Implementation of Forest Rights Act in Bengal – Questions on the process

The Government of West Bengal has begun the implementation of the Forest Rights Act with great delay and reluctance. It is clear that a process of sabotage is going on in the implementation, and this requires constant vigilance and protest. Following are two documents – (1) a press release from the North Bengal Regional Committee of the National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers (NFFPFW), raising questions of legality of a recently issued order (number 1220/PN/O/I/1A-2/07, dated March 17, 2008) and (2) Letter to the chief secretary to the Government of West Bengal from Nagarik Mancha on the issue, March 27, 2008.

Press release from Siliguri forest wokers’ organisation – March 27, 2008

Does the Government of West Bengal intend to sabotage the Forest Rights Act?

The State Government has finally initiated the much-delayed and much required process of implementing the historic Forest Rights Act, 2006. While welcoming the move, we would nonetheless like to question the legality and justification of the process that has apparently been initiated through the Principal Secretary, P&Rd’s Order P&RD’s Order no. 1220/PN/O/I/1A-2/07, dated 17/03/2008. The Order is totally violative of the provisions of the Act it tries to implement:

It says (a) “A committee named Forest Rights Committee shall be formed at the level of Gram Sansad in the Meeting to be held to before 31st March,2008..”, whereas the Rules for the Act(Rule 3.1) clearly says, “The Gram Sabha shall be convened by the Gram Panchayat and in its first meeting it shall elect from amongst its members, a committee..”. The Act clearly defines what a Gram Sabha is:

Section 2(g): “Gram Sabha” means a village assembly, which shall consist of all adult members of a village and in case of States having no Panchayats, Padas, Tolas and other traditional village institutions and elected village committees, with full and unrestricted participation of women;

The Act also defines what a “Village” is:

Section 2(p): “village” means–

a village referred to in clause (b) of section 4 of the Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 or;

any area referred to as a village in any State law relating to panchayats other than the Scheduled Areas; or

forest villages, old habitation or settlements and unsurveyed villages, whether notified as village or not; or

in the case of States where there are no Panchayats, the traditional village, by whatever name called;

Gram Sansads in West Bengal may perhaps be treated as any area referred to as a village in any State law relating to panchayats other than the Scheduled Areas, but by limiting Gram Sabhas to the Gram Sansad level, and what is more dangerous, by making Gram Sansads the same as Gram Sabhas( as defined under FRA,2006),the Order entirely violates the letters and the spirit of the Act. This deprives the residents of Forest Villages and other habitations, settlements and un-surveyed villages of North Bengal from their just rights of having their own Gramsabhas, and thus conducting the rights settlement process in a way suitable to their own hamlet-level situation. It also makes the actual implementation of the Act almost impossible. For instance, we have come to know that 11 remote and spatially separated forest villages in the Buxa Hills of the Alipurduar Sub-Division, Jalpiguri District, now need to function and operate through a single Forest Rights Committee, which has been hastily formed in the Area on 25.03.2008. We have been also informed of similar arbitrary and impractical Forest Rights Committees being formed elsewhere in the district. How can a single FRC be expected to properly conduct the claims recording and claims verification process for several villages, particularly in relation to demarcation of Community Forest Resources, and other rights to forest produces?

Repeated mention of Gram Unnayan Samitis in the Order are indeed baffling. The Order(c) says, “Since Gram Unnayan Samiti has been constituted at the level of Gram Sansad, Forest Rights Committee shall act as a functional committee under Gram Unnayan Samiti comprising 10 to 15 members of Gram Unnayan Samiti subject to the compliance of condition regarding Scheduled Tribes and Women Members..” What is the logic of including Gram Unnayan Samitis in the Order, where neither the Act nor the Rules mention any such body/bodies? We will very much like to know that whether the P&RD Department, and, for that matter, the West Bengal Government, has any legal jurisdiction over the FRA, and any authority of thus changing the Act? This Order further says that(d) “The Chairperson and the Secretary of Gram Unnayan Samiti shall act as the Chairperson and the Secretary of the Forest Rights Committee,” whereas the Rule 3.2 clearly says, “The Forest Rights Committee shall decide on a chairperson and a secretary and intimate it to the Sub-Divisional Level Committee”. By illegally imposing an external and pre-existing Committee upon the FRC, the Order deprives the Gram Sabha members from the democratic option to elect their own FRCs, and attacks the democratic and participatory essence of the Act.

