Sunderbans fishermen demand forest rights

CANNING, 22 MAY: Demanding their right to the forest, Sunderbans fishermen here today said it is forest department officials who flout rules in the biosphere reserve, not villagers.
“We want immediate implementation of Forest Rights Act, 2006, in the islands so that high-handedness of the forest officials stops,” said Sunderbans Fishworkers Joint Action Committee member Pabitra Mondal. “They have been looting our nets and boats and taking arbitrary fines from us in the name of tiger protection.” About 300 fishermen from various far-flung islands of the Sunderbans converged on Canning today to celebrate International Biodiversity Day ~ the theme this year is marine biodiversity ~ under the banner of the Sunderbans Fishworkers Joint Action Committee. Thousands of cows are being smuggled in front of the eyes of the forest officials but they do not intercept those boats, the fishermen complained. Instead, they intercept boats belonging to poor islanders who depend on fishing for their livelihoods.
“They take away our boats, seize the nets and fishing equipment, but never give us any seizure list. Nor do they give us receipts for the fines taken for entering Sunderban Tiger Reserve,” said Mr Ganesh Mondal, a fisherman from Taldih whose boat was seized a month ago. Several fishermen said forest officials take bribes from fishermen to let them enter the core area to fish. If an islander speaks of his rights to the officials, he is framed into false cases of poaching, they said. “Often the forest officials put deer skins in the houses of fishermen who raise their voices against the excesses of the officials and this gets them arrested,” said Mr Mondal.
According to the Forest Rights Act, residents of forest villages have the right to collect minor forest produce such as honey and wax. But the forest officials prohibit the fishermen from entering the jungles in the core or buffer areas. Those who do manage to get some honey from the forest, which can be sold in markets for Rs 300 per kg, soon find it taken away by officials for a meagre Rs 42 per kg, fishermen alleged. National Fishworkers Forum secretary Pradip Chatterjee said about two crore people are involved in fishing in India, which is a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity. “The most neglected part of the treaty in our state is involvement of local communities in bio-diversity management,” he said. Mahasweta Devi, who was present at the programme, said that the forest officials’ high-handedness is the reason for the fishermen’s miseries. She said she would fight for the fishermen, and that she hoped their problems would soon be sorted out as the “new government is different from the previous one”.

Soma Basu

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