By Hetal Doshi
The author is a law student at the National University of Study and Research in Law (NUSRL), Ranchi. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Maang wahi hai – jal, jungle, zameen,” This statement that translates to “our demand is the same – water, forest and land,” echoed in India’s capital, Delhi, on November 21, 2019 where about 1000 people from Adivasi and forest-dwelling communities from different states of India had assembled for their decades old demand of water, forest and land . This marked a protest against the order passed by the Supreme Court of India on February 13, 2019  evicting the Adivasis from their habitat and seeking the implementation of the dormant Forest Rights Act of 2006 .
Who are “Adivasis”?
The 84.7 million people belonging to Scheduled Tribes (“STs”) in India are generally considered to be “Adivasis”, meaning “original inhabitants”, although the term ST is not synonymous with the “Adivasis”. Rather, it is a term used for the purposes of administering certain specific constitutional privileges, protections, and benefits for sections of people considered historically disadvantaged. In the Constitution of India, promulgated in 1950, most of these groups were listed as targets for social and economic development. Article 341 and Article 342 of the Constitution provide for the classification of STs . Since that time, the Adivasi of India have been known officially as STs. The Adivasis have experienced major changes in their traditional ways of life since the mid-20th century, especially as they lost their lands as a result of population growth, the development of towns, and industrialization .
The Cause of the Protest
The prima facie reason for the protest is to plead the government to enforce the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act of 2006 (“Forest Rights Act”). The Act paved the way for a formal recognition of the right of Adivasis and other forest dwellers to live in forests by filing claims to authorities. However, the Adivasis protesting in Delhi decried that their claims were rejected despite submitting adequate proof . Some of the tribes also said that their claims were accepted, but they got a smaller share of land than they were promised .
Furthermore, on February 13, 2019, the Supreme Court passed an order for the eviction of more than 10 lakh families across 16 states, whose claims to forest land had been rejected. On February 28, the court put a stay on its order and the final judgement has yet to be entered . Nonetheless, the order has still created an uproar among the Adivasis, as it was passed only because no state lawyer was present at the hearing. Moreover, the protestors allege that even after the stay order, the department officials still repeatedly asked them to move out of the forest .
On July 9, 2019, forest officials in the Siwal village in Burhanpur, Madhya Pradesh, allegedly fired pellet guns at members of the Adivasi community, who protested against an eviction drive . After the incident, police filed a First Information Report (‘FIR’) against 153 Adivasis, including a dead man, by describing them as “encroachers” who had allegedly cut trees . After an inquiry, the police officers involved were only transferred, but not suspended. Similar resistance had taken place earlier in Jharkhand’s Khunti district, when Adivasis were hounded for legally asserting their land rights .
The Historic wrong yet to be Undone
Land alienation, loss of access and control over forests, and enforced displacement due to development projects have been determined to be some of the key reasons for the marginalization of Adivasis, by a study published recently by the National Human Rights Commission of India . It finds that the impact of displacement and denial of access to forests have impacted the lives and health of these vulnerable Adivasis . These communities have lived in forests and are traditionally dependent on forest resources for their subsistence, as identified by the government of India itself . Ironically, they are now being persecuted by the same government that is entrusted to protect their rights and entitlements. Ousting Adivasis from their lands and their livelihoods, while thwarting their deep relationship with the forests and other natural resources, is nothing short of catastrophic .
While we await the final judgement of the Supreme Court, there have been a few positive developments in the interest of the tribal community. For example, the government withdrew the Draft Indian Forest Bill of 2019, which was another step towards undermining the tribal communities’ rights recognised under the Forest Rights Act . The draft law granted extraordinary power to the forest department to record forest rights: to declare any forest land to be a reserve forest, to suspend rights over forest produce, and even to allow officers to use firearms to check forest offenses. If the amendment had not been withdrawn, the government would have been granted unchecked power to control the tribal communities, and would have resulted in the Adivasis losing their age-old rights over the forest . However, a long road still awaits for the Adivasis to peacefully live in their natural habitat .
As stated by the Supreme Court in Kailas v. State of Maharashtra, the injustice done to the tribal people of India is a shameful chapter in our country's history . In conclusion, we should thrive to not repeat it by forcefully and illegally evicting the original habitants of the forest from their homes and depriving them of the forest produce on which they survive. They must be given the respect they deserve as the original inhabitants of India.
Infographic Quote: Ousting Adivasis from their lands and their livelihoods, while thwarting their deep relationship with the forests and other natural resources is nothing short of catastrophic.
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 Wildlife First & Ors. v Ministry of Forest and Environments & Ors., Writ Petition No. 109/2008, Order, Feb. 13, 2019.
 Forest Rights Act, 2006.
 United Nations, Scheduled Castes And Scheduled Tribes, https://in.one.un.org/task-teams/scheduled-castes-and-scheduled-tribes/.
 Article 341 and Article 342 of the Constitution of India, 1950.
 Rahul Banerjee, “Adivasis and Unjust Laws,” Economic and Political Weekly Sep. 29 - Oct. 5, 2007, Vol. 42, No. 39 (Sep. 29 - Oct. 5, 2007), pp. 4010-4011.
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 What is First Information Report (FIR), Legal Service India, http://www.legalserviceindia.com/Criminallaws/fir.htm.
 Supriya Sharma, “10,000 people charged with sedition in one Jharkhand district. What does democracy mean here?,” Scroll.in, Nov. 19, 2019, https://scroll.in/article/944116/10000-people-charged-with-sedition-in-one-jharkhand-district-what-does-democracy-mean-here.
 Sama, “From the Margins to the Centre,” National Human Rights Commission, https://nhrc.nic.in/sites/default/files/SAMA%20Final%20Report.pdf.
 Bijoy, C R. (2001). The Adivasis of India – A History of Discrimination, Conflict and Resistance. Indigenous Affairs. 54-61.
 Ministry of Tribal Affairs Government of India, Report of The High Level Committee on Socioeconomic, Health And Educational Status of Tribal Communities of India, May, 2014, http://www.indiaenvironmentportal.org.in/files/file/Tribal%20Committee%20Report,%20May-June%202014.pdf.
 Supra note 15.
 Jacob Koshy, “Centre drops plan to bring in changes to Forest Act of 1927,” The Hindu, Nov. 16, 2019, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/centre-drops-plan-to-bring-in-changes-to-forest-act-of-1927/article29986437.ece.
 The Forest Keepers’ Case, Tandem Research, June 5, 2020, https://tandemresearch.org/blog/the-forest-keepers-case.
 Ramachandra Guha, “Adivasis, Naxalites and Indian Democracy,” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 42, no. 32, 2007, pp. 3305–3312.
 Kailas v. State of Maharashtra, (2011) 1 SCC 793.
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