Sunderban: Breaking the Chains of a Historic Injustice

A public hearing brigs to focus the ongoing struggle between the indigenous peoples and a forest department, always exploitative and increasingly being coerced by industry that has little regard for the preservation of national resources that the Sunderban embodies

 “Present-day discourses such as those on the ‘environmentally degrading prawn seed collectors’ or the ‘thieving locals’ are in line with a history of discrimination against the poorest and most marginalised.” Annu Jalais in her path breaking study of the Sunderban[i]  echoes our core understanding about the essential relation between forest-dependent people and the forest, or more specifically, with the “political forest” – forest as a political entity with its own governing institution – the Forest Department.

This Forest Department engineered by colonising powers represents a story of forcible ouster, regulation, control and thus discrimination, resulting in “historical injustice” on the forest- dependent Dalit, Adivasi and other minority sections.

The history of the people of Sunderban is no different. And it is this history of continued injustice on the forest-dependent populace of Sunderban which is what we wanted to bring out  through the very voices of the people of this pristine mangrove forest – people who bear the brunt of the vagaries of weather such as the devastating cyclones; people who are constantly forced to arrange their living as per the daily ebb and high tide water level fluctuations of the labyrinthine channels of rivers running into the sea at the  mouth of the largest delta in the world – the Ganga Bramhaputra delta as it flows into the Bay of Bengal whose salty waters, in turn, run backwards to envelop large parts of the mangroves during high tides; people who have to deal with crocodiles and sharks which abound in these salty sweet confluence spots of the sea and the river, and the royal Bengal tigers. And also the most dreaded entity which oppresses and terrorises and demeans them the most – the Forest Department.

The deep discrimination manifested through sheer arbitrariness and verbal and physical abuse perpetrated, day in and day out on the forest dependent people of Sunderban by the overlord of the forest – the Forest Department – burst forth in the depositions of the people who could manage to voice their horror stories in front of a distinguished panel along with hundreds of local people from different islands of Sunderban and close to a hundred forest dependent Adivasis and Dalits from different corners of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, at  a public hearing in Gosaba, South 24 Parganas on January 31, 2016.
On being prodded by the panellists, Sufia Bibi from Shamsernagar island admitted that though she was not personally a victim of sexual harassment she was well aware of such pains inflicted on other forest going women. The minister in charge of Sunderban from the West Bengal government, vows to bring justice if such cases of sexual harassment are proven. But the same minister looks at the persistent tales of physical and verbal abuse by the forest department quite differently, in his suggestion that people are over reacting in order to voice their latent anger at being denied fishing access in the Core Zone of the Sunderban Tiger Reserve.

This Forest Department engineered by colonising powers represents a story of forcible ouster, regulation, control and thus discrimination, resulting in “historical injustice” on the forest- dependent Dalit, Adivasi and other minority sections.
We do not know what his reaction would be to peoples’ claims that they do not understand the very need, the absolute arbitrariness, in the declaring of the Core and Buffer zones.  
The bizarre demarcation patterns of the ‘Core’ and ‘Buffer’ are designed to necessitate people’s entry into the Buffer only through the Core. Thus they are almost always being caught while crossing the Core to go the Buffer and being heckled and fined for this idiosyncrasy of the Forest Department. We know what the Tiger lobby and the Conservation lobby think of the peoples’ claims to their inalienable rights to the forests of Sunderban now enshrined as a Special Act of Parliament – the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006, popularly called the FRA – the Forest Rights Act.
Sunderban Tiger Reserve field director Nilanjan Mullick has a different take. Speaking to the media after the public hearing, he said, “Fishing is allowed in the areas under South 24-Parganas forest division spread over 1500 sq km. Fishing trips are also allowed in the 500 sq km buffer area of the tiger reserve. So, of the entire 4500 sq km forest, fishing activities are being carried out in 2000 sq km area. What else do they want? Should we scrap the wildlife protection act and all other measures to protect wildlife?”  he wondered. [1]
The field director should have known that his utterances are a violation of the FRA for which he can be legally challenged because the FRA clearly says: “notwithstanding anything contained in any other law for the time being in force". The clause is "non-obstante", that is, it constitutes "a very important and categorical message from the Indian Parliament that the rights vested and recognised by the Forest Rights Act shall over-ride any legal regime or executive arrangement which is contrary to such right."
 Also, he is challenging the very claims of the forest dependent people of Sunderban and thus refuting the very essence of the definition of a forest dweller as defined in the FRA which says,
(c) “forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes” means the members of the community of the Scheduled Tribes who primarily reside in and who depend on the  forests or forest lands for bona fide livelihood needs and includes the Scheduled Tribe pastoralist communities:

