Darjeeling, March 21: Two associations representing around 260 forest villages in north Bengal today said people in the areas would press the None-Of-The-Above (Nota) button in the Lok Sabha election to protest the denial of rights enshrined in an Act passed by Parliament for the forest dwellers
The villages have a combined population of 1.5 lakh and are spread over Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar districts. Of the 260-odd villages, around 150 are in three subdivisions in the Darjeeling hills. This would mean that the Darjeeling Lok Sabha constituency would be the most affected by the decision.
The rights accrued to the forest dwellers include land pattas and formation of gram sabhas which are vested with certain powers.
The decision to press the Nota button was announced jointly by the Himalayan Forest Villagers’ Organisation and Uttar Banga Van-Jan Shromojivi Manch in Darjeeling today. “Even though the Schedule Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights), 2006 Act, which is commonly called the Forest Rights Act was passed in Parliament, it has not been properly implemented in Bengal. That is why people of the 260-odd villages have decided to press the Nota button in the Lok Sabha elections,” said Lila Kumar Gurung, the secretary of the Himalayan organisation.
Swarup Saha, a member of the Manch, claimed that the 260-odd forest villages had over 50,000 voters. “According to the Act, the forest villagers are supposed to get land pattas (land deeds) but the administration has not done anything yet.”
He added that every forest village should have a gram sabha, which has the power to give permission for development works and the right to handle forest produce, except timber. “But the sabhas are not formed and the forest department is citing various other Acts to deny us rights.”
A senior government official said the matter was complex and it would need time to implement all the provisions. “Issues like whether the pattas are to be issued by the district administration or the GTA Sabha, non-implementation of panchayat system in the hills and many other factors are involved in the matter. So, it will take time to implement all the provisions of the Act,” said the official.
Forest rights activists set to opt for NOTA
Darjeeling, 21 March: Activists belonging to the ‘Forest Rights Movement’ in north Bengal have decided to exercise the ‘none of the above’ (NOTA) option in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.
The activists claimed that around 40,000 voters, all residents of forest villages in north Bengal, will press the NOTA button on the electronic voting machines and “reject the political parties in the fray.”
“None of the major political parties have mentioned the rights of the forest villagers in their manifestoes,” said an activist, Lila Kumar Gurung, the secretary of the Himalayan Forest Villagers’ Organisation (HFVO).
“There are 250 odd forest villages in north Bengal, where more than 150,000 people live. Of them, more than 40,000 are eligible voters,” another forest activist, Swarup Saha, a member of the Uttar Banga Van-Jan Shromojivi Manch (UBVJSM), said. In Darjeeling alone, there are more than 160 forest villages, the activists claimed.
“Before we made any official announcement of our decision (taken earlier), the information got leaked. Since then, we have been receiving calls from many political parties, pleading for our support in the polls,” the activists said.
They have started the ‘Forest Rights Movement in north Bengal’ to protest the alleged non-implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006 in the region.
“The FRA has not been implemented in Darjeeling district at all, and in Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar, the implementation completely violated the laws,” Mr Saha said. “Ever since the India government implemented the FRA in 2006 in West Bengal, and which talks about protecting the rights of the forest dwellers, the provision has not been properly implemented,” said Mr Gurung. “This law legally and constitutionally protects the forest dwellers’ rights over their houses, cultivable land and other land in the village and also over the forests they and their ancestors have created, nurtured and protected,” Mr Saha said. A press release issued later states: “The non-implementation of the FRA means that forest villagers still have no papers to prove that they now legally own and possess their land. Because they are on forest land, many forest villages have been denied civic amenities even proper access to roads, supply of drinking water.” “We demand that the FRA-2006 be implemented immediately in North Bengal,” Mr Saha said.
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