India's Supreme Court ruling comes just weeks before the country is to begin national elections, putting state governments in the highly awkward position of being instructed to evict voters from their homes. (Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters)

NEW DELHI — India’s Supreme Court has ordered its government to evict a million people from their homes — for the good of the country’s wildlife.

The ruling, issued Wednesday, was a startling conclusion to a decade-long case that has pitted the rights of some of India’s most vulnerable citizens against the preservation of its forests.

The court told the government to evict over a million people — mostly members of indigenous tribes — from their homes in public forest land because they had not met the legal criterion to live there.

With more than 700 tribal groups, India is home to over 100 million indigenous people. While the forest land is legally controlled by the government, people have lived in such areas for centuries.

A landmark law passed in 2006 gave legal rights over forest land and its produce to tribes and forest-dwelling communities provided they could prove their families have stayed there for at least three generations.

The battle for mineral-rich forest land isn’t new in India. The ruling is the latest flash point in the competing interests of industry, wildlife conservationists and forest communities.

In the past 30 years, the government has diverted 5,400 square miles of forest land, the size of Connecticut, for industrial projects — many of which were opposed by the indigenous people. Wildlife groups contend that granting “wide-ranging” rights to people on forest land leads to fragmentation of forests at a time when the country’s forest cover is shrinking. Critics, however, say that neither accounts for the rights of the indigenous people who rely on the forest for daily needs and for their livelihood.

Now the court says that those whose claims were rejected must go — by July 27. The number of affected people is estimated to reach up to 1.89 million when more states comply with the order.

Human rights groups and activists were stunned by the ruling. Nicholas Dawes, the acting managing director of Human Rights Watch, wrote that it had “staggering” implications for India’s most marginalized.

Forest Rights Alliance, a grass-roots advocacy group, called the judgment “draconian.” Another group advocating for the rights of forest dwellers, the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, called the order a “major blow.” It also noted that thousands of claims for land rights under the law — the Forest Rights Act — get “wrongly rejected.”

Wildlife groups first challenged the law back in 2008, arguing it threatened “long-term conservation of forests and biodiversity.” Praveen Bhargav of Wildlife First issued a statement on behalf of the petitioners welcoming Wednesday’s ruling as an “extremely important order.” The statement noted that “ineligible” and “bogus” claimants under the Forest Rights Act “continue to occupy a huge area of forestland.”

C.R. Bijoy of the Campaign for Survival and Dignity fired back. He said the environmental groups that brought the case represent a “vanishing” way of thinking about conservation, which excludes people from the process.

The ruling comes just weeks before India is slated to begin national elections, putting state governments in the highly awkward position of being instructed to evict voters from their homes. As a result, few believe the order will be carried out in the mandated time frame — plus it will almost certainly face an additional legal challenge.

One big question is the Indian government’s own position on the issue. It failed to defend its own law in the current court case. The result was a lopsided proceeding where judges heard arguments in favor of the wildlife groups.

Rahul Gandhi, leader of the Indian National Congress, the country’s main opposition party, criticized Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government last week for being a “silent spectator” in court. Gandhi also asked three states governed by the Congress party to reexamine cases in which land claims had been rejected.

Back in 2002, the government had ordered evictions of unauthorized dwellings on a similar directive from the top court, sparking large-scale protests by indigenous people and forest rights groups.