|Jaldapara National Park is situated in the Alipurduar district of North Bengal, an area mostly inhabited by the indigenous community of Rabha (or Rava). It was declared as a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1941, and its habitat supports populations of one-horned rhinoceros, gaur, leopard, elephant, wild boars, sambar, spotted deer and other rare varieties of animals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. Since then it has been extended up to an area of 261.51 sqkm in 1998, and officially recognized under the category of National Park in 2014 (Envis, 2019). |
Since 2009 twelve villages of about 2,150 households have been demanding recognition of the Community Forest Resource (CFR) rights under the Forest Rights Act, 2006. The FRA recognizes the rights of forest dwellers and scheduled tribes (indigenous communities), to use and inhabit the area.However, till date not a single CFR have been recognized. Since 2008, the conflicts between forest communities and the forest department started to escalate, when villagers laid a siege to the departmental timber depot at the Kodal Basti forest village and stopped outsiders and departmental stuff from extracting timber from the Chilapata forests which form a crucial part of the Jaldapara NP. In 2010, more than 500 forest dwellers from Kodal Basti Gram Sabha got organized to reclaim their forest rights and put up a board asserting their authority over their CFR, which was self-proclaimedThe action resulted in harassment and repression against the local and activists fighting for their due rights; criminal cases were lodged against many
However, it is important to recognize that the struggle for Forest Rights in West Bengal goes back to colonial times when the colonial state declared these are ‘reserve forests’ , which meant the denial of all rights of the tribal communities living in these forests, as well as the eviction of these communities from these reserved areas .
Moreover, the villages are continuously subjected to a gross violation of their various forest rights by the forest officials, including obstruction from exercising their rights to enter their forest and graze their cattle, collection of firewood and fishing and intercropping in the forest. Besides, villages like Holapada Titi and North Khairbari in Madarihat forest range live in constant fear of eviction .
Since 2013, hundreds of gram sabha members of North Khairbari forest village in Madarihat Range of Coochbehar Forest Division have resisted repeated attempts by the forest department to carry out a clear-felling coupe (CFC) in the forest which they assert as their Community Forest Resource (CFR). This happened after the formation of the Joint Forest Management Committee (JFMC), which on the one hand was carrying out development activities (such as the construction of roads among others), and on the other hand, it was deliberately cutting the trees around the village . Involvement of JFMC members from outer villages makes the North Khairbari attempt for clear felling unique: this is the first time forest department could directly use JFMC members against any gram sabha. Another point of concern is the involvement of police in what should purely be a departmental operation. Indeed, according to the law, section 21 of Indian Penal code and sec. 9 of FRA 2006, the gram sabha has the duty to protect their community forest resource area, and cannot be prosecuted for carrying out their duties .
In this protest women have been at the forefront of the resistance, organizing peaceful demonstrations and activities such as hugging their trees and hence protecting them from being felled. In 2014, a strong protest participated by hundreds of gram sabhas and supported by the Uttar Banga Ban-Jan Shromojivi Manch, lead to the filing of criminal cases against five members of the North Khairbari gram sabha, namely Rabi Rabha, Subhas Rabha, Kutin Rabha, Sarbat Rabha and Bipin Rabha under sections 34, 186, 341 and 353 of IPC viz. case no 514 dated 18 January 2014.
From this protest, the movement has acquired confidence and authority in their struggle, and they are now managing their community forest resource area with determination. A testimony is a letter dated 18 January 2017(should be 2014--please check) by the FD requesting the permission to the North Karbari gram sabhas for tree cutting operation (shared by Sundarsingh Rabha, a member of the community and of UBBJSM) .