The West Bengal forest department has decided to set up 176 beat offices across the state to increase vigilance in forest beats, as reported by The Telegraph.
Rajib Banerjee, the State Forest Minister told The Telegraph, “We are taking every possible step to protect the forests and wildlife. So far, there were no offices of forest beats and the beat officers had to work from their quarters. That is why it has been decided to set up beat offices across the state. Among these, 37 offices will function in the Buxa Tiger Reserve area. On Saturday, we launched 12 beat offices in the BTR.”
Forest Beat officers’ function as Forest guards who prevent encroachment and protect their beat (area assigned to them) against injury from fire or other causes. While surveying the land, the beat officers are responsible for cutting creepers and climbers, keeping the sign boards and name boards of forests and keeping the plantations in good condition. Finally, they should control and supervise over such works as ordered by Section Officer and Range Officer and report to them.
This increased watchfulness and surveillance will in all likelihood not go down very well with forest dwellers and Adivasis who are involved in a long and tedious process of staking claim to their forest rights and often have to go up against State Forest departments to demand their rights.
Down to Earth had reported the displeasure expressed by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) in 2018 over the high rate of rejection for Other Traditional Forest Dweller (OTFD) claims under The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.
In a letter dated June 27, 2018, the erstwhile Secretary of MoTA, Leena Nair asked all states to submit their reports pertaining to FRA implementation, progress review, grounds for rejection, high level pendency of claims within 10 days. This letter is a testimony to the fact that tribals are still struggling to empower themselves to manage Indian forests. The letter may be read here.
On February 13, 2019 the Supreme Court had asked states to evict those claimants under FRA, whose applications had been rejected. The order was subsequently stayed by the court on February 28, at the intervention of the government. It also directed the state governments to report on steps taken by them in cases of claims being rejected under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA) and to complete reviews of such rejections within four months.
However, on February 28, the Supreme Court temporarily stayed its own order evicting Tribals and Forest dwellers. SabrangIndia had reported on how tribals were not happy with the stay order and were instead demanding a complete withdrawal of the same.
After the February 13 apex court order, MoTA had held a consultation with all states on March 6 to discuss issues related to FRA implementation. The minutes of this consultation accessed by Down to Earth, reported that MoTA observed, “The rate of rejection in West Bengal is 65 per cent, which consists of 52 per cent Schedule Tribe (ST) and 98 per cent OTFD claims. The state out rightly rejected all CFR (Community Forest Rights) claims for OTFD and 88 per cent claims for ST.”
It was further reported that such claims rejected in West Bengal’s Duars region, which includes the Buxa Tiger Reserve were not backed by any reason. “The reason cited for such a high rate of rejection exhibits flawed implementation of the provisions of the act (Forest Rights Act, (FRA) 2006), and necessity of capacity building of concerned officers”, the minutes said.
On February 24, 2020 MoTA organised a meeting to note the progress in the current status of review of rejected claims under Forest Rights Act, 2006. It further reported on the terrible track record maintained by West Bengal with rejecting around 92 per cent of all the reviewed claims (54,993 rejections out of 59,526). The minutes of the meeting were uploaded on the Ministry’s website and may be read here.
With setting up more offices for forest beat officers, especially in the controversial Buxa Tiger Reserve which has already been called out for frivolous rejection grounds, could further criminalise forest dwellers on account of “wrongful encroachment”.
Despite the FRA legislation meant to act as a driving force in restoring the rights of foresters, its implementation has been painfully tardy. Recently, SabrangIndia had reported on the displeasure expressed by the Gujarat High Court at the state government’s inaction in protecting the rights and interests of the tribal people by rejecting their claims to land for cultivation and conversion of forest land to revenue villages. (Action in Community Research and Development v. State of Gujarat-PIL No. 159/160 of 2020)
Delaying and denying forest community resources and tagging traditional forest dwellers as forest destroyers is the epitome of State neglect. In order to support prosperity in forest landscapes, India must follow the footsteps of Vietnam and Mexico as reported by The Hindu Business Line, that leave a huge percentage of their forests to local communities which ultimately proves to be sustainably better and also helps in generating income.
Indian Forest Rights Act does aim to achieve the same glory and maintain a balance between using forest resources for their livelihood and conservation, but its implementation remains under par.