Buxa Tiger Reserve is situated in Alipurduar Sub-division of Jalpaiguri District, at the north-eastern edge of West Bengal, India. It was declared a Tiger reserve in the year 1983 in Jalpaiguri District when it became the 15th Tiger Reserve of the Country. The struggle over forest rights date back to colonial time. However, wth the declaration of the area under tiger project, the restrictions imposed on collection of natural resources and the menace of relocation became a real threat for the local villagers.
The territory is inhabited by 38 forest villages of which 10 in the Critical Tiger Habitat and 28 in the buffer area, while 49 are living at the fringe of the park. The population is composed of scheduled tribes such as Rabha, Garo, Mechia, Modesia (tribals originally belonging to communities with a Central Indian origin) and other indigenous people such as Rajbanshi, Nepali, Bhutia etc., and the majority are either forest workers/farmers or tea garden labourers. Since the enactment of the Wildlife Protection Act (WLPA) in 1972, the restrictions over the use of minor forest products, grazing and firewood collection became more stringent and the people have found themselves fighting for the reclamation of their traditional rights and the use of their natural resources mainly for subsistence.
The relocation of Bhutia Basti forest village (the only village relocated from Buxa Tiger Reserve) was carried on at the beginning of 1993, in a quite arbitrary way. Contrary to the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) guidelines on relocation, families were made to sign relocation ‘agreements’ with the Forest Department which promised them about 1.4 acres of land per family, and a school and community hall for the village [4, 1]. According to a WIRE newspaper report, most villagers are now dependent on wage labour and migrate to cities in search of work. Another plan of relocation was announced in 2008 following nationwide relocation efforts launched by the National Tiger Conservation Authority and by the Gov. of West Bengal and it was declared that 10 villages within the core limits would be moved out. However, according to local sources, most people never agreed to relocate. The authorities came to the villagers proposing a rehabilitation plan based only on monetary compensation (contrary to the law which offers the possibility of entire relocation). Till date relocation has not yet started in the area, because it is being resisted by a people's movement active in the area , and the people are asking for the full implementation of the FRA.
The conflicts between the villagers and the park managers go back to the colonial times when these forests were declared as ‘reserve forests’ [5, 6] denying all the rights over the natural resources to the local communities [1, 2, 3]. The creation of ‘forest villages’ in the colonial times turned these communities into indentured slave labour who had to work without wages for the british and were forced to sign agreements with the forest department to that effect . However things did not change much after independence and till today, the forest department creates significant hurdles in the livelihood activities of the villages including stopping people from collection of non-timber forest products (NTFP) and grazing, collection of firewood and timber for house repairs, cutting off access roads to villages and razing crops to the ground .
According to a fact-finding report, compiled by the local organization Uttar Banga Ban-Jan Shromojivi Manch (UBJSM) in 2011, at least 10 cases of death by murder were registered between 1995 and 2005. Among these 8 belonged to the Rabha tribe, and six were picked up from a single village: North Poro. Among them were two brothers; Sadharan Rabha (14) who was beaten to death in broad daylight in 2000; and Hradong Rabha (24) who was beaten and garrotted in 2005. According to the State Forest Department, the number of deaths has risen to 13 since 2007. The forest officials have allegedly claimed that the deaths caused were of timber mafias, but the opinion of the local communities were that they were from the community and not part of any mafia chain.
A Public Hearing organised by the National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers, NESPON and Disha in April 2005 concluded that shootings, torture and sexual violence against women by forest staff were routine phenomena in these villages. Additionally, a large number of villagers who have spoken out against the FD have charges pending against them .
Many other incidents have also been registered after the Forest Rights Act came into force in 2008, and these happened while the forest dwellers were going into the forest to collect firewood or to search for their cattle. The Forest People Program reports an encounter on 8 Feb. 2008 between 4 young boys (btw 20-25 years old) of North Poro village and the Forest patrolling guards; in this encounter one of them, Samuel Rabha, died on the spot . The members of UBVJSM have been asking for a high-level enquiry into the killings and other atrocities committed by the FD. However, none of the culprits responsible for these deaths has been punished so far, and no departmental action has been taken.
As Karlsson (1999) wrote in the EPW: "The Rabhas who live in the Buxa tiger reserve's buffer zone must see some irony in their officially acknowledged status of partners in wildlife conservation. The tiger project has so far meant only curtailed employment and access to the forest for them" .
The villagers continue protesting and demanding for their forest rights to be settled and recognized. According to the information shared by Soumitra Ghosh of NESPON, 36 Gram Sabhas have submitted their claims on common forest resource rights at the Sub Division Level committee (SDLC). However no further information has been shared with the villagers and no further action has been taken by the authorities, leaving these claims still pending.