The very inappropriate and unwarranted haste implicit in the Order astonishes us. Before this Order, the Government of West Bengal has taken no steps whatsoever to ensure that the potential rightsholders are informed of the Act. The FRCs can only be meaningfully formed when and after the Gram Sabhas have been democratically constituted, people are sufficiently aware of their rights/duties/ obligations as Gram Sabha members, and the Gram Sabha Meeting to form FRC has been attended by two thirds of the members. These are impossible to achieve within a time-frame of 11 days (the Order, issued on 17/03, says that FRCs need to be formed within 28/03), and in many villages in Jalpiguri District, where FRCs have been formed on 24th and 25th March, there was no quorum, and Attendance Registers have been circulated either the previous day, or, after the meeting.

There is also the matter of actual, physical coverage of the Act. By confining itself to the Forest Department furnished list of Forest Villages, the process ignores the residents of many unrecorded forest settlements of the State, which have so far been not shown in any Forest Department Map.

Finally, the Act mentions “The Ministry of the Central Government dealing with Tribal Affairs or any officer or authority authorised by the Central Government in this behalf” as the “nodal agency for the implementation of the provisions of this Act”. Does the P&RD Department qualify as the nodal agency here? Does it have any legal authority for issuing Orders for implementation of the Act? Do we take this Order and the present process for implementation of the Act as a sign that the State Government has not even bothered to read the Act? Or, do we take this as a deliberate, and politically motivated attempt to sabotage the democratic content of the Act, keeping in mind more the forthcoming Panchayat Elections in the State than anything else?

As a People’s organisation working among the forest Communities of West Bengal and the country, and also as an organisation actively involved in the process of formulating the Forest Rights Act, we demand that:

1.The Illegal and arbitrary Order issued by the P&RD Department gets immediately withdrawn.

2. All Governmental Activities to form FRCs under this Order in all parts of the State are suspended immediately.

3. All FRCs formed through this Order are dismantled immediately.

4. A proper, legal and inclusive process of FRA implementation starts afresh.

Shibo Sunuwar

Convener, North Bengal Regional Committee, National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers (NFFPFW)

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Letter to the chief secretary to the Government of West Bengal from Nagarik Mancha

27 March 2008

To
The Chief Secretary
Government of West Bengal
Writers’ Building
Kolkata 700001

Subject: Order No. 1220/PN/O/1/1A-2/07 dated 17 March 2008 issued by the Department of Panchayat and Rural Development, GOWB, regarding Forest Rights Committee.

Sir,

On 17 March 2008, Sri M N Roy, Principal Secretary, Panchayat and Rural Development, GOWB issued an order pertaining to Forest Rights Committee.

We are deeply concerned about the said Order which we firmly believe has gone against the letter and spirit of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 and associated Rules, 2007.

The following are some salient points where the Order has violated the said Act and Rules:

The said Government Order states that the Gram Samsad will ‘constitute’ the Forest Rights Committee. However the Act stipulates that the Panchayat will convene a Gram Sabha meeting where the members of the Forest Rights Committee will be ‘elected’. The Act states that the Secretary and the Chairperson will be directly elected but the Order states that the Secretary and the Chairperson of the Gram Unnayan Samity will be the Secretary and the Chairperson of the Forest Rights Committee. This violation is purposeful and motivated.

Whereas there is no existence of a body termed Gram Unnayan Samity in the Act, the Order not only constitutes this body arbitrarily but also places it virtually above the Forest Rights Committee proposed in the Act. This violation is plainly undemocratic.

The Act clearly states what should constitute a forest village. However the Order virtually ignores it and replaces it by the traditional definition of a village as per the Panchayat system. It is not at all clear as to how the habitations in remote forest areas comprising of tribal and non-tribal settlers will come under the purview of the Act if the Order is strictly implemented. Such a violation attempts to alter the basic premise of the Act.

Regarding who will act as the Nodal Agency, Section 11 of the Act states – “The Ministry of the Central Government dealing with Tribal Affairs or any Officer or Authority authorised by the Central Government in this behalf shall be the nodal agency for the implementation of the provisions of the Act.” However we observe that the Principal Secretary, Panchayat and Rural Development, GOWB, has issued the above mentioned order. He has exceeded all reasonable limits and powers while intervening in a Central Act. Surprisingly after an inordinate delay and silence in formulating rules he has suddenly sprung into activity and is rushing things beyond reasonable limits.

The major role the State Government is supposed to play in context of this Act is that of monitoring. A State Level Monitoring Committee was to be constituted by the Government with you as its Chairperson. We do not know whether you are the Chairperson of any such Committee.

We demand your active intervention.

We demand that the said Order be cancelled.

We demand that the Forest Rights Committee be formed allowing the Forest People to exercise their democratic right to elect their chosen representatives.

We request you to do the needful as early as possible.

Thanking you,
Yours sincerely,
Naba Dutta
General Secretary