Dear Praveen Bhargav (Wildlife Trust), Kishor Rithe (NCS) and Harshvardhan Dhanwatey (TRACT),
We are writing to express our deep dismay at the position you have recently taken before the Supreme Court, in your interim application (IA 5) filed in January in Writ Petition 109/2008 (Wildlife First and Ors. vs. Union of India and Ors.). We fail to understand why, at a time when it has become clear to everyone that the key enemy of the environment is the Forest Department-facilitated corporate looting of natural resources, you insist on continuing to attack the rights of the country’s poorest citizens while further empowering that very same bureaucracy. Moreover, you do this in a forum where you know the millions of ordinary people that will be affected have hardly any chance of being heard, and can only be heard at enormous cost to themselves. While people are fighting and dying to protect forests and natural resources across the country, you not only want the Forest Rights Act – their strongest weapon so far – struck down, you now ask for them to be deprived of their rights as well.
In your application you ask for the following (a full set of the prayers is at the end of this open letter for public reference):
- YOUR PRAYER: “set up an independent committee of experts or the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) to examine the implementation of the impugned Act… and in particular the procedure adopted”: Perhaps you are unaware that several independent committees, both within and outside the government, have already examined the implementation of this Act thoroughly and that the government itself has issued several reports in this regard. In all of them, contrary to the implied scaremongering in your petition, what has emerged is that millions of people are actually being deprived of their rights. No mention of this is made in your petition.
- YOUR PRAYER: “direct the above mentioned committee … to report as to the extent of forest land which has been physically occupied by ineligible claimants… and the extent of forest land that has been recovered…”: Eight years after people fought and won a democratic and transparent process to decide their rights, you want an unaccountable committee to decide who is “eligible” and who has “illegally occupied” land. And how can a single committee do this for the whole country? Only through local officials, who in turn will demand bribes. In other words, your petition would-empower precisely the corrupt system that created the problem in the first place.
- YOUR PRAYER: “direct the respondents to permit voluntary resettlement of people residing within national parks and sanctuaries without insisting on settling their rights under the Act”: How precisely is such resettlement supposed to be “voluntary” when people have no idea what their rights actually are? They are supposed to take a “voluntary” decision about resettlement when they live under the daily harassment of forest officials, deprived of their livelihoods; and you desire that they should not even be given the chance to assert their legal rights and discover that they can live peaceful lives in the forest as well?How can any decision be “voluntary” when you want people to have only two options: face continued illegal harassment and repression, or accept whatever they are offered in the name of “resettlement”?
- YOUR PRAYER: “direct the respondents to issue directions to all the States for mandatory use of satellite imageries for verification of all claims…”: Perhaps this prayer indicates just what kind of conservationism you endorse. Obviously, satellite imagery is irrelevant to all forms of community rights over the forest, which are the real innovation in this law and the real key to protection of forests. For simple land plots as well, as verified by several independent inquiries of the kind that you want yet again, satellite imagery usually fails – because ground truthing is not done properly, the imagery is incorrect, or, most importantly, it is simply not available to the people who need to assert their rights. Instead, it is only available with officials and elites. Once again, through the backdoor, your petition will empower the bureaucracy which has been responsible for massive destruction of forests and violation of forest dwellers’ rights.
- YOUR PRAYER: “grant ad-interim ex-parte stay of commercial extraction of all nontimber forest produce (NTFP) from national parks and sanctuaries”: You seek to disguise your intentions with the use of the term “commercial.” But you know that in practice, until this law came into existence, forest officials did not permit forest dwellers to sell even the small quantities of produce they collected for their survival livelihoods. You will be aware that in many protected areas – such as in BRT wildlife sanctuary in Karnataka, or in Simlipal Tiger Reserve in Orissa – more than 60% of people’s cash income comes from sale of NTFP. As a result, when these rules were imposed, malnutrition and poverty skyrocketed in these areas (reaching 82% in Simlipal). Now, when communities across the country are experimenting with collective, democratic management of NTFP for their livelihoods – at times with the support of conservationists – you want the court to reinstate a misguided, illegal and brutal ban which has no scientific basis.
The most crucial threat to forests and natural resources in this country today is the corporate juggernaut, with its demands for increasing clearances for its own speculative profiteering. But you quite significantly have not chosen to approach any court about illegal diversion of forest land in violation of the Forest Rights Act. Instead, you seek to divert attention and enormous resources into an expensive, long and pointless court battle, to prevent you from negating the progress achieved over the past eight years. This, of course, is conveniently just what the corporates want.
You might claim that it is open to us or anyone else to contest you in court. We ask why you chose this forum rather than, for instance, approaching Parliament to amend the law. That is what we and countless other groups did. But you know perfectly well that the courts are inaccessible to most ordinary people and that the tens of millions of people who will be affected by your actions will be represented by perhaps one or two lawyers in court – while you and the government bureaucrats will gang up against them. Certainly it is your right to approach the court, but pleading that the court overturn provisions of a law unanimously passed by Parliament after intense discussion and debate across the country reflects your undemocratic motivations extremely clearly.
We call upon you and your co-petitioners to immediately withdraw your interim applications and Writ Petition 109/2008 against the Forest Rights Act. Otherwise, whatever your intentions might be, you are facilitating the corrupt forest bureaucracy and the loot of this country’s natural resources by corporates.
Campaign for Survival and Dignity
PRAYERS OF INTERIM APPLICATION FILED BY WILDLIFE FIRST, NCS AND TRACT
(i) direct the respondents to constitute a committee of independent experts or the Controller and Auditor General (CAG) to examine the implementation of the Impugned Act and in particular the procedure adopted for identification of the genuine claims and grant of forest rights in the 3 States namely, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, and submit a report to this Hon’ble Court within two months;
(ii) direct the above independent committee or the CAG to give a report as to the extent of forest land which has been physically occupied by the ineligible claimants after the cutoff date of 13th December 2005 or whose claims have been rejected under the provisions of the impugned Act and the extent of forest land that has been recovered from the such ineligible claimants/ encroachers;
(iii) direct the Respondent No. 2 States to provide information giving district-wise details including the number of individual and community claims filed, claims granted and claims rejected along with the extent of forest area involved in all these three categories within a time bound manner;
(iv) direct the respondents to permit voluntary resettlement of people residing within national parks and sanctuaries without insisting on settling their rights therein under the impugned Act and;
(v) direct the Respondent No. 2 to issue directions to all the States for mandatory use of satellite imageries for verification of all the claims as a proof/ evidence of actual occupation/ physical possession of the forest lands as on the cutoff date of 13.12.2005 before granting any new rights under the impugned Act. Directions may also be issued to use satellite imageries to review all the rights which have already been granted under the impugned Act to verify their correctness;
(vi) grant ad-interim ex-parte stay of commercial extraction of all non timber forest produce (NTFP) from national parks and sanctuaries in view of the prohibition provided in the Wild Life (Protection) Act,1972 and also prohibited by this Hon’ble Court’s order dt. 14.2.2000 passed in IA No. 548 in WP (C) 202 of 1995, till the disposal of the present petition.