The Ajodhya Hills in Purulia, West Bengal, is the site of a deadlock between the state government and adivasis. With the panchayat elections due in the state on July 8, adivasis there are prioritising community forest rights over taking part in voting activities.

The hills are the site of four hydropower projects, one was constructed in 2008, and three are coming up. Adivasis, mostly Santhals, have organised a movement against the projects, demanding rights over community forest resources.

The Prakriti Bachao Adivasi Bachao Moncho (Forum to Save Nature and Adivasis), a group of adivasi villagers, school teachers and social activists, is the life force of the movement. They say that the state government did not follow FRA rules while acquiring 234 hectares of forest land for Turga Pump Storage Project (TPSP). This is the first of the three upcoming projects in the hills.

The locals are opposing TPSP, citing ecological costs, loss of habitat, and subsistence, as several villages nestled in the forest are set to go underwater when the TPSP reservoirs come up.

Under the aegis of the forum, the adivasis have formed gram sabhas on their own in at least 18 villages. Although the state government has questioned the legality of the gram sabhas, the adivasis say the 2008 rules of the Forest Rights Act 2006 (FRA) were followed while forming them.

Ahead of the elections, the PBABM has come up with the slogan: “‘Aage Gram Sabha, Pore Vote Sabha’ (first gram sabhas, only then votes)”. They have vowed to fight for community forest rights vested in gram sabhas, even as political parties prepare for elections.

Supendra Chanre, 26, is a resident of Baruwajera village in Barriya mouza of Baghmundi gram panchayat. Chanre has been associated with the PBABM throughout and said that the forum is not calling for a boycott of the election. Rather, they want to send out a message to the government that gram sabhas are their right.

“We want to make it clear to the government that the residents of the adivasi areas in the Hills want the FRA 2006 to be properly implemented,” said Chanre, adding, “If gram sabhas are formed, then they will have to take the consent of the gram sabhas if any project is to come up here.”

“We don’t have 5th Schedule in West Bengal, we don’t have PESA, so FRA is our key. We do not have any other means to fight this,” Chanre added. When asked where the political parties stand vis-a-vis the implementation of the FRA, he said there has not been much of an impact.

“The FRA is a weapon for us. To utilise this weapon, we have done a lot of publicity in the villages. On behalf of the forum, we painted slogans on every house. However, we are not boycotting votes, if the idea was to boycott votes, we would have sent out a written message

“We are seeing that only social organisations are supporting the movement. The mainstream political parties are not engaging with the issue of FRA at all. We want to send out a message to the government that ‘you’re sleeping and the time has come to wake up and implement the FRA,’ ,” Chanre said.

Dhirendra Chanre, 30, also from Baruwajera, is the secretary of the PBABM and has been associated with the movement since 2017. Previously, he worked as a supervisor at a garments factory in Bangalore for seven years but decided to move back to the village. He has a family of four, which includes his wife, daughter and newborn son.

“We want the vote to take place. But it should happen with recognition of the gram sabhas,” Dhirendra Chanre said. “When votes happen, there is a lot of indiscipline with everyone wanting to contest. We want a disciplined election with the FRA in focus.”

“The villagers, who will be casting their votes, are sending out a message to the government that TPSP will cause a lot of problems - we live in the forest and are economically dependent on it, and its loss will impact us a lot,” he added.

While the adivasis in Ajodhya Hills say their consent was diluted and the state government did not adhere to FRA rules while acquiring land for TPSP, the state government, on its part, maintains that it did so.

According to a report published in ‘Article 14’, in 2017, the state government submitted 34 signatures from the gram sabhas of Baghmundi and Ajodhya gram panchayats in Baghmundi C D block, saying consent has been obtained for the diversion of 234 hectares of forest land for TPSP.

Accordingly, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) granted Stage I ‘in principle’ clearance to the project.

In 2018, the adivasis challenged the MoEFCC clearance in a writ petition at the Calcutta High Court, claiming that the 2008 Rules of the FRA were not followed in acquiring consent from them for TPSP. A single-judge bench in July 2019 found that the state government violated the FRA as it had not taken the consent of gram sabhas in all the affected villages.

It quashed the “in principle” approval and directed the state government to follow the FRA rules. It noted that the resolution of the Ajodhya and Baghmundi gram panchayats' gram sabhas used by the state government as proof of consent did not satisfy the tests laid out in FRA 2006.

The order stated: "the consultative mechanism involving gram sabhas under the 2006 Act read with its 2008 rules has been absolutely subverted."

However, in 2021, a division bench of the Calcutta High Court reinstated the “in principle” approval saying that it did not agree with the single-bench verdict. In the judgement, the division bench observed that the state government has carried out a consultative exercise following the West Bengal Panchayat Act, 1973.

The adivasis have questioned the validity of the 1973 Panchayat Act as the 234 hectares to be diverted for TPSP is forest land. They say only FRA is applicable in this context.

While the tussle between the adivasis and the state government was on, the union government, in 2022, brought the Forest Conservation Rules and diluted the clauses of the FRA, specifically in relation to seeking consent from the gram sabhas.

The 2022 Rules shifted the onus onto the state governments to ensure that the tribals’ right to their traditional forest land is recognised and their consent is taken before forests are diverted for projects. Experts have reportedly claimed that it was done to speed up the process of handing over forest land to developers.

In October 2022, the Union Government gave the final approval to TPSP. Under the 2022 Rules, the state government is now on its own to comply with the FRA and develop the project, while the adivasis continue to dispute its adherence to the law. Land acquisition has already started under West Bengal State Electricity Distribution Company Limited (WBSEDCL).