Kolkata's honorary wildlife warden Suchandra Kundu, also quoted by the media after the public hearing, said: "There are no forest-dwelling communities in the Sunderbans. People live on the fringe areas of the forest and not inside the mangroves. They are known as fringe population. So, why the forest rights act here?”[2] And while people who deposed felt that the catch of fish has dwindled due to too many motorized tourist boats and cargo trawlers spilling fuel, and also because of  Kolkata city underground drainage flowing into the estuaries of Sunderban, State wildlife advisory board member Biswajit Roy Chowdhury claimed over-fishing was already a cause of concern in the Sunderban. “There's over-fishing in the buffer areas. The catch has dwindled. An increase in the fishing activities will only spell doom for the landscape” he added.
There is concern only for the environment and the tiger. People seem to be treated merely as an accidental presence and also as a hindrance to the very survival of the forest and of the tigers. The powers that be want the people to leave. Note this utterance :“At a time when we are fearing large-scale exodus from the Sunderbans due to climate change, such a move (to give rights to people over the Sunderban forests- our explanation) will make the situation even worse.“
The Boat Licence Certificate (BLC) and forcible collection of honey from deep inside forests – physically a highly challenging work with highest possibility of tiger attacks- are two livelihood issues which constantly came up during the peoples’ deposition before the panel at the Public Hearing. BLC issued by the Forest Department (FD) just after the Sunderban was declared a Tiger Reserve in 1972, (923 in all) are peoples’ license to enter the forested islands and channels of waterways to catch fish.
Without it, whether you are hungry or not , you are not allowed to enter the forested islands for fishing. The situation is such that original genuine fishing people hardly have these licenses in their name. Licenses now are mostly in the name of what has become a rentier class, who are not even living anywhere near Sunderban.
The BLCs are rented out on a yearly lease at rates between 30-50 thousand rupees, which, after adjusting the advances (and the interest thereon) fishermen have to take from araathdars  (big stockist/traders) for each seven-ten day foray into the forest for fishing. This leaves them with barely below poverty level subsistence incomes. Honey collection and sale in the open market could get people a decent earning. Each person has to compulsorily collect 120 kilograms and compulsorily deposit the entire collection to the Forest Department (FD).
The open market rate at which they can sell is at least Rs. 200 per kilogram. Thus an earning of 120 x Rs 200 = Rs.24,000 is possible. But the FD forcibly buys it at Rs 110 per kg as per the rate last year, thus giving them only 120 x Rs110 = Rs13,200 making them losers by at least Rs 10,000. And who is making this profit – the FD; which profits more than this.
This is a gross violation of all laws, and thus gross discrimination. Thus the people unanimously reverberated with the feeling – “Sunderban is ours; not the fiefdom of the FD”. Demands have come from people that the State government should announce a minimum support price and instruct the West Bengal SC/ ST Development and Finance Corporations under its Backward Classes Ministry to purchase the honey directly from honey collectors. Suggestions were strongly put forward by members of the panel asking the state government to help form co- operatives of honey collectors to help the forest dependent people of Sunderban to earn a better living – a right very much theirs as per the amendments to the FRA in July 2012.
Tiger attacks and tiger victims are omnipresent in these mangroves. Culturally the people of the Sunderban have negotiated this relationship between man and tiger through the conceptualisation of the myth of Bonbibi which is thought to have been created by Sufi practitioners around the 12th century AD – surely a strong cultural locator of almost a thousand year old human habitation.
While the Forest Department always finds an excuse not to pay any compensation to families of tiger victims, they also terrorise the people so much that many cases of tiger attack / killings are not even reported.
This long time conflict between tiger and people has been played up by the Forest department in collusion with the tiger lobby. “…… how tigers have been appropriated into urban literature as one of the most prominent trademarks of global conservation, as well as the absence of humans in the literature on the Sundarban ” is something noteworthy. “Today, the tiger’s image is used to frame moral and ethical debates around wildlife by various transnational animal-centric charities and development agencies like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) or the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in bids to fund projects. This…. Tiger …………has become the rallying point for urbanites’ concerns for wildlife protection.”(Annu Jalais, 2010)
A myraid issues surround the Sunderban, and each is important. The only problem is that the forest dependent people of Sunderban are not the subjects or objects of these multiple concerns. The All India Union of Forest Working people (AIUFWP), after a twenty year wait to realise the dream first envisioned by Comrade Bharati Roy Chowdhury when she visited the Sunderban in 1996 with the organisation which preceded the AIUFWP, wants to initiate a process whereby this concern is prioritised.

The bizarre demarcation patterns of the ‘Core’ and ‘Buffer’ are designed to necessitate people’s entry into the Buffer only through the Core. Thus they are almost always being caught while crossing the Core to go the Buffer and being heckled and fined for this idiosyncrasy of the Forest Department.

