India court order evicting forest dwellers sparks protests

by Reuters
Monday, 25 February 2019 11:24 GMT

By Jatindra Dash

BHUBANESWAR, India, Feb 25 (Reuters) - Indigenous people waved flags and shouted slogans in eastern India on Monday to protest a court order evicting more than one million indigenous families accused of encroaching on forest lands, witnesses said.

The Supreme Court issued an order on Feb. 13 to evict forest dwellers in 21 states, where over 1.3 million land claims, each potentially representing a household, had been rejected.

State governments had rejected the claims made under a forest rights law. Some environmental groups which argued the claims threatened forest conservation efforts had filed the initial petition seeking removal of the alleged encroachers.

The court order highlights the risks faced by India's underprivileged lower castes and indigenous groups as the country of 1.3 billion people pursues higher economic growth and development.

Protesters marched to the city of Behrampur in the state of Odisha on Monday. Many waved placards, including one that said: "Stop eviction of tribal families and forest dwellers from their homeland."

Bhalchandra Shadangi, a protest leader, told Reuters by phone that the court order was "an undeclared war on tribals" and nearly 150,000 people faced eviction in Odisha.

Rights activists say federal and state governments have for decades diluted land rights for indigenous people and bowed to pressure from mining companies in the mineral-rich central and eastern states of Odisha, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.

The three states are also home to a decades-old Maoist, or Naxalite, insurgency that fought security forces over land and mineral resources in indigenous forest areas, although the insurgency has waned in recent years.

In Chhattisgarh, where the main opposition Congress recently came to power, the state government is considering an appeal against the Supreme Court order, Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel said in a tweet on Monday.

In the capital New Delhi, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs said in a statement it "will do everything at its disposal to safeguard the interests of the tribals," but did not elaborate.

Monday's protests at Behrampur followed a march on Saturday by indigenous protesters in the state of Jharkhand, where more than 28,000 people face eviction, according to the order.

Birendra Kumar, an activist leader in Jharkhand, said a rally was planned for New Delhi on March 2.

"The Supreme Court direction is wrong and it is anti-tribal," he said. (Editing by Sudarshan Varadhan and Darren Schuettler)

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