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India's tribal people fear eviction from forests

Bishop criticizes 'inhumane' Supreme Court judgment that threatens the natural habitat of millions

India's tribal people fear eviction from forests

“Long live tribal unity” reads a banner behind the podium of a Feb. 26 meeting in Madhya Pradesh state, where tribal groups joined to oppose a Supreme Court order to evict forest-dwelling people without title righst.  (Photo by Saji Thomas)

Millions of India’s indigenous people face eviction from their natural habitat following a court order that has alarmed Catholic Church leaders.

The Supreme Court ordered governments of 21 states to evict people living on forest land whose claims to land title rights or user rights were rejected as proscribed in a 2006 law.

“We are worried. The fate of millions of indigenous people is threatened,” said Bishop Vincent Barwa, the head of the Indian bishops’ office for indigenous people.

Indigenous people have no place to go if evicted and they cannot survive out of the forest, their natural habitat, the bishop said. “There is no humanity in this judgment,” he added.

The court’s Feb. 13 order was a reaffirmation of its earlier orders of January 2016 and March 2018.

A petition was filed in 2008 by the Wildlife First, Nature Conservation Society and the Tiger Research and Conservation Trust contending that unbridled human intervention can destroy forest resources and endanger wildlife.

The Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 empowered state governments to give title rights or user rights to tribal people and others who had been cultivating for generations.

The court accepted the petitioners’ argument that those who live within the forest but who have not yet gained any rights to use the land are illegally occupying land and authorities should evict them.

Tribal activist Gulzar Singh Markam told ucanews.com that India has some 104 million tribal people and at least half of them live in forest areas.  

“Conservative estimates say not even half of these forest-dwelling tribal people are given rights. That would mean at least 25 million tribal people are facing eviction,” he said.

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Markam’s Madhya Pradesh state in central India has 75 million people, of whom 10 million are tribal people. “More than 2 million of them are facing eviction,” he said.

Markam said governments deliberately denied applications for title rights “to uproot tribals from their land” so that governments could use the land for mining or other industries.

“It’s a huge conspiracy and fraud against the illiterate and poor tribal people,” Markam said.

About 30 percent of India’s 29 million Christians are tribal people, mostly in northern and northeastern states. In states like Jharkhand, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, tribal Christians comprise at least half of local Christians.

Bishop Barwa in Jharkhand state wondered “how the top court in a democratic country could pass such a judgment.” The state has close to one million Christians, almost all of them tribal people, in a population of 32 million people.

The prelate said the Church will stand with tribal people in their struggle for their rights.

The pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi runs the governments of most states where tribal leaders and activists are protesting against the court verdict. 

The party runs the risk of becoming unpopular ahead of a national election due in May.

The uproar forced the federal Ministry of Tribal Affairs to appeal to the Supreme Court on Feb. 27 to withhold the order.

The appeal sought more time, arguing that forest dwellers were extremely poor and illiterate, so it was difficult for them to substantiate their claims before authorities.

The ministry said the 2006 law was "beneficial" legislation to help "extremely poor and illiterate people" who are not aware of their rights under the law. 

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