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Bengal: Forest Workers Distressed due to Lack of Work, Becoming Migrant Labourers

Not getting 100 days' work and employment under the forest department has led forest workers to increasingly become migrant labourers.
Bengal: Forest Workers Distressed due to Lack of Work, Becoming Migrant Labourers

Jalpaiguri: About 35,000 forest workers in Alipurduar and Jalpaiguri districts are in dire straits due to the lack of work. Large forest areas of Alipurduar district have been declared as tiger reserves; thus, the forest department has stopped felling and cutting trees there. As a result, forest workers are finding it difficult to earn revenue by selling forest produce. 

During the time of the Left Front government, the Eco Development Committee (EDC) and Forest Protection Committee (FPC) were formed, and the forest residents used to get nearly 30% share of the profit from the sale of logs and other forest produce.

But now all these have come to a halt, leading to starvation in the houses in 'bon bustee' (forest habitats) in both districts. "The forest dwellers of these two districts have been fortunate to get pattas of their land, on which they reside, from the state government under the Forest Rights Act after the formation of the UPA 1 government at the Centre. At that time, the Left Front government was in power in the state, "said Victoria Orao, an inhabitant of the Sankosh forest village in Alipurduar, while talking to NewsClick

However, the khatian or Record of Rights of their lands has still not been provided in Alipurduar, and after 2011, work in this regard halted, alleged Victoria. In Sankosh forest village, about 140 families are residing, and about 98 youths have gone outside the state to work as migratory labour. 

Not getting 100 days of work, which has stopped since last year in the state, and lack of work under the forest department, have led to more and more forest workers turning into migrant labourers and moving to places like Sikkim, Bhutan, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

In the Jalpaiguri district, most of the forest villagers have got their patta and khatian during the Left Front government's time, informed Sameer Ghosh of Jalpaiguri Forest Workers Union. Interestingly, the forest workers stayed deep in the forest ranges of these districts right from the time of British rule in India. They mainly belong to tribes like Orao, Munda, Mech, and Rabha. Many non-tribal Nepalis, too, live in the forest bustees. It was during the stint of Communist leader Jogesh Burman as the minister of the forest department of the state that the pattas of the forest lands were distributed, recalled Dileep Lama of Kumargram forest village.

Traditional hut in a forest village

Traditional hut in a forest village

In Jalpaiguri district, the prominent forest villages nestled around the Gorumara forest are Kalamati, Chatua, Kalipur Budhram, Bicharbhanga, Swaraswati, South Indong, Baikunthapur, Shologharia, Magurmari, Mech Bustee, and Gajaldoba. During the Left Front rule, most of these forest villages got electricity. Another bone of contention, especially in the Jalpaiguri district, has been that the residents of the core forest area protect the woods, but the shares of the sales of the forest produce mostly go to dwellers in the fringe areas as they are members of the FPCs. While the residents of the core area develop their forest bustee with this revenue, the settlers in the fringe areas upgrade their own lives with it.

Earlier, there were ambulances to cater to the members of these forest villages, but now, that system has been withdrawn by the West Bengal government, and the forest dwellers are left without any medical treatment when they fall sick, said Sameer Ghosh while speaking to NewsClick

Today forest resources are being depleted; elephants, monkeys and rhinoceroses are coming out of the deep woods, and poachers have again become active in the forest areas, killing wild elephants, rhinos, and leopards for their horns, tusks and skin.


Meanwhile, forest workers who have arable land, sow rice and millet and spend sleepless nights in the tong (makeshift guard houses in the field) to ward off elephants and other wild beasts from entering their fields. 

Speaking to NewsClick, Bidyut Goon of the Alipurduar Forest Mazdoor Union alleged that the forest village development authority was active during the Left Front rule, but it is now completely defunct. The authority then used to have 25% of the forest resources in their kitty and could plan for the development of their forest hamlets. Forest hamlets like Sankosh, Kumargram, Newlands, Tiyamari, Bhutia Bustee, Shiltong, Lafraguri, Chipna, Gangutia are now facing a perennial crisis.

Sankosh and Bhutia bustees and many others have been ordered to be shifted from the core forest area. During the time of shifting of any forest bustee, the cost of the entire shifting, including the shifting of schools and other infrastructures and construction of houses, used to be paid by the state government. "But the Mamata Banerjee-led government has decided to pay only a lumpsum amount to the dwellers and throw them out," alleged Bidyut Goon and said that his organisation plans to build a movement against the same.

"Gone are the days when the Forest Officers themselves used to come to our villages and meet us to plan for the development of the forest villages," claimed Dilip Lama of Kumargram forest village. "Now we are in constant fear of being ousted by the government and of the night attacks by the elephants. Many villagers are moving outside state for work and living the life of a migratory worker away from the comfort of their families just to provide two square meals for their kin," he lamented.

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