Sundar Singh Rabha always carries a certain file folder. He holds it against himself in a hot tin car as it jangles along forest roads towards village Shalkumar, in a northern corner of West Bengal. His phone rings without respite. Every few minutes, he relays his location on the phone.

Suddenly we are there. Rabha, 28, flings open the door to an agitated crowd sprinkled with khaki — cops and forest rangers. I follow Rabha’s file through the crowd. The local police and forest officers are seated on one side and the village on the other. The conflict was over the land on which a church was being constructed by the gram sabha of this forest village. The Forest Department was incensed at not being “asked for permission”. The gram sabha was irritated because it had a right over the “community land” that the village has been using for decades. Building poles and unfinished tin roofs lie abandoned on a patch of land, which leads to a forest in the distance.

Ignoring the clamour, Rabha finally pulls out the weapon in his folder — a copy of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA). This legislation gives scheduled tribes and other traditional forest-dwellers the right to forestland and resource use, which they had been denied under old forest laws. The FRA was intended to alter the fundamental structure of forest management in India, to end the Forest Department’s absolute control over it. Apart from individual rights, the law gives the gram sabha community forest rights — to oversee the management and conservation of forests. “Individual rights are important, but on their own they are a defensive measure to stop harassment. It is community rights that really offer the potential of a more democratic, more effective and just method of forest management,” says Shankar Gopalakrishnan, secretary, Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a national platform of tribal and forest dwellers’ organisations.

The FRA was meant to defuse flashpoints like the one in Shalkumar. But thousands of forest villages across India — encompassing at least 40 million hectares of forestland and 150 million people, including 90 million tribals — continue to struggle for their community rights.

When the FRA was enacted, conservationists had feared it would lead to destruction of forests. On the contrary, villages in the Duars area of north Bengal (Alipurduar, Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling districts), the floodplains of eastern Himalayas bordering Bhutan, are beginning to assert their customary rights and conserve large tracts of remaining forests. This was at play in Shalkumar.

Rabha, who lives in neighbouring Kurmai village, campaigns for the implementation of FRA through a coalition of 250 forest villages called Uttar Bango Bon-Jon Shromojivi Manch or UBBJSM (North Bengal Forest Workers). He points out key clauses in the FRA to forest ranger Joydeb Burman. Section 5 gives the gram sabha of any area with forest-dwellers the power to protect forests, biodiversity, wildlife and the “cultural and natural heritage of forest-dwellers”. SN Basunia, sub-inspector of police, takes a look and agrees. Burman refuses to acknowledge the existence of the law in the state and scoffs at the “conservation” of the forest villagers: “Right, we will see where the jungles are after five years.” But the results already speak for themselves in more than a dozen villages in Alipurduar district.

Bands of protectors

Shalkumar gram sabha submitted its community forest rights claim four years ago, but to no avail. “Our ancestors grew these forests years ago. We are people of this forest, as are our hens, cattle and goats. This is the life we know,” says Ram Rabha, 40. Eighteen months ago, the 72 families in Shalkumar began patrolling the more than 2,000 hectares of forest their village is nestled in. Divided into eight groups, each group walks several kilometres and jots down in a register the wildlife species they come across and their location, besides guarding against illegal logging and firewood extraction. In Alipurduar district, these patrolling villagers are protecting the last of the standing forests in a patchy landscape fragmented by tea gardens and forestry plantations. This patchwork of forests has become increasingly critical as elephant corridors to stave off elephant attacks and destruction of crops.

Sonteshwar Rabha, 48, of Kurmai village walks through an adjoining old forest within the Jaldapara National Park. His ancestors had planted and walked these very forests since the mid-19th century. Most villagers here belong to Rabha, a scheduled tribe, which traditionally practised shifting cultivation but was “settled” by the British into plantation labour.

The sunlight cools as it leaks through the canopy. Sonteshwar points out different species of native trees, their phenology, and what their fruits are worth to animals and them. He understands how the forest is linked to life outside it. “Back in the ’80s, hardly any elephants left the forest for our fields. We didn’t have this much conflict. Why now? Because they also have to eat. We can’t live without a fistful of rice in the morning. Then they need it too. Elephants had a lot of fodder in the natural forest. Everything now is teak, thanks to the Forest Department. Nothing grows under it. Plantations are sterile. The elephants are forced to come to the fields,” says Sonteshwar.

Before human activity intruded, much of this landscape was grasslands and forests of cane — excellent for elephants. “Given the high value of this region’s timber, all natural grassland was converted to sal and teak plantations. When the sal plantations were not regenerating, the British brought in labour,” says Soumitra Ghosh, national committee member of the National Forum of Forest Peoples and Forest Workers (NFFPFW).

