Breaking the chain of historical injustice, Dalits and Adivasis assert their rights over Sundarban Forest 

sundarbansAsserting their rights over the Sundarban forest, more than 200 people from the region assembled at the Public Hearing in Sundarban islands on 31st January 2016. The organizers were Sundarban Jana Sramajibi Manch, All-India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP), and Delhi Forum. Details of the public hearing on the occasion:

The people, through submissions made to the Independent Public Hearing Panel asserted that the Sundarban forest is not a place where only tigers exist. Around three million people out of the four million total population of the island dwellers are Dalit, Adivasi and most backward Muslim communities who are ‘forest dependent’; subsistence peasants, fisher folk and forest produce collectors. Their voices have been ignored and left unheard over the past several decades, if not centuries. The Public Hearing paved the way for people to raise their issues before an internationally renowned Panel of experts, academia, lawyers and activists.

Women and men, mainly from the following  islands – Shamshernagar, Gosaba, Saatjaliya , Kultali,  Bali, Kumirmari made their submissions before the panel at the Public Hearing on their issues, including non-implementation of Forest Rights Act in Sundarban. The Public Hearing took place at Dakhin Uttar Danga Primary School, Bagbagan, Rangabelia, Gosaba Island of the Sundarban, West Bengal. It was organised by Sundarban Jana Sramajibi Manch (SJSM) and All India Union of Forest, Working People (AIUFWP) and was attended by over 200 people from different islands across the Sundarban and more than 100 people from different mass organizations across the country. 22 oral and written submissions were made to the Panel.

The panel members included Medha Patkar (Social Activist), Adv. Sanjay Parikh (Senior Lawyer, Supreme Court of India), Prof. Nandini Sundar (Delhi School of Economics), Arupjyoti Saikia (Professor, IIT Guwhati), Naba Dutta (General Secretary, Nagarik Manch and Social Activist), Dr. Kamal N. Chaubey (Researcher on Forest Rights Issues), and Jayanta Basu (Senior Journalist, Telegraph).

Highlighting the continuing ‘historical injustice’ towards them, the submissions of the forest dependent communities of the Sundarban islands to the panel focused on clear violations of the Forest Rights Act (2006), which is also a violation of the Constitution of India. They spoke about what is going on in these areas, the harassment faced by the people for whom the forest is the primary source of livelihood, the repeated attacks on their culture and identity, the atrocities they face from the Forest Department/Revenue Department/State police and the fact that the government authorities are taking no initiative for the people of this region. They spoke about the arbitrary and inconsistent ‘License Raj’ of the Forest Department, the harassment and violence and about structural corruption incorporated by the Forest Department in forest governance.

One of the core issues relating to the access to the forest for the people is the Boat License Certificate (BLC) impacting lives of the entire forest dependent communities. It was also reported that they are required to pay fines arbitrarily; the core and buffer area is changed as per the Forest Department deems fit. They are illegally detained, charged with false cases and their collection of the forest produce confiscated. On the other hand, the authorities do not register complaints raised by the community people, be it sexual harassment or SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities). The traditional forest dwellers are made to live in constant fear of vindictive repression by the Forest Department.

It was reported that there are no regulations on tourism in the region and that tourists are allowed to travel to the core areas with motorized boats whereas the forest dependent people are restricted from doing so. Fishing trawlers are given licences whereas the forest dependent people are fined and harassed for collecting what rightfully belongs to them.
The community members who deposed raised the rampant exploitation that they face during the honey collection season.

The FD staff insists that the people submit a minimum of 120 kg. per person in every trip. The FD insists that the people sell the honey to them at Rs.110 per kg while the market price is much higher. The FD sells it at more than thrice the buying cost. Even if the people have collected more than 120 kg, the FD confiscates the rest. The FD gets away by doing this illegal exploitation by giving the people the false impression that they would not get the pass again next time they want entry into the forest. Instances where FD officials threw people into the river, for resisting to pay bribes were also reported to the Panel.

Many of the submissions highlighted the fact that there is a deliberate ignorance among the authorities about the relationship that forest dependent communities have with the forest.  Neither the FD nor the State government is concerned about the increasing tiger attacks in the region or provisions for compensation for the victims’ families. They raised that the authorities and other environmental conservation organisations are only concerned about the animal protection, especially ‘saving the tiger’! They also mentioned several cases of people who go into the forest being kidnapped by huge gangs of dacoits. The FD and state government turns a blind eye when this is shared with them.

Although an elaborate administrative set up with several government bodies are in place to look after the development of Sundarban, it was raised that in actuality, they are dysfunctional.  Everything in the islands seems to be controlled by the Forest Department. After hearing the depositions of the people, the panellists presented their observations and recommendations.

