India's Supreme Court has ordered that more than a million such families living on forest land will have to leave soon.
The top court has acted on information provided by 17 states. The states have carried out a three-step verification of more than four million occupancy claims - each requiring 13 different kinds of evidence - of each family living on forest land. Tribespeople support groups say the implementation of the law has been faulty. They blame overzealous environmentalists and wildlife groups for the present state of affairs. India's tribespeople, according to historian Ramachandra Guha, suffer from what he describes as a "triple resource crunch", living as they do in India's "densest forests, along with its fastest-flowing rivers and atop its richest veins of iron ore and bauxite". Over the years they lost their homes and lands to dams, mines, and factories. Now a mass court-mandated eviction from forest land, again, proves how vulnerable they remain.
Some 1.8 million claims have been accepted and land titles handed over to families living on 72,000sq km of forest land, an area equivalent to the north-eastern state of Assam. A 2006 law gives tribespeople and other dwellers living on forest land for three generations before December 2005 the legal right to live and work on the land. But more than a million claims have been rejected, so an equal number of families face eviction.
Environmental journalist Nitin Sethi calls this the "largest mass scale, legally sanctioned eviction of tribals in independent India".
India's 100 million tribespeople are, in the words of a historian, its invisible and marginal minority. Despite affirmative action, most of them continue to eke out a miserable existence in the heavily forested, mineral-rich states.
An earlier eviction drive - between 2002 and 2004 - to rid the forests of encroachers resulted in some 300,000 forest dwellers being forced out from lands, according to CR Bijoy, an independent researcher. Villages were set on fire, houses demolished, crops damaged and people killed in police shootings.
More than four million of them, by one estimate, live in protected forest areas, which comprise about 5% of India's total land area. Some 500 wildlife sanctuaries and 90 national parks make up these protected areas.