Kolkata: Ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, dwellers of the mangrove forest of the Sundarbans demanded immediate implementation of the Forest Rights Act in the islands and declared they would vote for candidates who support their cause.
They also said non-implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 poses a threat to their livelihood.
“We demand immediate implementation of the Act. We would vote for candidates who will support our demand. Forest-dependent communities do not destroy forests as it is their only source of livelihood,” said Pabitra Mandal, Secretary of the Jana Sramajibi Manch, an organisation of fishermen and forest dwellers.
About six lakh forest-dependent people in the islands are facing daily challenges in getting access to forests, the Manch’s organiser Tapas Mondal said.
He alleged they were required to pay fines arbitrarily and illegally detained and charged with false cases. Their collection of the forest produce were often confiscated, he added.
Forest-dependent people who collect honey, crabs and involve in fishing are “harassed in the name of law by the forest department”, although, the Forest Rights Act empowers them to control activities of forest through locally elected bodies called gramsabhas, activists said.
The Forest Rights Act 2006 recognises the rights of forest-dwelling people to live or pursue a livelihood in forests.
“Although the Act was implemented in many parts of the country and also in West Bengal, surprisingly, it has not yet been implemented in the Sundarbans, the most well-known forest area in the state. We want to know the basis on which two districts — North and South 24 Paraganas — have not been included,” Nagarik Manch’s Secretary Naba Datta said.
According to activists, implementation of the Act in other forest bearing districts of the state was questionable.
“There was no concept of rejection of claims of the forest dwellers in the Forest Rights Act. But the data, presented before Parliament in August 2017, had suggested that 68 per cent of individual and community claims was rejected,” All India Union of Forest Working People General Secretary Ashok Chowdhury said.
Activists, however, condemned the Supreme Court’s February 13 order directing eviction of tribals, including forest dwellers.
Later, the apex court put on hold its order and it asked the state Chief Secretaries to submit details of the procedure followed by them in deciding claims over the forest land and also if the same was monitored by the state-level monitoring committees.
“Even though the apex court has suspended its February 13 order, we want the Centre should bring ordinance to set aside the order,” Chowdhury said.