Forests Rights Act

Forests and Forest Communities

Lal Singh Bhujel & Lila Kumar Gurung

The Central government in India is fast clearing the way for easy hand-over of all natural resources of the country to big companies, national and multinational, in the name of so-called economic growth. In doing so they keep on violating people's rights over such resources. A number of legislations enacted during the last 10 years, all of which were passed on the basis of rare consensus among all political parties including those in the present NDA, are being arbitrarily mauled, in the interest of big business, the latest instance of which is the ordinance to amend the land acquisition act. Besides, all existing laws for protection of environment and the rights of the working people are being amended or tinkered with. Increasingly it seems that the big companies are running the country instead of an elected government.

The latest victim of the blatantly anti-people policies of the Central government are the forest dwellers, who have already been fighting for their constitutional rights over land, forest and water. The historic Forest Rights Act of 2006 has barely been implemented properly. Even though the law says that every village with forest dwellers should have rights recorded over their community forest resources, such rights have not been 'officially' recognized anywhere in the state. In the places where these people have asserted their rights through movement, such as in Coochbehar and Kurseong forest divisions of West Bengal, the Forest Department is trying to criminalize community actions in protecting forests, wild life and biodiversity. This situation is bound to worsen further as the new Central government, in the footsteps of the Environment Ministry of the last government, is trying to destroy the Forest Rights Act itself instead of ensuring its just implementation. Since coming to power in May 2014, the present government has done the following :

1.    Orders have been issued that control over minor forest produce should be given to JFM committees, not the gram sabha (this is completely illegal).
2.   On July 31st, the Prime Minister's Office held a meeting where they asked the Environment Ministry to issue orders saying that projects can be given forest land without gram sabha consent. This is illegal and in violation of the Supreme Court's orders. Meanwhile, even though this change has not been made, the government has cleared projects without taking the consent of gram sabhas.
3.   Senior Ministers like Nitin Gadkari and Prakash Javadekar are writing letters supporting the Maharashtra Forest Department, which is trying to create a system which will give the Forest Department full control over management of community forests.
4.   On October 28th, the Environment Ministry issued an illegal notification giving District Collectors the power to decide, in certain areas, if the Forest Rights Act needs to be implemented prior to forest land diversion. This is an incitement to criminal actions and violations of the law.

In many areas of North Bengal, particularly in the districts of Darjeeling, Jalpiguri and Coochbehar, people had voted for the ruling party at the center. As a response to the call by Himalayan Forest Villagers' Organization (HFVO) and Uttar Banga Ban-Jon Shramojivi Manch (UBBJSM) for NOTA vote in the forest areas of North Bengal to protest against the non-implementation of FRA, Mr Surinder Singh Aluwahlia, the sole BJP MP from the region, promised that he would do his best to expedite the implementation of the FRA, and his government, if it comes to power, would definitely respect the rights of long-deprived and marginalized forest communities of the region. After more than 9 months since the parliamentary elections, the plight of forest dwellers is only increasing, and instead of respecting their rights, the present Government is conspiring to take away the rights.

The conversion of 94 forest villages in the Dooars area to revenue villages has come as a rare and welcome exception. This is the first proper instance of recognition of forest rights in West Bengal. Though 18 villages in Alipurduar, Coochbehar and Jalpiguri are yet to be converted, about 98 percent of the forest villages have been converted, including those earlier slotted for relocation, inside Buxa Tiger Project, Gorumara National Park and Jaldapara National Park. History has come a full cycle as forest villagers of North Bengal celebrate a hard-won victory in their decade-long struggle for freedom from the feudal 'jaigirdary' of forest department.

All converted villages have been included in revenue mouzas, and given JL numbers. The physical process of delineating village boundaries has started, though the forest department is trying to disrupt the process.

This is also the first unambiguous conversion of forest villages in the country, which refers to the FRA provision and MOTA guidelines, and includes other traditional forest dwellers.

In Darjeeling, HFVO and UBBJSM have submitted a comprehensive village list for three sub-divisions to the relevant district authority. However, no notification for the 150+ villages in the District, all of which are included within GTA, exists, and more than a hundred thousand inhabitants of these settlements continue to live in feudal fiefdom of the forest department.

In Darjeeling, Alipurduar and Jalpiguri, the forest department is still trying to undermine people's rights by illegally promoting Joint Forest Management (JFM).

Vol. 47, No. 41, Apr 19 - 25, 2015