by the top court came on a clutch of PILs filed in 2008 by various organizations like the Bombay Natural History Society and the Wildlife First which claimed to represent the interests of wildlife and of nature. The petitioners had challenged the constitutionality of the Forest Rights Act and had, in 2014, sought identification of illegal forest dwellers.

The state-wise break up of the number of forest dwellers to be evicted as per the Supreme Court order is as follows:

Andhra Pradesh: Claims rejected: 66,351

Assam: Claims rejected: 27,534

Bihar: Claims rejected: 4,354

Chhattisgarh: Claims rejected: 20,095

Goa: Total number of claims pending adjudication by the state government: 10,130

Gujarat: Total number of claims pending adjudication by the state government: 1,82,869

Himachal Pradesh: Total number of claims pending adjudication by the state government: 2,223

Jharkhand: Claims rejected: 28,107

Karnataka : Claims rejected: 1,76,540

Kerala: Claims rejected: 894

Madhya Pradesh: Claims rejected: 3,54,787

Maharashtra: Claims rejected: 22,509

Odisha: Claims rejected: 1,48,870

Rajasthan: Claims rejected: 37,069

Tamil Nadu: Claims rejected: 9029

Telangana: Claims rejected: 82,075

Tripura: Claims rejected: 68,257

Uttarakhand: Claims rejected: 46

Uttar Pradesh: Claims rejected: 58,661

West Bengal: Claims rejected: 86,144

Total number of tribals and traditional forest dwellers at risk of eviction: 11,91,322

— India Legal Bureau

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