Two-fold was the collective sigh of relief across the country on Thursday evening, and on matters radically different. The first was the Pakistan Prime Minister, Imran Khan’s announcement in the National Assembly that the captured Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman would be freed and sent back home. The second was the Supreme Court’s stay on its 13 February order that directed the eviction of an estimated 10 lakh forest dwellers who had illegally encroached on forest land. Eviction of forest residents from their hearth and home would have doubtless ignited another bout of subaltern strife barely two months before the General Election ~ in itself a hot potato for any party. For successive dispensations at the Centre and in the states, their rehabilitation and general welfare have ranked rather low in the order of priorities.

On closer reflection, the apex judiciary has effected a deft balance. While the Bench (coram: Arun Mishra, Navin Sinha and MR Shah) has rejected the claims of the settlers, it has pulled up the Centre for “waking up from its slumber” rather late in the day ~ “You go into a slumber all the while and after we pass an order you are now seeking modification.” Thus did the court underline the general sluggishness of the states while implementing so crucial a piece of legislation as the Forest Rights Act. The short point being that subaltern welfare must of necessity go beyond providing rice at Rs 2 a kg, and not always fit for consumption. In a sense, the three-judge Bench has also raised the issue of identity of the forest residents, drawing a sharp distinction between genuine dwellers and “the mighty and unscrupulous elements” who have intruded over time.

Small wonder that the court has directed 19 states to file affidavits stating the number of people whose claims have been rejected and the process adopted while conducting the exercise. There is considerable confusion over the scope of the expression ~ “Other Forest Tribal Dwellers and Scheduled Tribe Forest Dwellers”. The states are yet to clarify whether every dweller is a tribal. Clearly, there are no firm guidelines, let alone uniformity, that can govern the task. Well and truly has the government been stumped with the observation that “in most cases, the tribals had not been served with ejection orders”, directing the states to clarify what process would be followed after the eviction orders are passed.

There is an overdose of ad hocism, far too little of thoughtful rehabilitation. It is a fraught exercise in the absence of what the Bench calls a “modus operandi”. Ergo, the court has expressed fears that “traditional tribals” are likely to be affected. A cautious and humane approach must now address the anxiety of the Supreme Court.