“Come elections, our forests are looted”

Angry villagers from the hotbed of political violence told Sayantan Bera, the day a new government took oath in West Bengal

 
By Sayantan Bera
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

A phone call early in the morning relieved me of the tension. The general strike called by the Maoists is for tomorrow and day after. Today, I will be able to visit few villages inside Jangalmahal. A contiguous patch of forest crisscrossing three districts of south West Bengal, the area came into limelight in November 2008.

Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s convoy was targeted with a landmine set up by the Left insurgents. What followed was violence from all sides: a hunt down by the state police, fierce resistance from the people, and the government establishing its right to rule and govern at gunpoint.

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On May 20 as West Bengal swore its first women Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, ending 34 years of an elected communist government, we whizzed past a sculpture of  Karl Marx, standing tall beyond the winding flyover overlooking the bustling district headquarters of West Midnapore. Witness to many a season of political irony. Banned Left wing groups fighting tooth and nail the erstwhile rulers of the “official” Left, with the “new” Left of  Mamata Banerjee emerging victorious on the plank of ma maati manush (mother, motherland, the people).

Inside the Chandra forest range, the villages wear a sleepy look, oblivious of the change of guard in the state capital of Kolkata. Unlike in the nearby Midnapore town, there are no loudspeakers blasting “sonpapdi meri sonpapdi”, nor could I spot a single poster of Mamata Banerjee. Of the 14 assembly seats in Jangalmahal, Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress has won seven. A massive inroad into the Left-front bastion without even a basic organisational set-up. While the losing Left-front alleges the victory is a “gift” from the Maoist rebels, the villagers tell a different story.

Residents of Jharia village say how acutely they are dependent on forests for their survival. The rain-fed single crop of paddy is grown in the infertile red soil and yields a produce that lasts barely six months. The adjoining Sal forests are their lifeline. It supplies them with fuelwood and an array of medicinal plants and fruits. Under joint forest management, they occasionally get a share from the timber sold by the forest department. Women work for 16 hours in a day to collect, dry and knit Sal leaves into plates. A stack of 1,000 plates sell for Rs 100 and is the only regular cash income.

“But come elections, the forests are looted,” says Gopal Mahato angrily, sitting under the shade of a banyan tree next to the forest. There is a crowd around and everyone starts talking. “Usually this happens before every elections but this time it was rampant. Fearful of losing they went on a rampage and we had a hard time protecting our patch of forest.” The result is most visible in the fringe forests which are close to the highway. The vegetation is bushy with new shoots sprouting out of the felled coppice Sal trees. Day before, a range officer had told me a similar story “off the record”: “It was difficult for me to protect the forests. We would patrol through the night but as the local police was busy with the elections we could do very little. Besides you cannot dare touch the ruling party cadres.” The casualties: unestimated truckloads of Sal and Mahul.

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But how could just a few people do this while others were resisting? Politics, harmads (armed cadres), and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the residents told and explained the process. “The Maoists came in 2009 in these areas riding on the wave of popular resistance in Lalgarh. They would tell us that we need to protect our jal, zamin, jangal (water, land and forests) and stopped felling altogether. They would not even allow the forest department to do the regular felling in selected patches.”

“To counter their influence the CPIM (ruling left parties) brought in harmads. It was easy: whoever protested would be branded as Maoists. The CRPF will come with the state police to our village, arrest and beat us up. There was no place we could go to seek justice. District CPIM leaders gave a diktat that no forest produce from Jangalmahal would be allowed to be sold outside. We had to pay Rs 500 fine to reach the town with livestock or Sal leaf plates. Outside agents stopped coming to our villages to buy chickens and goats. It was a living hell.”

“After the elections we feel relieved that we can at least speak out. If you were here a year ago none of us would have the courage to talk.” According to the villagers of Jharia the atrocities reached a tipping point on November 14, 2010 when a large group of  harmads came early morning. The men ran to the jungles to save their lives. Twenty-four-year-old Nibaran Singh was the only one who could not run. Injured in his left foot, he could barely walk. The armed cadres, his brother Sunil said, dragged Nibaran to the forest and shot him dead.

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Later as I would leave Jharia, Sunil would follow our car and stop us. He asked me to get down and said, “I want to show you the place he was shot.” We started walking. His mother Sandhya was sitting inside the jungle near a bush. Sunil showed the “spot” and said the police have erased the complaint. “What can I do now?”

A bunch of youngsters took me on a tour of the nearby forest. After pointing out to the medicinal properties of a handful of different plants they handed leaves of a creeper locally known as sugar pata to cure diabetes. “If you chew these you cannot even taste the sweet in anything for two hours. On your way back chew these and then buy some sweets so you would know we are not lying.” In the nearby paddy field they pointed to elephant paw marks from last year. Herd of elephants regularly raid these areas when the paddy is ripe in the fields. “We could not even burst crackers to chase them out. Else the CRPF would come in the morning and arrest us saying we are all Maoists hurling bombs and bullets. So last year when a herd of 70 elephants came in the morning we chased them through the entire day. All of us got together, and by evening we chased the herd straight into the CRPF camp. We worked hard, a few walls in the camp were razed down, but it was fun.”

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Back to the hotel in Midnapore town, I switched on the television. The new Chief Minister has declared a special economic package for Jangalmahal and promised she will soon take a decision on withdrawal of “joint forces” from the area.

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