Nearly half the area now has teak plantation, which means little to those who depend on the forest for grazing fodder, food, and other non-timber forest produce. In West Bengal, almost 10 million people directly depend on the forest (0.6 million ha), according to a state report, and a majority of them are poor.

As we emerge from the cool natural forest into a teak plantation, the forest falls silent, there is very little undergrowth and the air is warmer. Except for a fern called Dhikia, which the tribals sometimes eat, no other vegetation survives in a teak plantation. As Lal Singh Bhujel, convenor of UBBJSM, says, “Sure, teak has a high price in the market, but what is its value in a forest?”

But in spite of its “uselessness”, the 75 families of Kurmai patrol and protect it. Last year, they halted illegal logging activities and handed over the seized logs to the Forest Department. Bhujel says, “We want to end the teak plantations and grow native trees, but we don’t want the Forest Department to decide that. When we, the gram sabha, get the rights, we will decide how to manage and what to plant. If it is up to the Forest Department, this whole land will be teak.”

Timber conundrum

Forest-dwellers look upon the jungle differently from the Forest Department and this is often in conflict. From colonial times, the area has been used for timber extraction. The ancestors of these forest villagers (Rabhas, Nepalis and other scheduled tribes) planted and managed the British administration’s timber operations. Post-independence, the villages continued to work for free for the Forest Department and were “permitted” to live within the forests under the “begar system”. This continued until as late as the 1960s, when a strong rebellion forced the Forest Department to pay nominal wages.

For almost two centuries, authorities have seen the area solely as a resource for wood. “The Forest Department was constituted for the purpose of timber management, and its institutional structure still sees the forest that way (to this day, its working plans are primarily concerned with timber). If not timber, one species (such as tigers) becomes the focus of management. More fundamentally, the department is primarily a landholding and land-controlling agency, and that is how foresters see their job — to control and police large areas of land. Communities have diverse ways of looking at the forest, but the common thread is that they don’t see it as some kind of property. They see it as an area that needs to be managed for their own use and potentially for the use of others,” says Gopalakrishnan. During the Shalkumar faceoff, the ranger had insisted that “the Forest Department is the final word and the village should listen to the elder brother”.

This attitude has defined the relationship between the department and the forest-dwellers, but for the latter the jungles are not a one-way street. “The jungle is everyone’s but we cannot take everything. We have to use this resource in a manner that it lasts for a long, long time,” says Debendra Rabha, 27, secretary of Baniya Village Gram Sabha. It was only after several meetings that he was able to get villagers to sign up for the patrolling. The visible thinning of their forests finally convinced them to assert their rights and fight against regular logging, known as coupe felling, by the Forest Department. Baniya and 11 other villages have refused to allow such logging for the past year and a half. Each village manages 2,000-3,000 hectares of forest.

Khoirbari village in Jaldapara National Park is encircled by two rivers and forests. “We were never able to see tea gardens from our village. But now we can,” says Bipin Rabha, 27, member of the village’s Forest Rights Committee. “Year after year the Forest Department was felling hectares of forest. We get everything from the forest. Maybe our generation would survive but what about the next,” says the sprightly young man, who has been fighting for his village’s forest rights for three years.

Community matters

Last year they prevented felling in a part of their forest. In a first instance of its kind in the area, the Forest Department later asked for the gram sabha’s permission to go ahead with the logging. “I can’t say if this means that better times are coming, but at least it is recognition of a gram sabha’s role,” says Bhujel.

The fight for community forest rights is an ongoing one across the country.

Paldel Sherpa, additional district magistrate of Alipurduar says implementation of FRA has been poor. “I agree that villagers have to be included in decision-making over forests, but if the land is important to the government then I don’t think the gram sabha can be allowed to decide.”

Mendha Lekha, a village in Maharashtra, was the first to get its community rights three years ago. Since then there have been sporadic approvals in Odisha but none in north Bengal. “Community forest rights are hardly being recognised. For the first four years, there were none recognised. It is still only being implemented in pockets, though more frequently in the last three years,” says Gopalakrishnan. Even though the gram sabha has been deemed the governing institution under FRA, Narayan Biswas, tribal development officer at Alipurduar, says he cannot do anything until he hears from the Forest Department.

“But the FRA has given the gram sabha a voice, a power. Without it we were even more helpless. At least there is some dignity and solidarity now,” says Sundar Singh Rabha.

The Rabha tribe has folk songs about the forest and the planting season. “These are songs our elders sang when they planted all of this,” says Rabha.

Sitting on a pastureland surrounded by a forest, Sonteshwar is egged by his friends to sing an old Rabha song. He sings about the month of Phalgun and the sound of rain on new leaves when Rabha says, “It isn’t just for us but also the world. Forests have such value. But the world outside is different. Perhaps you can help us with a good education and we will protect the forests for you.”

Padmaparna Ghosh is a Delhi-based writer