Residents of nearly 24 odd forest villages that fall under the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration have been demanding the implementation of the Forest Rights Act 2006 before the Sevoke-Rangpo rail project kicks off. A major portion of the railway tracks between Sevoke, around 30 km away from Siliguri, to Rangpo in Sikkim is a part of Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts that are under the GTA and will cut through several forest villages and hamlets under the GTA areas.
Fighting for their rights is Himalaya Forest Village Organisation (HFVO) which comprises of members from forest villagers in the GTA region.
HFVO Secretary Mr. Lila Kumar Gurung who is a teacher at the local Kumai High School has now been transferred to Rimbick [You can check the transfer order here: https://khabarmagazine.com/archives/21396]. He claims this is a vendetta, for taking a stand in favour of the forest dwellers and asking the government to provide land rights to forest dwellers under the Forest Rights Act 2006.
The situation in the hills and terai is complicated because Panchayat elections haven't been held here since 2005. In the absence of Gram Sabhas, which can give a go-ahead to such projects, the Union ministry of tribal affairs had given elected GTA members the right to act as panchayat members. However, since GTA stands dissolved, the Gram Sabha - comprising of all the villagers naturally have the latitude to issue or deny such a no-objection certificate.
Hundreds of residents of forest villages in Kalimpong and Darjeeling, which constitute the Gram Sabhas as per the Recognition of the Forest Rights Act 2006, have started adopting resolutions, demanding conversion of forest villages into revenue villages to ensure their rights, before they issue the no-objection certificate.
The villagers have stated that they would not allow the authorities concerned to begin construction of the railway project without the NOC from each Gram Sabha. They further claimed that authorities cannot carry out work there without the NOC from the Gram Sabha, and that the GTA does not have the right to issue the NOC to the railway authorities for the forest land.
There are no three-tier elected bodies in the Hills of Darjeeling and Kalimpong as rural polls have not been held there for the past 18 years due to technical and legal matters which have yet to be resolved. As a result, there are no proper records of the Gram Sabha comprising at least 165 forest villages.
According to sources, 24 of the 165 forest villages will be affected by the tunnel to be dug for the railway project.
“When the administration has converted forest villages into revenue villages in Alipurduar and other districts for other projects, no initiative was taken to ensure forest rights for us in Darjeeling and Kalimpong district,” said Mr. Lila Kumar Gurung recently, following GTA Board of Administrator Chairman Binay Tamang's extreme reaction to him and HFVO in Kalimpong.
Mr. Gurung has further claimed that a conspiracy was being hatched to deprive the forest villagers of their rights. “We had met the then GTA chief executive Bimal Gurung and discussed the matter. Mr. Gurung had taken a decision in our favour, and it was decided that all the 165 villages would be converted into revenue villages.
Later, as Binoy Tamang was appointed as the GTA chairman, we also approached him in writing. But we came to know all of a sudden that he will issue the NOC to the railway authorities,” he further claimed.
Forest villagers from Rangpo, Kinley, Melli, Teesta, Rambhi and some others also claimed that they had written to chief minister Mamata Banerjee, demanding that forest villagers’ rights be ensured before implementing the Sevoke-Rango railway link project.
A resident of Rangpo village in Kalimpong area, Smaran Rai, said: “Villagers are worried about their future following continuous threats from the administration during a survey on the railway project.
Nobody knows what is in store for them, rehabilitation and alternative livelihood.” “Residents living in the small stretch (of the project) that falls in Sikkim are not facing such problems. The Sikkim government has already compensated them properly,” Mr. Rai said.
A rights activist Soumitra Ghosh said the present situation in the Hills is “not suitable” for some persons to assemble in a particular place and demand their fundamental right.
“Where will the forest villages go, seeking justice? Authorities have not yet started talking to villagers, when no work can be carried out without the NOC from the Gram Sabha as per a circular of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests under the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980, ensuring compliance of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006,” he said.
Speaking against the transfer, Mr. Neeraj Zimba of GNLF said, "This transfer order of Sri. Lila Kumar Gurung, General Secretary, Himalayan Forest Villager's Organisation from Kumai High School to Rimbick High School is part of Binay Tamang's "Political Deal(ing)" as openly declared by him recently at public meetings in Kurseong, Kalimpong and Bijanbari respectively. For the first time in the history of Gorkha Politics we have ever seen a Nominated Stooge openly declare from a public platform that he will politically victimise all those who doesn't support him and endorse his views. Mockery of Democratic values and free speech.फरेस्ट बनबस्तिको अधिकारको कुरा गर्दा आज लिला गुरुङलाई भिक्टिमाइज ट्रास्फर गरिएको छ। के यो नै हो गणतन्त्र?
All Should Protest Against this as this is not just a routine exercise or a mutual transfer but political victimization of a person who chose to speak truth to the power - a right which has been given rightly by the Constitution." [sic]
Mr. Lila Kumar Gurung in the meanwhile seems to be unflustered with the transfer order and said, "I am a teacher - my primary duty is to teach and I will do that anywhere. They must assume by transferring me to Rimbick they will weaken the movement, but they are wrong. The movement will only grow stronger. Rimbick is comprised of many forest villages that are also deprived, I look forward to working with those villages and organize them to seek inclusion into FRA 2006 at the earliest".