This pertinent question has recently been raised during an informal discussion with the author by an activist leader of Sundarban Jana shramajeebi Mancha, an NGO working at the margins in the Sundarbans region since 2006. The year 2006 is quite significant for the life and livelihood of the forest-dependent communities in India as in the same year ‘The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006’ (FRA) was passed in the Parliament and subsequently received the assent of the President of India. The act is a much-needed recognition of rights to forests of the forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dependent communities (OTFDC) who have been residing in such forest for generations without having any legal right. The Scheduled Tribes and the OTFDCs who are conferred the aforesaid rights have consistently been responsible ‘for sustainable use, conservation of biodiversity and maintenance of ecological balance’ while been surviving for generations by means of basing their lives and livelihoods entirely on the forest produces. The act thus rightly identifies that ‘the forest rights on ancestral lands and their habitat were not adequately recognized’ during the colonial regime as well as in independent India resulting in historical injustices to the aforesaid people ‘who are integral to the very survival and sustainability of the forest eco-system’ (Ibid). But the question that arises is whether all traditional forest dwellers in India who would depend in diverse ways on the forests for their mere survival could use the FRA uniformly for exercising their rights to forests and minor forest produces. This is to say, the question is about the way the codes of a universal law like FRA get decoded in a specific regional context. The answer of this question is an emphatic no as far as the implementation of FRA in Sundarbans Biosphere Reserve (SBR) is concerned.
As FRA has not been implemented, the historical injustices to the traditional forest dwellers have not been undone anywhere in the SBR. Furthermore, some other newly formulated policies and acts meant for forest conservation and climate change adaptation are going to aggravate their predicament. Why the FRA has not been implemented in SBR has often been the concern of academics, NGOs and the representatives of ‘civil society’. Sen and Pattanaik (2018) though not denying the apathy of all political parties towards the people’s rights argue that the FRA has not compulsorily been implemented in the SBR due mainly to the limitations and bottlenecks inherent in the Act. The FRA as a universal act, as they assert, could neither address different institutional arrangement of diverse regional context nor resolve ‘several definitional contradictions within the Act itself’. For instance, since who could be considered as OTFDC has still been a perplexing question before the implementing agencies, the dalits and other backward caste people who would depend on the forests for generations in the SBR are denied their legal rights to forests. However, after analyzing the rules and guidelines of the Act and its amendments carefully, the political action of both the local actors as well as the state and national level actors put forward a different view. What they reason behind the non-implementation of the FRA is nothing but the governmental apathy towards the justified rights of the traditional forest dependent people to forests and minor forest produces.
On 31stJanuary, 2016, more than 200 people from different regions in the SBR assembled in a public hearing conducted at Gosaba island had vehemently raised their voice against the non-implementation of FRA, and aired a slogan like ‘The tiger is not our threat, the forest department is’. The public hearingwhich ended in a press conference at Kolkata in presence of internationally renowned academics and activists clearly reveals that the government has imposed some new kinds of policy burdens on the underprivileged people in SBRleave alone undoing the historical injustices by way of implementation of the FRA. The activist whom I spoke with rightly comments that the government has really been enjoying a kind of discretionary power to modify the ceiling of core area and buffer area in the name of implementation of Sundarbans conservation policies. So the recreation of core area does often restrict the entry of the OTFDC into forests and rivers. On the other hand, the large trawlers are being allowed to take out all sizes of fishes indiscriminately only to degrade further the biodiversity. Furthermore, the increase in tourism industry though being showcased as an alternative livelihood opportunity for the displaced forest dependent people can have a negative impact on the environment due to rampant boating and other activities. In fact, the experiences in implementation of Joint Forest Managementin West Bengal have revealed that only the local people who would earn their subsistence from forest and rivers can ably protect the forestsincluding its biodiversity.
The fallout of all these non-implementation and implementation of governmental policies and acts are nothing but the large-scale exodus of the dispossessed people from their homeland in search of livelihoods to cities, towns and agriculturally prosperous areas. The deserted Sundarbans has thus turned into a space of no-man’s land, as the activist says, where very few people are available for raising their demands effectively to the government. The question that arises is whether the FRA, like all other previous legislations, has been curtailing the natural rights of the forest dependent people in the name of conferring rights. The new right based agenda, as we know, not only do redefine various entitlements but also its beneficiaries. While the FRA is upheld as a historic act which could undo the historic injustices, it might pose a limit as well to the natural rights of the forest dependent people in SBR by means of its scripted rules and guidelines. However, if a political will and a kind of entrepreneurship evolve within the varied layers of bureaucracy, as Max Weber imagined, in response of the mass agitation against the non-implementation of the FRA, the forest dependent people of the SBR could possibly achieve their much-awaited forest right.
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