Bengal forest department calls Gram Sabha ‘illegal’; files FIR against 11

Villagers from the Gram Sabha gathered near Bamini falls on the eve of Birsa Munda’s birthday 

By Mrinalini Paul
Published: Thursday 17 November 2022
Bengal forest department calls Gram Sabha ‘illegal’; files FIR against 11 Photo: Mrinalini Paul

On the eve of Birsa Munda’s birthday (November 15), the Ajodhya hills in West Bengal echoed with his call for Ulgulan. Hundreds had gathered to celebrate the cultural and political significance of Birsa Munda’s life.

They marched to the nearby Bamini waterfalls, a popular tourist attraction, under the administration of the state forest department and hauled up the board bearing their Gram Sabha’s name. 

Though there were many more present in the making of this historical moment, a majority were those from the three villages of Dulgubera, Bandhghutu and Baruajera. These three hamlets had come together to form a common Gram Sabha and claimed Community Forest Resource Rights (CFR) over 504 hectares. Their Gram Sabha’s name, they felt, should stand at the entrance of the waterfalls.

Under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights Act), 2006, the Adivasis of these hamlets are entitled to individual and community forest resource rights, over the vast jungles that they have been living with since many generations. Their livelihoods and life worlds are intrinsically linked with these hills. 

They started forming their Gram Sabhas in 2019. However, the forest department has filed a first information report against 11 persons, stating that the Gram Sabha itself is ‘illegal’ and, by extension, their actions too.  

History of struggle 

In December 2021, a divisional bench of the Calcutta High Court reinstated the in-principle clearance of the Turga Pumped Storage Hydroelectric Project (TPSHP) proposed over an area of 292 hectares in the Ajodhaya hills of West Bengal and the eastern-most part of the Chota Nagpur plateau. 

The judgement came after the West Bengal government appealed against the single bench order of 2018 that had completely set aside the in-principle clearance for the project on the grounds of false consent, fabricated on behalf of the Ajodhaya Gram Panchayat members.

The protest of the Adivasi villagers against TPSHP, thus, dates back to 2017 and has been a long and tedious one comprising peaceful processions, marches, letters, deputations, awareness building and filing of a writ petition. 

The state government tried various tactics, including recent oral promises of jobs and distribution of goats.

TPSHP is part of a larger project that was proposed by the West Bengal government as far back as 1979 over rivers Bamni, Turga, Bandu and Kathaljor, on which eight dams in very close proximity were to come up. 

When the first one, the Purulia Pumped Storage Project (PPSP) station was set up (2002-2008), the villagers were promised a number of benefits but rather their fragile and complex forest-dependent existence was upset. 

Sachar Soren from Shahebdi village said “our grazing commons disappeared, not a single youth got employment from our community and no one got any sort of compensation”. 

Sushatno Hembram, a resident of Puniasashan Gram Sabha, said: 

Budhadeb Bhattachraya (former chief minister) had come and promised free electricity within 5 kilometres from the project but we got nothing...even the security guards employed are from outside.

The proposed TPSHP will affect nearly 1,600 people across 94 hamlets and lead to felling of more than 300,000 trees. 

The environment impact assessment for the project declared the area to be a ‘no-elephant’ zone. But they are spotted by villagers every few days. “Turga is the only dense forest left for the herds after large areas were deforested for PPSP,” said Dhirendranath Chanre. “Not only are our crops damaged, a man was killed in his village a month ago when the elephant entered and attacked.” 

State and FRA

The response of the Government of West Bengal to granting CFR has been more than indifferent, bordering on oppositional. 

Mobilisation and formation of the Gram Sabha and Forest Rights Committee has been met with resistance and deemed by officials to be redundant on the faulty argument that there already exists a Gram Sansad and a Joint Forest Management Committee. 

The ‘Gram Sansad’ (as per the West Bengal Panchayat Amendment Act 1994 comprises all the voters in the constituency of the Gram Panchayat and a constituency may comprise more than one village) was to replace the Gram Sabha of the FRA, according to a memo issued by the Backward Classes Welfare Department. 

This was nothing but an attempt to thwart the new institutional setup in the very initial stages itself since the FRA clearly states that the Gram Sabha is to be formed at the hamlet level, the most decentralised unit. 

The uptake of CFR is as low as 400 hectares in the state and the IFR titles which have been ‘distributed’ on a large scale only before the elections (2011 and 2016), do not have necessary details such as khatiyan number, plot number or even a date.

This attack on the Ajodhaya Gram Sabha cannot be seen in isolation. In the neighbouring Birbhum district in Deucha Panchami, tribals and non-tribal inhabitants have been opposing the proposed largest coal block in the country, which is expected to displace a minimum of 21,000 people and cause widespread irreversible environmental damage. 

The Chief Minister has announced increased monetary packages and compensation for even those who do not own land. The local leaders (mostly Santhals) have taken up the FRA and started to form Gram Sabhas. 

However, the treatment of the Ajodhaya Gram Sabha indicates the state is warning other Gram Sabhas who are in the process of not simply claiming their rights but also defending the environment against undemocratically planned projects in the name of energy security or even ‘clean’ energy. 

Platforms like Prakriti Bachao Adivasi Bachao Manch have been bringing together, at state level, local movements. These include the most early CFR demands made by the Gram Sabhas of forest villages of North Bengal under the Uttar Banga Ban Jan Shramjibi Manch

It is not the first time that the forest department has slapped cases against those who have tried to spread awareness about FRA, but the declaration of the Gram Sabha as ‘illegal’ throws up a dangerous precedent. The move itself is based on illegal grounds, especially in a tribal-majority landscape where even the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act is not available. 

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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