The legal framework is in the hands of the people – FRA. Advocate Sanjay Parikh who helped keep the Niyamgiri as a cultural heritage of the Dongria Kondh  Adivasis by winning a landmark legal battle in the Supreme Court of India,  against the clutches of a mining and metal manufacturing tycoon, exhorted the people to feel brave and claim their rights, failing which avenues of legal challenges should be sought to challenge this denial of the rights recognized after admission of “historical injustice” to the forest dependent Adivasi and Dalits.

The veil of fear has been lifted. The people of Sunderban will rise up, rekindling the legacy of the brave Tebhaga movement (which is unknown to many) and claim their community rights over the Sunderban. They know how to take care of the forest – their livelihood source. They challenge this sweeping accusation made without understanding the nuances, that “cutting trees is harmful for the environment, for the forest”.

Chanat Gazi from the island of Shamsernagar, now a voluntarily retired fisherman says that “the Forest Department does not understand that if trees are not cut in the forests these forests will never grow. Some trees need to be trimmed, if necessary cut. Our forefathers did it. We never cleared the forests to build colonies, it is because of our forefathers that the forests grew, they took care of the forest, then why will we destroy the forests? We hear all the time the advice that we must save trees to get oxygen but one must also know how to grow trees in the forest. The real truth is that the dust which collects on leaves need to be removed to look beautiful, for forests to grow properly. If the forests are properly pruned, some painful areas have to be removed and this is true for us humans and for trees as well".

The officers are being trained with the erroneous notion that cutting trees per se is bad for Sundarban. That’s wrong, Sundarban will not reduce in size if trees are pruned and parts which require to be cut off are cut off. Timber merchants have cut hectares (without re-planting) for ages. What people do not know is how trees grow in forests. They initially are in a close cluster of 15-20 trees. After growing to a certain size, if some number of trees are not cut off, pruned, none of the trees will have a healthy growth. So the notion that is spread by everybody including the forest department is wrong. This ban on even cutting the big round leaves of the trees in the forest is so harmful; they are neither saving the trees nor the jungle. Firewood (that is taken by us) is from the trees which have died on their own, we take away only the dead parts as the live parts will grow better if the dead portions are cut off.

For new trees to grow it is important that old / dead trees are removed but who other than local people will do it? Will the foresters do it? Their only work is to 'manufacture' news".

Chanat stresses that he understands the importance of overseeing the health of the Sunderban and says, “The current system of BLC is bad which needs to be changed but there should be some monitoring system to regularly go to the forest and ensure that the forest is not destroyed….”

People have enough of a knowledge pool, good enough to sustain the environment, natural resources – which is in fact their locales of sustenance and very existence. The issue is acknowledging this. We need to re-orient our focus, trust and include the indigenous peoples in this quest and endeavour.

The struggle is however intensifying. The foci of capitalist drive to derive surplus is now centred in locales of the natural resources of the global south. And thus this will become the new locales of opposition to the logic of capital.

The failure of the BJP government at the Centre to push through corporate favourable Land Acquisition law was anticipated to lead to attempts to dilute/bypass acts like FRA so as to make acquisition of mineral resources and natural resources easier.

And a first such attempt – through the attempted change in forest laws by the Maharashtra government – has just come to light. The situation is now germane with the possibility of building stronger resistances at the grassroots: the core of locales which have natural resources in abundance.

Such ground level struggles need to be backed by a thorough re-orientation and re-thinking, re-enforced by a colonial hangover, towards institutions or departments like the Forest Department. This Department has functioned unchecked, in utter disregard of the laws of the land, even the Indian Constitution.

There can be no time like the present, when the RSS-backed BJP government at the Centre is trying to lay claims on what is patriotic and national. For us all, battling for the preservation of the rights of indigenous peoples and natural resources, we need to say that it is this battle that will save us from a re-colonisation, all over again. It is a battle for the collective ownership and protection of land, water and what is below the land and water, from a dangerous destruction.

The Public Hearing at the Sunderban left us with hope. It makes us feel there is an impending possibility of a wider, deeper political coming togetherness of the pro-people progressive strands of the Indian political firmament, enabling the ouster of the RSS brand of  political narrative that is being thrust upon us.

(Ashok Chowdhury is currently the general secretary of the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP), vice-president of the independent national trade union federation – New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) and a prime mover of the Land Rights Movement platform – Bhumi Adhikar Andolan; Avijit is an activist with the AIUFWP 


[1] Both these comments were made to reporters after the conclusion of the Tribunal 
[2] Both these comments were made to reporters after the conclusion of the Tribunal

[i] Jalais, Annu, Forest of Tigers: People, Politics & Environment in the Sunderbans (Routledge India, 2010)



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