A meeting taking place in Delhi tomorrow could determine the fate of eight million tribal people and other forest dwellers in India.
The talks between states and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs follows February’s hugely controversial Supreme Court order to evict millions of people whose land rights claims have been rejected.
The next Supreme Court hearing in the case will be on 24 July, when the court may once again order the eviction of millions of people. This comes at a time when India’s tribal peoples are facing an unprecedented assault on their rights.
India’s new Minister of Environment and Forests, who has spoken in support of shoot on sight policies, will also try to push through a draft amendment to the British-era Indian Forest Act. The proposed changes have been described as even more draconian than the original.
The draft amendment, which was leaked to the press, was drafted by senior forestry officials, lawyers and the CEO of WWF-India, Ravi Singh. The new act includes:
– A huge program of militarization of India’s forests and tiger reserves, with thousands of officials routinely armed.
– Forest Department officials given the right to shoot people to “prevent” forest offences and enjoy virtual immunity from prosecution.
– Forest officers given the right to shoot, search, seize property, and arrest citizens, while the burden of proving innocence would lie with the accused.
– The undermining of groundbreaking legislation that sought to redress the historical “injustices” to India’s tribal peoples. State governments able to take away forest rights, in the name of conservation.
In India’s Kaziranga National Park a similar level of militarization and impunity for guards resulted in 50 people being shot dead in three years and a 7-year-old boy maimed for life. A recent Dutch documentary highlighting abuses and evictions in Kaziranga, along with WWF’s support for the park, is now available in English worldwide.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples has criticized the Supreme Court order, saying: “The basic premise of this ruling, which treats tribal peoples as illegal residents of the forest, is wrong—Indigenous Peoples are the owners of their lands and forests.”
Survival International Director Stephen Corry said today: “Colonial conservation took three or four generations to steal the lands of about 10-15 million indigenous people throughout the world. India is now looking to steal the lands and livelihoods of a further 8 million tribal and other forest dwellers in a few months, and to shoot them if they try and go back. The militarization of India’s forests is being done under the guise of a law, drafted with WWF, supposedly in aid of conservation. One of the most massive human rights violations in the world is being planned, with almost no voices outside India raised in opposition.”
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