The adivasis are not backing down as yet. They have formed gram sabhas on their own in at least 18 villages, according to Supen Hembram, 49, the convenor of PBABM.

“The gram sabhas that have been formed are constitutional, as we have the right under the FRA,” Hembram said, adding, “The state government gets funding from the union government to form gram sabhas following the FRA, but they are not taking the initiative to do it. As a result, the adivasi villagers are forming gram sabhas according to FRA rules on their own.”

Hembram said that the state and the union government are coming up with new ways to counter the movement now, such as, he said, diluting the definition of gram sabhas.

“We have realised that the amendments that have taken place in the law can be resisted through the gram sabhas we have formed. FRA states that the decision of the gram sabhas is the ultimate and we are sticking to that,

“We have followed all the guidelines while forming the gram sabhas,” said Nakul Chandra Baske, 50, a prominent member of PBABM. “We first sent a letter to the panchayat informing that we are keen on forming gram sabhas and Forest Rights Committees (FRC),

“When the final resolution to form gram sabhas was taken, the panchayat pradhan was presiding over the meeting, and the resolutions of the meeting were sent to the Sub-divisional Level Committee (SDLC),” he added.

The SDLC is the first appellate authority in the legal structure of forest rights vested by the FRA. It comes immediately above gram sabhas in the block/tehsil level. Gram sabhas pass resolutions over claims of forest rights, after verification by FRCs, and forward them to the SDLC. After the SDLC approves the claims, they go to the District Level Committee (DLC) for final approval and to be kept as records.

Baske said that “The SDLC is responsible for providing the details of the gram sabhas to the respective departments of the government,” “However, since the SDLC is not giving it the required importance, we are spending from our pockets to give copies of our resolutions to all the departments so that they don’t interfere with the functioning of the gram sabhas.

“We have also submitted the details of the gram sabhas we are forming in a letter to the SDLC. We have an FRC in the gram sabhas to take care of the matters related to our forest. The committee is now working to get land pattas for those who live in the forest and depend on it for subsistence.

“We have also created maps of the villages and provided plot numbers to every land and submitted it to the SDLC, as per procedure.”

As the election approaches, Hembram also clarified that PBABM is not boycotting it. He said that the forum is talking about a development model that fulfils the villagers’ needs.

“The problems that the villagers are facing should be the central agenda of the election,” Development should take place according to the grassroots-level need of the adivasi villagers. For instance, our basic need is schools, however, what we’re getting are homestays catering to the tourism in the Hills,” said Hembram.

“Can you imagine that we have only three schools and two health centres for 93 villages? Several people even today drink water from the waterfalls in the Hills. Is this a picture of development?,” he asked.

The experience of the Purulia Pump Storage Project (PPSP) (on the Bamni waterfall), the first of the four hydroelectricity projects which came up in 2008, has not been pleasant for the adivasi villagers. The adivasis say that while large tracts of forest land were submerged in the project, the local villagers of the Hills got only a handful of employment opportunities.

The bitter experience of the PPSP has led the villagers to oppose TPSP (on the Turga waterfall) all the more. Dhirendra Chanre, the secretary of PBABM, said that the experience of PPSP prompted him to join the movement.

“We are the sons of the soil,” Dhirendra said, “We have been dependent on the forest for generations, that automatically creates a bond with it.

“The PPSP is only half a kilometre away from our home. However, we didn’t get jobs as security guards or sweepers, as they promised. Due to the upper dam of the PPSP, our livestock lost grazing ground, and we lost access to vital forest land.

“You won’t believe that PPSP has 80 vacancies for ‘lower-level’ employees, and out of them only five jobs have gone to the villagers. All of these made us realise that if the TPSP dams come up, it will not benefit us at all” he added.

Baske, on the other hand, has witnessed the building of PPSP in his lifetime. He repeats that a lot of promises were made verbally during PPSP but none of it bore fruits in the long run.

“Some people did get employment as labour during the construction of the dam. But the local leaders of the ruling political party were controlling who got access to those opportunities,” Baske said.

“We understood that if TPSP comes up, the entire area will go in the hands of the company and the government, and we will not have access to the forest, as we do now,” he added.

Although state records say that only 6,816 trees will be cut for the project, environmentalists dispute that figure claiming that the actual figure is somewhere close to 3 lakhs. Sourav Prokritibadi, a West Bengal-based environmentalist, calls this estimate comical.

Sourav who has been associated with PBABM throughout. helped adivasis challenge the Stage I clearance given to the project by the MoEFCC in a writ petition at the Calcutta High Court in 2018.

“The TPSP will take up 234 hectares of forest land, which is close to 2000 bighas. They say 6186 trees will be felled for the project, which means three trees for every bigha of forest. How does it make sense? We are talking about a dense forest here,” Sourav said.

He said that the PBABM conducted a survey of its own with the help of the adivasis where they found the actual number of trees is close to 3 lakhs. Endangered species such as pangolins, foxes and leopards are also found in the dense forests.

The Ajodhya Hills are part of the Dolma elephant corridor through which hundreds of elephants migrate from Jharkhand to West Bengal in August-September. The PPSP has already affected them and TPSP is going to affect even more, Sourav said.

“There are 12 herds of elephants in the Ajodhya Hills. Due to the PPSP, we have seen that elephants have lost their way and entered villages more often. Human-elephant conflict has already gone up and the construction of TPSP will take it to extreme levels,” Sourav added.