- The issue of non-implementation of the Forest Rights Act in the Indian Sundarbans has been raised in the 2019 national elections by a section of fisher and forest-dependent communities.
- Bureaucracy in the region, in collusion with local elites like forest workers, fishery owners, agriculturists and local political leaders, together have worked to deny forest rights to the tribal communities, research has suggested.
- Sociologists say that the implementation of the law has been hindered by bureaucratic and vested, local political interests, and also because of the lack of a collective mobilisation of local communities who are no longer dependent on forests.
The implementation of the Forest Rights Act in the Indian Sundarbans, a demand reiterated by a section of fisher and forest-dependent communities in the 2019 national elections, has been hindered by bureaucratic and vested local political interests, experts have said.
But what lends complexity and a unique character to the issue of non-implementation of FRA in the Indian Sundarbans, according to the experts, is the lack of a “uniform need” for the Act’s execution in the Sundarban Biosphere Reserve (SBR).
The politicisation of FRA in Sundarban does not simply imply bureaucratic interventions towards dilution and subversion of the Act’s provisions but also revolves around the ways in which the bureaucracy aligns with the local (communities) in denying the act, according to a 2018 study, authored by sociologists Sarmistha Pattanaik and Amrita Sen.
“To get the Act implemented there you need a collective mobilisation but in the SBR you will find a majority of the people are not so much inclined to get the Act implemented in the region and it the onus is on the rest of the inhabitants to get the Act enacted,” Amrita Sen told Mongabay-India.
The biosphere reserve is part of the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest straddling India and Bangladesh. It is home to an estimated 425 species of wildlife, including 300 species of birds and 42 species of mammals, including the royal Bengal tiger.
Agriculture and fishing predominate in the Indian Sundarbans, in the Bay of Bengal, which is home to 4.5 million people. As many as 54 of the 104 islands support human settlements and one in five households now has at least one family member who has migrated out of the region for better employment opportunities.
At present, the Sundarbans area of India (SBR) comprises 19 community development blocks, administered by the districts of North 24 Parganas and South 24 Parganas in West Bengal. It consists of roughly 4,200 square km of reserve forest and 5,400 square km of non-forested area.
The region goes to polls on May 19.
Bureaucracy or community: who is hindering the implementation of the FRA?
Sen, who has worked extensively in the Sundarbans, said the major reason for this absence of collective mobilisation is the fact that all the inhabitants of the region are not strictly forest-dwelling and dependent.
“Of the 19 blocks, several are well connected to the state capital of Kolkata and their residents come to the city to work so they are no longer dependent on forests. Further, most of the local administrative groups in villages comprise people who no longer go inside forests to earn their livelihood. They include agriculturalists who are wealthy and hold sway in local politics,” Sen said.
Passed in 2006, the FRA Act seeks to make amends to India’s tribal community and other forest dwellers. The Act makes provisions for recognising and giving the forest rights to forest-dwelling scheduled tribes and other traditional communities residing in such forests for generations but whose rights could not be recorded. The law also aims to strengthen the conservation regime by recognising forest dwellers’ right to sustainably use and manage forests.
It empowers gram sabhas (village-level local governance systems), responsible for the supervision of forest management, to accept, verify and decide community and individual claims on forest lands by the tribals.
“The Act’s implementation is being hindered not only by the bureaucracy but by a section of local communities themselves. It is only when people demand the Act’s execution then the question of action and mobilisation by NGOs and activists arise,” said Sen, a postdoctoral researcher at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.
However, according to the Jana Sramajibi Manch, an organisation of fishermen and forest dwellers, about six lakh (600,000) forest-dependent people in the islands are being denied the right to access the forests.
“While the forest department acts by its own set of rules and regulations in the islands, the implementation of the FRA rests with the backward classes’ welfare department in the state. There is no co-ordination between the two and bureaucracy is hindering the execution of the FRA,” Tapas Mondal of the organisation told Mongabay-India.
Mondal also questioned why FRA implementation was absent in two West Bengal districts that administer the Indian Sundarbans, while the Act has been in action in other districts of the state and in other states of India.
“The erstwhile Left Front regime did nothing to implement the Act and the current regime (Trinamool Congress) has also not gone ahead with it despite promises to implement the Act and repeated deputations by us,” rued Mondal.
“The present government also claims there are existing village committees and hence there is no need to form new gram sabhas as per the FRA provisions in these two districts. In our work with the people, we have found that a section of the people is willing to form fresh gram sabhas,” Mondal said.
