Ever since the much-awaited implementation of the historic Forest Rights Act 2006 (FRA) had started in North Bengal, the State Government did everything possible to slaughter it. Grossly illegal orders were issued from the Writers Buildings, and the Government Officers in charge of the process have succeeded to make a mockery of the provisions of the Law. What could have been a just and democratic transition to people's management of forests and their sustained conservation, had degenerated into a politically motivated and fruitless exercise in bureaucratic apathy and arrogance.
Though the NFFPFW North Bengal Regional committee has consistently pointed out the manifest irregularities and illegalities that accompanied the governmental implementation of the Act, particularly in Jalpiguri district, the administration did not pay any heed. Violations of the FRA continue. In their latest round of attacks against the forest people of the Dooars area, the Government officers have been making rounds of the forest villages, and threatening villagers with 'dire consequences' if they fail to agree with the Jalpiguri district administration's version of the Act.
What is this version?
While the Act says that a Forest Rights Committee (FRC) will be constituted from the members of the Gramsabha, and may have a maximum of 15 members, the Forest Rights Committees in Jalpiguri District have 19 members, 4 of them Government officers including a forest officer. This, according to the SDOs of Alipurduar, Jalpiguri and Malbazaar, has been done to ensure that the act is implemented properly. A printed format with provision for 19 names is being circulated in the villages to list FRC members, and the villagers are being told that they should put only 15 names. The rest will be Government officers.
The District has decided (the same happened in SW Bengal district too) that the claims will be submitted to the Range Officer. The Tribal Welfare Officer in Dhupguri Block (under Jalpiguri Sadar Sub Division) refused to accept claims from several hundred tribal villagers from the forest villages under the Moraghat Range of Jalpiguri Forest Division, because they were not certified by the range officer. When questioned about this, he said that this was according to the decision of the 'nodal committee'. Apparently, the District has such competent 'nodal committees' at Block level.
The Range Officers have been receiving claims regularly in various parts of the district. Apparently, they are the 'nodal officers' empowered by the 'nodal committees' to do so.
The exercise of the claim form submission has not been preceded by training/awareness programmes at the village level. The villagers submitting the claims have seldom any notion about the specific nature of the claims that they can make under the Act. The only thing that was told by the political parties and the officers was 'patta'. No mention has been made of community claims including claims over CFRs.
One after another arbitrary cut-off date for submission of claims is being announced. In the remote Hallapara village inside the famous Jaldapara Wild Life Sanctuary, the villagers submitted blank claims when the local tribal officer asked for those before the last cut-off date. He later returned those under pressure from the villagers. In the latest incident of 'forcible claim submission', the SDO of Alipurduar visited the village and told them that they had to give the forms within 15th, i.e. today. Otherwise, 'go to them who are guiding you and submit the claims to them', she shouted.
The same SDO earlier refused to recognize hamlet-level FRCs formed in most of the forest villages in the Sub-Division. 'We know only the Gram Sansads, and FRCs formed at that level,' she said when a deputation from NFFPFW met her in September. When the deputation pointed out that such gram sansads can never function as Gram Sabhas under the FRA, and FRCs can not be expected to meet or function at Sansad level, which comprises several spatially and culturally separated villages, she refused to listen.
The State-level Monitoring committee has already decided that titles will be given in January. The process obviously is being expedited keeping in mind the Parliamentary elections.
Because the claim submission process is being controlled by Government Officers mostly from the forest department (aided by political leaders), FRCs have not been required to convene hearings, and neither did these committees meet to process claims. Gram Sabha Meetings have not been held (or even convened) to verify the claims. Even if one goes by the Governmental logic of Gram Sansad, then meetings needed to be held at the Sansad level to discuss the issue, and pass relevant resolutions before submitting the claims. Because such meetings were not held, the SDLC can not legally accept any claim whatsoever. It is clear that either the Gram Sabha resolutions will later be cooked up, or the necessity of those will be simply overlooked.
The forest people of North Bengal kept on defying the intimidations and threats that accompanied the FRA implementation, and started a parallel process of people's implementation, the thrust of which was creating a string of Community Managed Forests, using various provisions of the Act. In the biodiverse semi-evergreen forests of the Chilapata area the indigenous Ravas and other adivasis have banned extraction of forest products and all forestry works inside their forests, without explicit permission of the Gram Sabha. The Gram Sabhas of seven forest villages of the area took this decision jointly and informed the local SDO and the DFO, as well as the Panchayat, about this on 24th October, 2008. On 25th October, the Range Officer at Kodal Basti Range under the Coochbehar Forest Division threatened the local activists with 'serious consequences' like police cases. On 11th November, a member of NESPON and two Rava NFFPFW activists were assaulted in front of the Chilapata Range Office by the members of 'Shanti Committee', an infamous and powerful mafia group of the area. Enquiries by NFFPFW revealed that as soon as the Ban notice by the Gram Sabhas was officially circulated, the Forest Department personnel of the area called a Meeting of the local Forest Protection Committees and Eco Development Committees. It was reported that the DFO of the Coochbehar Forest Division himself conducted this 'JFM' Meeting, which in reality was attended by the Shanti Committee goons. The decision of the Meeting was to teach the 'Siliguri persons' (they meant NESPON) and the Ravas a lesson, the hard way. The 11th attack was the first of such lessons.
On behalf of NFFPFW North Bengal Regional Committee and NESPON, we reaffirm our pledge to reclaim the forest commons, and to continue with our programme to establish Community Forest Governance in North Bengal. We believe that the unity of all working people of North Bengal will defeat the anti-people Government machinery and the mafia.
Please support us in this struggle.
Shibo Sunuwar Soumitra Ghosh
Soumitra Ghosh NESPON/National Forum of Forest Peoples and Forest Workers (NFFPFW) 5, Krishanu Dey Sarani Babupara, Siliguri-734004 Siliguri, West Bengal, India 91-353-2661915/9194347-61915