“Is the Constitution even alive?” asked Medha Patkar, social activist addressing the Central and State government. She stated that we live in a free and democratic country and follow the colonial legacy. Reminding the authorities about Nandigram and Singur struggles, she added that any state or political party trying to oppress the people will not succeed.

She added that the duty of the government is to serve the people. She asserted that the FRA has to be implemented in this region and the people will make that happen. She also said that such a progressive law has come after a lot of struggle by the forest dependent communities. She warned the Central Government that any attempt that they make to dilute the FRA shall be strongly opposed by the people as it is a constitutional right.

Adv. Sanjay Parikh shared his observations and made it clear that the FRA 2006 is a central legislation and the Government of India and state Governement of West Bengal must implement it. Quoting the much known Niyamgiri cases, he added that any violations of this law is unacceptable and the people have the right to hold the government accountable in such a condition.

Peoples’ Movements that organized the Public Hearing on 31st January 2016 in Sundarban islands along with various mass organizations announced their way forward in asserting their constitutional rights over the forest as recognized and ensured by The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights Act) 2006.

Summary of the observations and recommendations made by the Panel

1. The West Bengal government and related departments/ministries have  made no effort to spread awareness about such an important legislation as the Forest Rights Act (FRA) among the people, Forest Department/Revenue Department/Social Justice ministry officials and the state police. Immediate measures need to taken to provide training and awareness among people about the provisions of the FRA.

2. The state government should constitute functional Gram Sabhas in all villages of Sundarban as they are recognized as the authority to initiate the process for determining the nature and extend of individual/community forest rights.

3. The women community members have raised complaints on charges of molestation, verbal and physical abuse against the FD staff. Immediate penal action should be taken against those FD staff and steps should be taken to set up Special Women’s Cell in the region for the protection of victims and their identities from violence and the vindictive action for their depositions.

4. There are prima facie reasons to file cases against the FD staff and State Police under sections of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The state government should take immediate measures to institute a compliance mechanism as mandated under the SC/ST (PO) Act.

5. There is a total violation of the rights of the communities in terms of the monopoly exercised by the Forest Corporations in the trade of minor forest produces (MFPs), particularly, honey. The state government should facilitate the forest dependent community towards the formation of cooporatives/federations which should be allowed full freedom to sell such MFPs on profit.

6. There is rampant corruption and illegal money transactions involved in the allotment and usage of the Boat License Certificates (BLC). The State Government should issue directions to the concerned officials of the Forest/Revenue Department not to create such obstruction in their livelihood through MFPs such as fish and other products of water bodies.

7.  The method of demarcating areas as (arbitrarily) as buffer/core area or extension of core area is done in an unscientific and illegal fashion without following the provision of FRA. The trawlers and tourists are allowed into the core areas, whereas the villagers are kept out. Under the cover of changing the core areas, the forest rights of the forest dependent communities cannot be affected.

8. The forest dependent community should take inspiration from the verdict of the Apex Court in the case of Niyamgiri in which the Supreme Court of India has considered and asserted the legal and constitutional rights as provided in the FRA

9. The West Bengal Government needs to consider the decision taken by the then UP Government in settling the claim by the traditional forest dwelling community in Surma village, Dudhwa National Park and make similar efforts to serve the people’s interests.

10.  Efforts are being made to dilute the provisions of the FRA by parties with vested interests. Any efforts in this direction will neither be in the interest of the communities nor in the interest of the protection of the wildlife, forest and biodiversity. The vesting of forest rights is absolute in nature and can be tinkered only after verification and determination by the Gram Sabha.

11. All existing laws have to be brought in harmony with the provisions of the FRA as it is an existing central legislation that recognizes the traditional land rights of the forest dwelling communities.

12. Along with the failure of implementation of the FRA, the Sundarban region reflects a basic failure in governance. The only forms of governance familiar to the people are the Khakhi clad men, the Forest Department and the Police. There is no role assigned in the FRA for the forest officials and revenue officials/police to obstruct or cause harassment to the forest dependent community in any manner.

13. Though there is a growing trend of tiger attack on habitats and people, eviction of traditional forest dependent communities or trivialized implementation of technological solutions will never resolve the human-animal conflict. The solution for this and saving the Royal Bengal Tiger is the creation of stronger ecological habitats, with the community playing the lead.

14. There are also related social and economic hardships faced by the people of Sundarban; like mass migration of men, human trafficking including flesh trade, ransom based dacoit kidnaps, etc. It is a reflection on the failure of the state in assuring the basic livelihood and human rights of the people.

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