No Pattas Under TMC, BJP mum: Jangalmahal Tribals Left in Lurch
Forestland patta owners of Khemuya village, in West Bengal’s Bankura district, display their documents. The TMC and BJP tried to evict them two years ago.
Mayurakshi Kisku, of Bankura district’s Hanspahari village, is not remotely connected to either Rajoni or Bilasi Shabar, from Jhargram district’s Dhengakusum village. Similarly, Thakur Moni Hansda, of Bankura’s Chandpur village, doesn’t know Mathur Besra, from Purulia district’s Makopali village.
However, all four villagers have one thing in common: they have been farming on the forestland of Jangalmahal region for years and applied for pattas seven to eight years ago under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006 but were never granted land ownership by the Trinamool Congress (TMC) government.
Contrarily, during the Left Front rule, their relatives and neighbours received pattas within three years after the Act was implemented.
Villagers said that pattas were rarely provided after the TMC came to power. They also fear that the Forest (Conservation) Bill, 2023, which has cleared both the Houses of Parliament, is contrary to the FRA.
All four members of Parliament (MP) from Jangalmahal belong to the BJP and are silent on the issue of pattas as the issue concerns the state government.
“Our MPs didn’t say a word about FRA pattas in Parliament. Attempts are being made to evict the recipients of pattas issued during the Left Front rule in many places in Jangalmahal,” Aadibasi Adhikar Mancha’s state secretary Pulin Bihari Baske told this journalist.
FRA’S ROLE in JANGALMAHAL DISTRICTS
The FRA recognises the rights of tribal communities and other traditional forest dwellers to forest resources. Tribals depend on forests for livelihood, habitation and other needs. One of FRA’s main objectives is to strengthen forest conservation by including responsibilities and giving authority to forest right holders for sustainable use, biodiversity conservation and maintenance of ecological balance.
The Gram Sabha, a highly empowered body under the Act, receives claims from concerned communities and verifies them. It has the authority to initiate the vesting of rights to tribal communities after assessing the extent of their needs.
The Gram Sabha has a committee comprising local panchayat members, forest beat officer and the revenue officer. The committee sends recommendations to the block level, which forwards them to the district committee, whose final decision is binding.
Per the FRA, tribals are entitled to pattas only if they have been occupying forestland. Other traditional forest dwellers have to submit proof of living in the occupied area for three generations or 75 years.
If everything goes well, the applicant gets the patta. The project officer of the Backward Classes Welfare and Tribal Development Department signs this distribution of forestland, allowing a maximum of four hectares.
In 2006, the distribution of pattas started in the districts of Bankura, Purulia and undivided Paschim Medinipur, which was plagued by Naxalite violence with daily murder of CPI(M) workers, mostly tribals.
“In that situation, pattas were distributed by sending recommendations at certain levels at the panchayat’s initiative,” said Pulin Bihari Baske, a former Zilla Parishad chief of undivided Paschim Medinipur, and his counterparts Partha Pratim Majumdar and Bilasi Bala Sohis in Bankura and Purulia, respectively.
“More than 400 families were given pattas in Bankura in the last three years of the Left Front rule,” said Sagar Badyakar, a former chief of the Forest and Land and Land Reform Committee of Zilla Parishad.
About 500 families were given pattas in undivided Paschim Medinipur. In Jhargram, only 100 families got pattas due to the adverse impact of the Maoist violence, Baske said, “In Purulia, around 300 pattas were distributed,” said Sohis.
About 1,500 pattas were distributed and several others processed during the Left Front rule.
On the other hand, the TMC government has distributed less than 500 of the pattas processed during the Left’s rule, villagers alleged adding that the only initiative, taken in 2015, was stopped.
Dipika Sabar, of Bankura district’s Kulyam village, had applied for a patta eight years ago.
Bankura North Division’s additional district forest officer DK Jha and a district-level forest official in Jhargram requesting anonymity said that there is currently no scheme to distribute pattas.
Bankura additional district magistrate (general) Nakul Mahato said that information about forestland distribution will be given to the project officer of the Backward Classes Welfare and Tribal Development Department. The project officer, Prem Bihas Kansari, however, said that it’s not possible to provide information at this time.
“The TMC government has given only a few pattas in these 12 years. On the other hand, the state government wants to give forestland to Mukesh Ambani’s Jio, which wants to set up mobile towers on forestland in several Bankura forest areas, including Mukutmonipur, Sutan, Barikul and Jhilimili,” said Aadibasi Adhikar Macha Bankura District Committee secretary Sunil Hansda.
“The TMC and BJP have tried to evict patta owners from their land in different parts of the district. On July 16, 2020, members of the parties destroyed 50 bighas of crop in Khemuya village, under Kostiya Gram Panchayat, of Block No. 2. Patta owners Gobinda Hembram and Sukdeb Mandi are struggling to survive,” Hansda alleged.
Similar incidents happened in Supur (Purulia) and Noyagram, Belpahari, Lodhasuli (Jhargram), he further alleged. “The forest department has given land to businessmen to build resorts in Belpahari.”
According to sources, an elephant conservation centre is being planned in Noyagram. “People of several villages, including Patina, Borokhagri, Molam and Chandbila fear eviction under the conservation project,” said villagers Gurupado Hembram, Maloti Hembram and Sombhu Kishku.
FOREST PROTECTION COMMITTEE
In 1996, the Left Front formed the Forest Protection Committee (FPC), which also allowed dwellers to collect flowers, fruits and tree branches and leaves. Every village had a community centre, school and potable water.
After a tree was felled, the FPC received 25% of the sale money. Sunil Kumar Basuli, a recently retired forest worker, said, “The FPC and villagers met at the district level biannually.”
Now, the FPC has been “occupied by TMC members, who distribute the money earned from the sale of an axed tree as per their wish.
“Recently, a corruption case involving Rs 3 lakh was detected in the Dubrajpur area, of Bankura’s Simlapal Block,” alleged a villager named Bamapoda Saha. “Under the pressure of the locals, FPC office-bearers were forced to return that money,” he said.
On the other hand, “forests are burned in several areas every winter and trees are being looted. Not a single culprit has been arrested. Rather, poor women collecting leaves and branches are chased away by forest guards,” alleged Baske.
The writer covers the Jangal Mahal region for ‘Ganashakti’ newspaper in West Bengal.
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