Kolkata -Asserting their rights over the Sundarbans forest, more than 200 people from the region assembled at the Public Hearing in Sundarban islands on 31st January 2016. The Press Conference of the Public Hearing took place at the Press Club Kolkata on 2nd February 2016 which was attended by Panelists and the representatives of the mass organisation.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Dr Kamal Nayan Chaubey (Researcher on Forest Rights Issues and panel member), M. Ilango (Chairperson, National Fishworkers Forum), Ashok Choudhary (General Secretary, All India Union of Forest Working People), Roma (Deputy General Secretary, AIUFWP), Naba Datta (General Secretary, Nagarik Manch), Sanjeev Kumar (Delhi Forum), Amitabh Mitra (National Alliance of People’s Movements, West Bengal) and Pabitra Mandal (General Secretary, Sundarban Jana Sramajibi Manch)
Summary of the observations and recommendations made by the Panel
(Please find attached the detailed version):
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 the above mentioned people about the provisions of
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 co-oporatives/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.
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.