21 July: In a bizarre turn of events, Lila Gurung, a high school teacher in Kalimpong district in Darjeeling Hills of West Bengal was accused by the district administration of ‘anti-government activity’ and for stirring up unrest in the area as he supported the forest villagers to demand the implementation of the Forest Rights Act.
Following a letter sent by the District Magistrate of Darjeeling, dated June 20, 2018, to the School Education Department, the School Service Commission has recommended that Lila Gurungbe transferred from from where he currently resides in the Kumai village of Kalimpong to a remote part of the Darjeeling district bordering Nepal.
The district magistrate of Darjeeling in her letter to the Secretary, School Education Department, Government of West Bengal requests the “transfer of teachers involved in anti-government activities;” that they be transferred “to Presidency/Midnapore/Burdwan Division for better exposure to diverse conditions, as they have been trying to stir up unrest in this place;” and that the teachers were “Stirring up unrest by making false promises to locals in the garb of Forest Rights, bid for extortion from Railways”.
What is surprising is that this letter is being written by the district magistrate of Darjeeling and not that of Kalimpong where Lila Gurung is based.
Within a week, the chairman of West Bengal School Service Commission writes to the President of West Bengal Board of Secondary Education recommending transfer of Lila Gurung, on administrative ground to Rimbik High School, Bijanbari.
“At the heart of this issue is the non-implementation of Forest Rights Act in the Darjeeling Hills since 2008”, says Soumitra Ghosh of All India Forum of Forest Movement who is based in Siliguri. “Now that the proposed Sevoke-Rongpo Railway project needs the consent of the Gram Sabhas of forest villages along National Highway 10, the villagershave collectively decided that the question of issuing NOCs for development projects including the railway line simply doesn’t arise before all their rights are duly recognized”.
According to the Himalayan Forest Villagers Organisation, the organization which is spearheading the movement for the implementation of Forest Rights Act, the district administration of Kalimpong hurriedly convened a meeting of the gram sabhas with notices issued by the Block Development Officers at Kalimpong 1 and 11 Development Blocks, both dated 12/04/18, with the agenda of “Granting of ‘No Objection Certificate’ to Railway Authorities to use and occupy forest land for the purpose of construction of Sevoke-Rongpo new broad gauge railway lines to the North Frontier Railway”.
To convene Gram Sabhas for the explicit purpose of obtaining ‘No Objection Certificates’ for forest diversion constitutes a violation of sections 4 (1) and 4 (5) of the Forest Right Act, 2006. The law permits neither the Department of Panchayats nor Block Development Officers to convene Gram Sabhas or dictate agenda for those.
The concerned Gram Sabhas have rightly pointed this out to the district administration. Since then the leaders of the organisation are being constantly threatened by the district administration and the political leadership of the Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA).
The forest villagers have refused to settle individual rights on lands without conversion of their villages in to revenue villages as has been directed by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs. The Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India(MOTA), vide Guidelines No. 23011/32/2010-FRA [Vol.II (Pt.)], dated 12/07/2012, noted that “the conversion of all forest villages into revenue villages and recognition of the forest rights of the inhabitants thereof should actually have been completed immediately on enactment of the Act.” It also prescribes that “the State Governments may, therefore, convert all such erstwhile forest villages, unrecorded settlements and old habitations into revenue villages with a sense of urgency in a time bound manner. The conversion would include the actual land-use of the village in its entirety, including lands required for current or future community uses, like, schools, health facilities, public spaces etc. Records of the forest villages maintained by the Forest Department may thereafter be suitably updated on recognition of this right”. Further, vide Guidelines No/3011/33/2010 FHA dated 08/11/2013, the MOTA has provided a comprehensive procedure for such conversion.
Lila Gurung’s illegal transfer orderadded fuel to fire, tensions have further heightened in the hills. The forest villagers are not only demanding thewithdrawal of the transfer, they are also demanding that the Forest Rights Actbe implemented. They want an immediate conversion of all forest villages in the GTA area to revenue villages in line with the guidelines issued by MOTA; and a process to demarcate and recognize Community Forest Resources with immediate effect.
Souparna Lahiri is a member of the All India Forum of Forest Movements and the Global Forest Coalition. He is a veteran of the forest movement in India. Souparna is an anti-carbon trade activist and has worked on exposing Clean Development Mechanism projects in India. He has also worked with communities resisting big hydro projects in north eastern India, monitored international financial institutions like the Asian Development Bank and its policies, worked on campaign for labor rights, defending human rights and rights and dignity of the street children in the past. Email: email@example.com