Understanding the rights of tribal people with respect to the Forest Rights Act 2006: Andhra Pradesh High Court

In the year 2019, the Supreme Court passed an order which asked for force eviction of more than 1,000,000 tribal and other forest-dwelling households to be removed from forestlands across 16 states after the government failed to defend a law protecting their rights. This happen when a case was filed by wildlife groups questioning the validity of the forest Rights Act. While the Union Ministry of tribal affairs opposed such orders stating that scheduled tribes and other forest dwellers had rights to use the land under the Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (recognition of forest rights) Act 2006, which is a beneficial legislation, it aims at helping extremely poor and illiterate people who have no knowledge about their rights.

To understand the rights of tribal people better one needs to look at the landmark judgment of Samatha v. State of Andhra Pradesh (Appeal (civil) 4601-02 of 1997) through the learned bench lead by K.RAMASWAMY. 

Facts of the case:-A social action group based in Andhra Pradesh in the early nineties that worked for the rights of tribal community and their environment was involved in a dispute regarding the leasing of tribal lands to private mining industries. This lead to the demand by tribal people asking to regain control over their lands rather than working as forced labor in this mining operation. After losing the initial battle in the lower court as well as the High court, Samatha filed a special leave petition in the Supreme court of India, and this 4-year legal battle led to a historical judgment favoring and protecting the rights of the tribal community. 

Judgment:- The Supreme court passed the order for the mining activities to go on only under the condition that it is undertaken by the government or instrumentality of State or a Cooperative society of the Tribals. The instrumentality of the state is defined by the court as an organization that is completely owned by the government or its agencies are the majority shareholders. Therefore, as per the judgment, all the land that the government leased to the private mining companies is considered null and void. It however upheld that transfer of land to the government or its instrumentalities is the entrustment of public property because the aim of the public corporation is in the public interest.

As per the 73rd Amendment Act 1992, it’s the duty of every gram sabha to prevent alienation of land in scheduled areas and to take appropriate action to restore any unlawfully alienated lands of a scheduled tribe also the minerals are to be exploited by tribes themselves, either by the individual or through cooperative societies with the financial assistance of the state. Duties were laid down for the lessee and transfer of tribal lands to no tribal communities was now prohibited. And previous transfers of these lands to non-tribal entities were declared null and void.

The forest right Act 2006 gives the tribal community various types of rights like the right to hold and live in the forest, community rights such as nistar, right of ownership rights including community tenures habitat rights in or over disputed lands, rights of pattas or leases, rights settlement, rights to be protected, etc. These rights were recognized under any state law or laws.

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