Using law as a tool for social change and promotion of rule of law

  • Right of forest dwelling communities to stay in their abode the forest – RLEK has been instrumental in upholding the rights of the Van Gujjars (a pastoral, nomadic community which practices transhumance) to stay in the forest as they were being coerced into leaving their natural habitat and forcibly resettled in other areas. As a result of its complaint case filed before the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), an order dictating the State Government to first resettle the Van Gujjars living in the proposed Rajaji National Park was passed. It further said that Van Gujjar families residing in the forest could not be forcefully evicted or settled in the new camp for their rehabilitation. The Forest Department was harassing this Muslim community in all possible ways including extortion, harassment and beating. The case was filed with NHRC to safeguard the interest of the Muslim nomadic Van Gujjar community. In this campaign to safeguard the traditional rights, the forest bureaucracy has been directed to end the exploitation of the community following intensive legal lobbying.

This has been hailed as a landmark for traditional forest dwelling communities who want to live in their abode the forest without the fear of being forcefully uprooted from their habitat and helped them to establish their long-lost identity yet persevering their indigenous culture. This order of NHRC has not only prevented the harassment and unjust eviction of the Van Gujjars from the forests but have also provided great strength to the community members. The Van Gujjars, who have always lived under the dominating shadow of the forest officials, saw for themselves that the forest officials are not above the law and can also be rebuked and punished for their unlawful activities.

  • Voting Rights for Nomads –The democratic system in India is based on the principle of universal adult suffrage; that any citizen over the age of 18 can vote in an election. However, the Van Gujjars were excluded from the electoral rolls due to their transmigratory nature. Though they were residents of both Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand/Uttar Pradesh, no state recognized them as voters.

RLEK through legal lobbying and advocacy with the Chief Election Commissioner fought for procurement of their voting rights. Due to RLEK’s efforts on behalf of the Van-Gujjars, lakhs of nomads all across the country have today been included in the main-stream of the electoral system.

  • It was due to RLEKs advocacy and legal lobbying efforts for the rights of traditional forest dwelling communities to stay in forest and have control over forest produce and land rights which led to the Schedule Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.
  •  Lending an incisive view to right to sustainable development – Hydro-power across the globe has been hailed as the cleanest form of energy. The state of Uttarakhand has been the origin of various rivers and has the potential to develop this resource to fulfill the energy demands of the State as a result various hydro-power projects were initiated. These hydro-power projects had been given the requisite clearances – forest, pollution, environment etc. The problem of energy shortage is acute in the state and 1220 villages in Uttarakhand alone are still awaiting electrification. However, the State Government succumbed to the pressure of various religious groups with their own vested interests and suspended these hydro-electric power projects without any valid scientific jus. The Government already spent more than Rs. 200 crores in survey and investigation and any further delay in the construction would escalate the total cost of the project. In view of this blatant violation of right to development and furthering the cause of sustainable development RLEK filed a public interest litigation in the Uttarakhand High Court. The Court taking a strict view in the matter stayed the suspension order of the State Government and resumed work on these stalled projects taking into cognizance the fact that their suspension was hampering the development of the state and interest of the public. An appeal from this order is still pending with the Supreme Court of India.
  • Action against public money being used for extravagance on former chief ministers–   The State Government spent more than ten crore in providing housing, security, petrol etc. to former Chief Ministers of the sate of Uttarakhand i.e. without any legislative sanction. This expenditure puts a burden on the public exchequer. Further, in a state like Uttarakhand which has still not come to terms after the natural calamity which struck year before last year this is nothing but a waste of public money. The grant of largess from the public exchequer to benefit a few individuals who have held the office of Chief Minister, is illegal and arbitrary and public money cannot be allowed to be dissipated in the manner as is being done to favour few individuals who belong to higher echelon of the society and are in no way incapacitated due to poverty and need financial assistance. It was in this backdrop that RLEK took up this cause before the High Court of Uttarakhand subsequent to a fiercely contested case which is still pending in the Court. However, the State Cabinet has taken the decision to stop these facilities but final favorable decision is awaited from the court.
  • Furthering participation of marginalized in local-self governanceIn 1993, the 73rd Constitutional Amendment was passed which upholds the right of the woman to participate in political governance at the rural level and stipulates that 33% of the seats be reserved for them in local self-governance. Special emphasis for women of Schedule Castes, Schedule Tribes and Other Backward Classes provides for representation proportionate to their population within this 33% figure.

Subsequent to the Amendment, States were directed to promulgate State Panchayat Acts within a year and to hold elections within a further period of one year. Although the Acts were promulgated within the stipulated period, elections in a number of States were not held. RLEK filed a public interest writ petition in the Supreme Court in 1995 against the states of Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Orissa, Tamil Nadu and Bihar, as well as, the Union Government. The grounds were that Panchayats in these States had extended well beyond the stipulated tenure of five years in violation of the Constitution depriving women of the minimum representation of 33.33% – provision for which had been made in the Act to ensure their place in governance. The Supreme Court upheld the plea of RLEK and ordered these states to dissolve the illegally continuing Panchayats and hold fresh elections. This provided women, schedule castes and schedule Tribes a voice in governance as well as their representation which was earlier absent.

  • RLEK filed a case in the Apex Court for holding of elections to Panchayats within the stipulated 5 year tenure.
  • Hon’ble Supreme Court ordered states to dissolve illegal Panchayats and hold elections.
  • The court strongly came down on state governments and held that elections to Panchyats be held every 5 years as per the Constitutional mandate
  • This provided marginalized groups who were provided reservation in Panchaytas such as women, SCs, STs an opportunity to partake in the process of democratic governance which was earlier absent.

The Hon’ble Apex Court held that “…It is necessary to emphasise that various clauses of Article 243 are to be followed in letter and spirit. The concerned states cannot be permitted to withhold elections of Panchayat except in cases of genuine supervening difficulties to hold such elections e.g. unforeseen natural calamities in the state like flood, earthquake etc. or extremely urgent situation prevailing in the state for which elections of the panchayat cannot be held within the timeframe. It will be unfortunate if the concerned states remain insensitive to the constitutional mandate of holding the election of panchayat in time…”

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