ACTION ALERT FROM NORTH BENGAL FORESTS

In the dense semi-evergreen forests of Chilapata in North Bengal Dooars, the Adibasi residents of the forest villages of the area once again face police action because they have challenged the forest department’s hegemonic control over forests and plantation people had helped preserve and raised, working day and night, braving untold misery and mostly working without wages.

Chilapata was the first forest area in West Bengal where people belonging to the indigenous Rava and Mech communities, along with Jharkhandi Adibasi settlers had officially proclaimed their governance rights over forests under FRA 2006, and stopped the forest department’s timber operations successfully in 2008. Until 2012, the department could not do any logging in Chilapata forests(divided into two forest ranges: Chilapata and Kodal Basti under Coochbehar Forest Division) most of which have now been included in the Jaldapara National Park, famous for its one-horned rhino and other wild animals. 12 Gram Sabhas in the area adopted a joint resolution in 2008 to preserve and protect the forests and plantations, and not to allow clear felling coupes in them. This resulted in a prolonged conflict between the villagers and an informal consortium consisting of the forest department, local police, political parties, contractors and timber mafia. In 2010-2011, following the Kodal Basti Gram Sabha putting up a Community Forest Signboard on the National Highway 31D, a number of false cases were slapped against all the prominent persons in the movement, all under various sections of Indian Penal Code and the police tried also to drag away Sunder Sing Rava, the young charismatic leader of the movement and Co-convener of Uttar Banga Ban-Jan Shromojibi Manch(North Bengal Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers, now a member of All India Forum of Forest Movements) in a midnight raid.Widespread resistance stopped the harassment, but Sunder and his other colleagues have still a number of cases lodged against them, and arrest warrants. An arrest warrant had also been issued in the name of Lal Sing Bhujel, the convener of Uttar Banga Ban-Jan Shromojibi Manch.

Harassed and persecuted from all sides, the Chilapata movement could not prevent the departmental operation in 2012, when the department clear felled more than 3000 mature trees from a old plantation in the Manthoram Beat of Kodal Basti forest Range. Taking lesson from that, the movement had started to reorganize from late 2012, and in all Gram Sabhas of Chilapata Community Forest Governance Committees had been re-activated. This year, when the news came that the forest department has marked six thousand trees at a 1960 plantation of Mantharam, the Mantharam Gram Sabha adopted a resolution under section 5 of the FRA prohibiting that and saying that the plantation now resembles a high forest and is crucial wild life habitat used frequently by Elephants, Gaur, Leopards, Tiger and other animals: under no circumstances it could be damaged. Though the Range Officer of Kodal Basti received a copy of the resolution and the GS also sent copies to the SDO and other officers, the department managed to fell several thousand trees, under cover of threats from the local police. On 28 February, hundreds of forest villagers from Mantharam and neighbouring villages stopped the departmental operation: through a peaceful agitation, they unloaded the trucks that came to transport the felled timber, and seized mechanical saws. A fresh FIR against the departmental staff and outsiders involved in it has been lodged in Kalchini Police Station, and a delegation from the Uttar Banga Ban-Jan Shromojibi Manch met the SDPO at Alipurduar yesterday. The same evening, threats started afresh, and police personnel from Kalchini started to pressurize Bijnath Rava, President, Uttar Banga Ban-Jan Shromojibi Manch, Coochbehar Divisional Committee, and Pabitro Rava of Mendabari GS for withdrawing the complaint against the forest department. Some as yet unidentified officer from the police station called up Bijnath and threatened him with ‘3rd degree torture’ and ‘cases that could send you to jail for life’ unless he complies. On 2 March,departmental staff re-entered the felling site with police protection. When about a thousand villagers reached the spot and prevented the departmental staff from taking out the timber, they, however, did not face any resistance from the police.

It needs to be remembered that the in West Bengal, Community Forest Rights have been entirely ignored so far, and the Government has not even bothered to recognize the long standing demand of the forest villagers for conversion to revenue village, which too is a right under FRA. In a meeting with GS members at Hasimara, the State Forest Minister reportedly said that the state government has not implemented the FRA yet.

We at Uttar Banga Ban-Jan Shromojibi Manch apprehend that there would be more retaliatory actions by the police and the forest department in the days to come: notwithstanding what the law says, the forest bureaucrats are bent on retaining their unjust, tyrannical and by now entirely illegal control over forests in narrow commercial interest. We support the Chilapata Gram Sabhas in their struggle, and appeal to all friends and colleagues for support and solidarity action.

We would keep you updated.

Lal Sing Bhujel, Sundar Sing Rava, Soumitra Ghosh Uttar Banga Ban-Jan Shromojibi Manch

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