Sarmistha Pattanaik, researcher from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, also pointed out that if the rights of the forest-dependent communities are recognised through FRA, it would act as a major blow to the established vote banks in the village.
“It would also deal a blow to the incentives, which the different cadres of the political parties presently leverage in the villages,” Pattanaik said.
Sen expanded: “For instance, the forest department gets funding for conservation projects in the Sundarbans which also helps local communities to improve their economic and living condition through participation in developmental (such as erosion-arresting embankment construction) and alternative livelihood initiatives through the Joint Forest Management Committees.”
“The local panchayat committee, with political interests, doesn’t want to antagonise the forest department because of the benefits and consequently, is not keen to mobilise to bring the law into effect,” Sen said.
Research highlights complexity for implementation of FRA
The researchers interviewed 75 households in villages under the Satjelia Gram Panchayat in the Sundarbans. About 51 of the households depended entirely on the forests for their livelihoods, while the rest supplemented their income through wage labour or migrated to cities during times unfavourable for fishing.
Most of these villages had residents from Scheduled Castes, including migrants from Bangladesh; Bhumij and Munda tribes, which are Scheduled Tribes; and those from Other Backward Classes.
“The five village-level representatives of the local committee are mainly agriculturalists, fishery owners or service job holders, with no associations with forests,” said the authors.
The study found that the decisions regarding matters related to forests rested with the state, in violation of FRA (which prescribes that such decisions should be made by gram sabhas), and the bureaucrats used various tactics to prevent the tribal communities from accessing these forests. The needy and poor are unable to recognise their entitlements and are not active in local politics—a situation which the local elites have taken advantage of, according to the study.
“The tribals in Sundarbans are also few in numbers compared to other forests in India,” said Sen.
The party workers in local panchayats detested the implementation of FRA time and again, and the police have interrupted awareness campaigns, the researchers add.
Bureaucracy in the region, in collusion with local elites like forest workers, fishery owners, agriculturists and local political leaders, each with their vested interests, has resulted in the denial of forest rights to the tribal communities, they said, based on their research.
Also, given the wide diversity of inhabitants in the inhabited areas of Sundarban, a minuscule of which is dependent on the forests for livelihood, forest workers do not constitute a significant vote bank to contest the political elections for enactment.
“Hence, apart from bureaucratic involvement, what further encumbers the implementation of the act is the disaggregated livelihood interests in the region,” said Pattnaik.
Echoing the concern on the disaggregated livelihood interests, Pradeep Chatterjee, Secretary, National Fishworkers’ Forum, Kolkata, said the mechanism of implementation prescribed in the Act is inadequate for the Sundarbans because there is no forest village in the Sundarbans.
“All those dependent on the forest, for fish or wood or honey collection, reside outside the forest, in revenue villages,” Chatterjee told Mongabay-India.
“If the gram sabha is convened then you will find most people are non-forest dependant people. The common fishing waters are accessed by people from different villages, which are at a distance and not necessarily by people living on the fringe of Sundarbans. So we have to see who comes to these waters from where,” said Chatterjee.
Fishing community affected by non-implementation of FRA
Chatterjee iterated that the fisher community’s main demand is the community forest rights (CFR). “It’s a question of CFR but CFR implementation is difficult because you will have to consider all the different communities that come to fish,” he added.
The mangrove habitat is also witnessed constant friction between fisherfolk and forest department because of laws that prevent them from venturing into the tiger reserve’s core areas and other protected patches without specific certificates and boat licenses.
At a public hearing in the Sundarbans in 2016, over 200 people from the region who are dependent on the forests raised the issue of unbridled tourism and non-implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006.
They complained that tourists are allowed to travel to the core areas with motorised boats whereas the forest-dependent people are restricted from doing so. Neither the forest department nor the state government is concerned about the increasing tiger attacks in the region or provisions for compensation for the victims’ families.
It was stressed that the method of demarcating areas as (arbitrarily) as buffer/core area or extension of the core area is done in an unscientific and illegal fashion without following the provision of FRA.
Chatterjee said although there are challenges to the implementation of the FRA in the Sundarbans, nevertheless, the state government should have done it.
Sen, A., & Pattanaik, S. (2018). The political agenda of implementing Forest Rights Act 2006: evidences from Indian Sundarban. Environment, Development and Sustainability, 1-22.