Politicisation of rights

What impedes the Forest Rights Act, 2006, from being implemented in the Sundarban Biosphere Reserve in West Bengal?

By Amrita Sen
Published: Tuesday 15 January 2019
Illustration: Tarique Aziz

The Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA), has been an iconic forest law in India. It aims to recognise the long-drawn historical injustice done to the forest-dependent communities and grants two kinds of forest rights: individual and community. Though FRA is a significant departure from the centralised forest governance policies, its implementation is infested with ambiguities, in terms of transfer of powers to local bodies.

Take the case of the two districts of North and South 24 Parganas of West Bengal, where FRA has not yet been implemented. Sundarban Biosphere Reserve (SBR) is located in parts of these two districts. SBR is partially inhabited and partially forested. The inhabited areas of SBR fall within North and South 24 Parganas and accommodates a large number of forest-dependent communities, especially in the lower island villages bordering the forests.

These people—called forest workers—catch fish from the river creeks interspersed within the forest areas and collect honey from mangrove trees. However, forest-based occupations are practiced by travelling inside the forests since no village or human habitation exist inside the forest areas of Sundarbans.

It must be kept in mind that to claim the benefits under FRA, forest communities do not necessarily need to be a “forest dweller”. The Ministry of Tribal Affairs has clarified that people who spend most of their time either in temporary makeshift structures or working on patches of land in forest areas—irrespective of whether their dwelling houses are located outside the forest or forest land—are entitled to forest rights. Despite this clarification, the Backward Classes Welfare Department of West Bengal—the nodal body implementing the Act in the state—cites the absence of habitations inside the forests as the major reason for non-implementation of FRA in SBR. Sources say that deputations to implement FRA in North and South 24 Parganas have been overruled repeatedly by district magistrates and the forest department, citing the global prominence of Sundarbans as a World Heritage Site.

But the reasons not implementing FRA in SBR are political. Though the erstwhile Left Front government displayed a steadfast role in implementing the Act nationwide, Forest Rights Committees (FRCs) in West Bengal were dominated by Communist leaders. The transfer of political power in the state in 2011 did little to improve this tarnished and power-ridden process of FRA implementation in the state. Instead of land titles, only Record of Rights were distributed in many districts, whereas in others, FRCs were not even recognised as institutional bodies.

FRA rests most of the powers with the Gram Sabha. However, in SBR, the idea of a Gram Sabha is different. Village or “gram” in West Bengal represents an entire area under a gram panchayat, with a constellation of hamlets, and not a single one.

According to the West Bengal Panchayati Raj Act of 1973, Gram Sansads are recognised as the electoral constituencies of gram panchayats, while Gram Sabha refers to a body comprising persons registered in the electoral rolls of the entire “gram” which falls under a gram panchayat. Such Gram Sabhas are large, constituting a number of village hamlets, which forms a particular gram panchayat. Legally, the Gram Sansads, instead of the Gram Sabhas administer village hamlets in West Bengal.

The Panchayati Raj Act of 1973 further mentions that a Gram Unnayan Samitee (GUS) must be constituted by Gram Sansads, to ensure active participation of people in implementation, maintenance and equitable distribution of benefits within the members of the particular sansad.

Non-forest elites

Ironically, in the Gram Sansads and subsequently in GUS of Sundarbans, the non-forest-dependent people out-number those who involved in forestry work. Thus in the Gram Sansad, there is an influx of village elites who have little knowledge about forest rights, but would represent the pinnacle of decision-making in the FRCs, given the Act gets implemented. They would thus become unfair representatives of FRCs. Further, Gram Sansads in West Bengal are formal political bodies formed through panchayat elections and are at present aligned with the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) government.

TMC is believed to be reasonably less responsive to the issue of implementing FRA in Sundarbans, since the Gram Panchayats have retained close ties with the forest department to not implement the Act. This has been observed in several instances when campaigns to mobilise forest people were jeopardised by the panchayat heads of villages. Local non-profits like the Sundarban Jana Sramajibi Mancha, which have been fighting for the implementation of FRA in the Sundarbans, points out that although CPM, TMC as well as Congress supported the implementation of the Act in the region, no political party took any initiative in this regard. On the contrary, police personnel were frequently sum-moned and random arrests were made to encumber the meetings organised by them. Attempts to implement FRA have been also resisted by the elites in the village like the Joint Forest Management Committee (JFMC) members, who feel FRA might dislodge them of their administrative and political powers, and prawn fishery owners, who have set up fishery units by greasing the palms of local political leaders.

While there is enough evidence from other parts of the country that shows how administrative failures have impeded the implementation of the Act, in the Sundarbans, we are witnessing a “politicisation” associated with the Act. Here, it is a section of the locals themselves who resist the implementation to sustain their vested interests, much to the detriment of the marginal forest workers, who would benefit from the Act. This kind of situation is visible in places where fractured communities do not have identical liveli-hood necessities. Apart from considering the larger political economy sustained by the bureaucratic networks, a careful observation of local politics is required to understand why the Act has not been implemented in the Sundarbans.

(The author is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Urban Ecological Sustainability, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru)

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