Khairbari Forest Movement

Criminalising Community Conservation

Lal Singh Bhujel & Sundar Sing Rava

Hundreds of Gramsabha members of North Khairbari forest village in Madarihat Range of Coochbehar Forest Division are resisting repeated attempts by forest department to carry out a clear felling coupe (CFC) in forests which they assert as their Community Forest Resource (CFR), according to provisions of Forest Rights Act 2006. On 23 December, 25 December and then again on 7 and 18 January, departmental staff and JFMC (Joint Forest Management Committee) members from neighbouring villages, along with police, arrived at the CFR area to fell the trees they had marked earlier.

The North Khairbari area adjoins the forests of Chilapata and Jaladapara National Park, a crucial wild life habitat and an area where indigenous forest communities of North Bengal Dooars have repelled a series of attempts on their forests in recent years, invoking rights under Sections 3 and 5 of FRA, and where for last several years, local gramsabhas, with help from Uttar Banga Ban-Jan Shromojivi Manch, a constituent of AIFFM(all India Forum of Forest Movements) have been spearheading a movement for asserting community control over forests and plantations traditionally protected and raised by forest villagers. In March-April 2013, Manch members of the area and concerned Gramsabhas successfully resisted a clear felling coupe attempt at Mantharam, braving threats and harassment by police, local political leaders and forest department. The department has stalled another CFC operation in the area this year.

North Khairbari Forests form part of a crucial wild life corridor traditionally used by wild elephants: any tampering with existing vegetation can only aggravate man-elephant conflict in the area. It has to be kept in mind that herds of wild elephants have been using Khairbari forests in recent months, and man-elephant conflict incidents are on the rise in that area.

The involvement of police in what is purely a departmental operation is a point of concern. Gramsabha members are simply discharging their duties as government servants according to law, and hence they enjoy legal immunity as stipulated in the Section 9 and Section 10 of FRA 2006, and are covered by section 21 of Indian Penal Code. The police must not be involved in forest department's CFC operations, and the district administration must ensure that Gram Sabha's rights over Community Forest Resources are duly protected and honored. Any use of force by forest department and police to prevent Gram Sabha members must be treated as flagrant violation of the law of the land, and a clear incitement for mindless deterioration of law and order situation in a tribal village.

On April 4, 2013, the Tribal Affairs Minister, Government of India wrote to the Chief Ministers of various states including West Bengal, citing violations of community rights in various areas. The letter mentioned in particular North Bengal: "Governments using police and forest officials against people trying to protect their forests: this has happened particularly in North Bengal". The letter said further, "If People are unable to stop their forests from being destroyed by forest department felling, how can they exercise their community rights in those forests?"

In another GO issued on 8/ll/2013(No 23011/33/2010-FRA), the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India, clarified that Forest Rights Act, 2006, β€˜β€˜...recognizes and vests the forest accordance with the provisions of the FRA, regardless of whether such forest rights, might be contrary to other laws, which includes statutory law and judicial precedent, if any’’. This makes it amply clear that if Gram Sabhas formed under FRA invoke their powers and rights provided by that act, their action will not be subject to challenges by provisions in any other law. Hence, the forest department is clearly in the wrong in attempting CFCs in areas protected by Gramsabhas, and neither can police intervene in this matter without violating the law.

Despite this, Police filed cases against five members of North Khairbari Gram Sabha, namely, Rabi Rava, Subhas Rava, Kutin Rava, Sarbat Rava and Bipin Rava under sections 34, 186, 341 and 353 of IPC case no 514 dated 18 January 2014. This is clearly yet another attempt to criminalize community efforts to conserve forests, harass and persecute Gram Sabha members who are simply doing their legal duties, and by intimidating movement leaders, continue with the CFC operation. One is also shocked by the sheer arrogant disrespect of the law that the concerned forest personnel, including the DFO of Coochbehar Forest Division, show. Should people no longer expect justice from government and governmental agencies?

Gram Sabha members of North Khairbari and adjoining villages have vowed to continue their movement. This is supported by forest dwellers from all over North Bengal. The movement is for resources, dignity and justice.

Vol. 46, No. 43, May 4 -10, 2014