Kolkata – Mass Convention on Forest Rights, December 4

December 1, 2010

Demanding the proper implementation of the ‘Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006’ and the end of repression of the forest dwellers, A Mass Convention is being collectively organized by : NFFPFW, Nagarik Mancha, Natun Shatok, Brhattaro Kolkata Khalpar Basti Uchhed Pratirodh Committee, Sunderban Banadhikar Sangram Committee, MKP, Radical Socialists, DISHA, National Fish Workers Forum.

Date-time: Saturday, 4 December 2010, 3pm
Venue: Students Hall, College Square, Kolkata

Implement the Forest Rights Act properly
Stop atrocities on forest dwellers

Click here to read the Bengali pamphlet

Soon after the battle of Plassey of 1757 when the English became rulers of India the whole country reverberated with many insurrections by adivasi people. Although the British rule earned legitimacy among the elite and middle classes, Sido-Kanu-Dahar and adivasis, dependent on the forest, did not accept colonial rule. For a long time the forest dwellers did not take the encroachment on their forest by the government or the landlords lying down. For the whole of nineteenth century and early part of the twentieth, there were a number of insurrections for forest rights. Mundas and other tribals in Singbhum-Chhotanagpur, Paharhis in Garhwal-Kumaon or in erstwhile Punjab, in Baigara of Madhya Pradesh or Santhal-Kurmis in Rarh-Banga were seething in anger. The British rule was terrified. In the end the rulers were successful in defeating rebels and hanging them. The colonial rulers were also successful to establish their domination over forest wealth and forest department was created in 1865 to cleverly separate the forest dwelling tribal groups from the forest. In 1878 the first forest act was passed. British government declared the forest areas as ‘reserve forests’. It was taken that none except the government would own any land in the area. This was the beginning of curtailing of natural rights of forest depenent tribal groups on the jungle, this was the beginning of violation their freedom.

But forest movements also forced the colonial government to provide certain facilities to forest dwellers. In Chhotanagpur ‘Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act,’ ‘Van Panchayat Act’ in Garhwal-Kumaon and other such laws recognised the right of forest dwellers on forest in a limited sense.

After independence in 1952 National Forest Policy was passed wherein no importance was given to right of forest dwellers on forest. On the one hand forests were destroyed with impunity, on the other festivals were orchestrated to establish ‘Tree Lands’. In 1953 forests which were under the ownership of erstwhile princely states or zamindaris were acquired and turned into government forests. People who were living in these jungles were turned into encroachers and timber thieves in the new state by this unilateral policy. The government had the full licence to do whatever it liked with them without any accountability – beating them up, murder, rape. Violating the law of land these people have been shot and killed, and these incidents have earned their legitimacy from the government of the day, the society and judiciary. In recent times Shyam Oraon, Suresh Rabha were killed in police bullets in North Bengal, many were injured. In recent times not less than 3 lakhs people were evicted from forests.

By the end of 2002 many tribal groups, forest dependent peoples started consolidation against eviction by the government. From Orissa, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh thousands of allegations against eviction were collected. In Bihar, UP people started reclaiming forest land. Facing pressure the central government started taking steps to stop eviction in 2004. Due to relentless agitation in 2005 the government placed forest rights act in the parliament. After long debates on 18 December, 2006 Lok Sabha passed the bill. On 31 December, 2007 this act was officially declared as “Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.”

Among the rights which this act has recognised,

– Forest is the property of Gram Sabha, not the government (section 2(a)).
– Right of forest dwellers to use fuel wood, bamboo, grass, herbs, brushwood and other forest wealth except timber (NTFP) (section 3(b)). (In other words, if the forest dwellers jointly/individually own forest wealth in forest under the Gram Sabha, the forest department or the government does have any jurisdiction there.)
– The rights which forest dwellers had enjoyed under old zamindaris or princely states were restored (right to farm timber, lac in the forest).
– Those who used to live in forest area before 13 December, 2005 will have the right to own 4 hectares of forest land.

The main theme of the act is, main agency to enact the act are those villagers living in forests. The locality they will call village will get the recognition of a village according to the act. This decision has to be taken with two-third presence of Gram Sabha members.

Gram Sabha will conduct people’s hearing and adjudicate the rights of different groups and individuals, will keep record of them and will prepare a map of forest wealth. To execute these functions 15 people elected from the Gram Sabha members will form a forest rights committee.

The act clearly states those who have been living in forests before 13 December, 2005 cannot be called encroacher; they have natural rights over forest products. They are now free from the allegation of timber thieves. Yet even after 2005 many have been killed on these two grounds.

Although the parliamentary left have played a positive role in passing the law, the record of implementation in left-ruled states is disappointing. Till October 2010, 1,37,162 applications were submitted in West Bengal, only 26,701 were given patta (19%). In Kerala 16,181 out of 37,407 (43%), Tripura 1,17,404 out of 1,75,492 (67%).

Forest dwellers are getting organised – to protect their rights. And by implementing those rights they are consolidating. In Chilapata of Kochbihar residents of 12 villages have formed their own Gram Sabha, organised meetings and declared their right over the ‘forest land’ as per law. They have informed the government departments that no timber or other forest products can be extracted or sold from their forest land without their Gram Sabha permission. In Taipur of Kurseong villagers shut down the government timber depot for three months. The people of Sundarbans have also become aware of the act. Movements are spreading there to secure their rights.

Role of forest dwellers in preserving forests have been recognised in the forest rights act. Based on this the forest dwellers have been taking these unprecedented steps to preserve their forest. This is nothing but the correct implementation of the act itself. So far many illegal activities have been going on in the name of government’s preservation of forest; forest dwellers are taking up preservation putting an end to all these.

Political parties, social organisations, democratic minded individuals can play positive role in this fight to preserve forest. They can raise demands to enact laws to empower the Gram Sabha. They can protest when forest dwellers are killed on allegation of timber thieves.

From the beginning of history of mankind, as long as rights of forest dwellers on forest were there forest had stayed protected. It started to get ruined when civilised people snatched away those rights and started trading forest like other commodities. Wheels of history are turning now. We can see the signs from the fight of forest dwellers. Come let us join the fight and return the debt of history.

With revolutionary greetings,

Rashtriya Van-Jan Shramajeevi Mancha, Nagarik Mancha, Natun Shatak, Brihattar Kolkata Khalpar o Basti Uchchhed Protirodh Committee, Sunderban Banaadhikar Sangram Committee, MKP, Radical Socialist, Disha, Nationa Fish Workers’ Forum.

4 December, 2010

Join the People’s Convention in Students’ Hall, College Square, Kolkata on 4 December, 2010