Indigenous people assert their rights over Sundarban Forest, India

More than 200 people from the region assembled at a Public Hearing in Sundarban islands and asserted their rights to the island’s mangrove forests in India

“The tiger is not our threat, the Forest Department is.”

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 minority and vulenrable communities who are ‘forest dependent’; subsistence peasants, fisher folk and forest produce collectors. According to community, 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, 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 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 from across India.

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 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 forest department staff insists that the people sell the honey to them at lower price while the market price is much higher. The staff then sells it at triple the price. There are instances where 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. 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.

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 is 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 asserted that the Forest Rights Act 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 Act shall be strongly opposed by the people as it is a constitutional right.

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.

Featured image: Judith/Flickr photos/shared under creative commons
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