As forest villagers living in areas under and Darjeeling districts continue their fight for their rights, the administration in Kalimpong has issued notices to at least 200 families living in forest areas, quashing their “claims” that they are forest dwellers.
The sub-divisional officer of Kalimpong says in the notices sent to individual families that their “claims” of being forest dwellers have been rejected. However, the development drew sharp criticism from forest rights activists and the Darjeeling MP Raju Bista, who said he has written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Hon’ble Union Minister for Tribal Affairs Arjun Munda, requesting their intervention in favour of forest dwellers in Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts.
“This comes in the light of what I believe is an illegal notification issued by SDO Sadar, Kalimpong District, to the villagers in Melli and other areas of Kalimpong district (dated 26 June), stating that “your individual and community claims to being forest dwellers have been rejected by the District and Sub-divisional Committee under section 13(1)/(2) of The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2007 since you do not have documentary proof to prove that: i) You belong to Scheduled Tribe community ii) You are dependent on forest land iii) In case of other traditional forest dwellers, You have been a forest resident before 13.12.2005 for 3-generations (75 years),” Mr Bista said in a release.
“I object to such blatant misinterpretation of the FRA 2006, as this Act was meant to protect the rights of forest dwellers and not harass them based on faulty interpretation of the same. What is most astounding is that, they have issued this letter to everyone, including those belonging to the ST communities,” he added.
According to the general secretary of the Himalayan Forest Villagers’ Organisation (HFVO), Lila Kumar Gurung, a notification was issued in 2013, according to which, forest villages were to be converted into revenue villages. “Adhering to the union tribal ministry’s order, the West Bengal government converted Alipurduar and Jalpaiguri districts into revenue villages by 2014, while Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts remain unconverted till this day,” he said.
According to him, the forest land in question is set to be used to build the proposed Sevoke-Rongpo railway line, which will bring Sikkim in India’s railway map for the very first time.
However, according to him, any development work in the area there necessitates ‘No Objection Certificates’ (NOC) from Gram Sabhas of the respective areas, which, they have not yet issued.
The forest dwellers have been demanding conversion of the land into revenue land as per the FRA-2006 before the gram sabhas finally give their consent to the development project.
“We are not against development, the widening of highways and the construction of rail lines, but we cannot support it at the cost of people’s homes. Our rights must be duly recognised,” Mr Gurung said.
“Everyone knows that the Govt of WB has not held any Panchayat Elections in Darjeeling and Kalimpong hills since 2001. In the absence of which, Gram Sabha have not been constituted by WB Government since 2005 in the hills… “I am, therefore, unable to understand how the rights of Forest Dwellers were determined in the absence of Gram Sabha members or elected representatives? Since we do not have elected Panchayat, how could the WB Government constitute both District and Sub-Divisional Committee without the presence of any elected members in the said committees?” Mr Bista said in his statement.
“The absurd requirement imposed by the Kalimpong District Administration of having to prove you were living in a place 75 years before 2005, takes us back to 1930, it even predates our Constitution by 20-years. Among the various requirements to prove one is a forest dweller, this is absolutely ridiculous. Even if we give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume that Kalimpong District Administration used FRA definition of “Other Traditional Forest Dwellers,” the Act under Section 13(i) has the provision of having people’s claims verified by “Statement of elders other than claimants, reduced in writing,” he added.
According to him, people are not required to show documents under FRA-2006 or produce documents since 1930, “so why would the WB Government require our people to produce documents from 1930s?” “It is grossly wrong and injustice for forest dwellers, especially those from remote mountain communities to be denied their rights as Forest Dweller, just because the District Administration thinks that they have not been able to produce documents since 1930 to prove their connection to the land,” Mr Bista said.
“While the same TMC and nominated GTA members from the hills have created rucks over a baseless fear of 1950 being the cut off year for NRC in the past, now both TMC and nominated GTA members are both conspiring to silence the Forest Dwellers, who have protested against the nonimplementation of FRA 2006 in Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts,” he added. Calls made to the District Magistrate of Kalimpong for comment went unasnwered,