Buxa hills in Jalpaiguri district in West Bengal were declared a tiger reserve in 1982. Of the total 42 villages in the reserve, the state forest department identified 18 villages in the core area to be relocated.These villages are homes to tribes like Rawas, Mechs, Santhals, Oraos and Garos. The residents depend on the forests for firewood and timber as well as for grazing cattle and collecting other nontimber forest products.In 2009, the West Bengal government announced a relocation package of Rs 10 lakh for every adult living in the core area of the tiger reserve. Just when some families decided to take the money, the government revised the amount to Rs 10 lakh per household.This dissuaded the families from taking the compensation. Now, the residents of the 18 villages are demanding that their land and forest rights be recognised under the Forest Rights Act (FRA).The FRA stipulates that the government should first recognise the rights of the indigenous people living in the forest and then plan any kind of relocation.Lal Singh Bhujel, who represents Uttar Banga Van Jan Shramajeevi Manch at Buxa, an organisation working for the rights of forest dwellers, has been educating the village residents about their rights.
Earlier in 2017, Bhujel had said that only after the rights of the residents were settled would they convene a Village Assembly session to discuss relocation.On May 21, 2019, Land Conflict Watch (LCW) contacted Bhujel for an update. The entire system is in shambles. They have not recognised the rights of the forest dwellers and have rejected the land claims of close to 1.5 lakh families in this part of northern Bengal, he said.
He spoke about the harassment at the hands of forest department officials by recounting a recent incident where the Village Assembly had stopped the illegal felling of trees. Later, the villagers were hauled up and taken to the police station. They do what they want to do, Bhujel described the injustices meted out by the forest department.
When LCW asked him about the February 2019 Supreme Court eviction order, Bhujel responded with a question, If our claims were rejected, why were we not informed?