The formation of the West Bengal Forest Development Corporation Limited (WBFDCL) in 1974 was an important development; it legitimized the exploitation of the natural resources of the Darjeeling hills by the State. As soon as the WBFDCL entered the hills, they chopped down its original hardwood forest. Verdant forests filled with Chanp, Gurans, Chimal, Peepli, Buk, Katus, Kaulo, Sal, and Teak trees were stripped bare and sold to contribute towards revenue for West Bengal, with no benefit whatsoever trickling back to the hills or its people. The hardwood trees which once adorned the hills were replaced with fast growing Dhuppi and Kharani.
Dhuppi is not indigenous to the Darjeeling region, whereas the mixed forest full of fruit and flower bearing trees were. Dhuppi was introduced by the WBFDCL as it grows faster and thus can be chopped down early as compared to other hardwood trees and in doing so the West Bengal government stripped Darjeeling of its natural wealth. The flora, fauna and biodiversity which once graced the hills were all exchanged for a mono-culture which changed Darjeeling’s ecosystem forever.
As a part of one of the study I had undertaken, I spoke to some villagers in Poobong area some years back, what one of them told me still resonates in my ears, talking about the WBFDC, an old woman had said ‘Nani corporation [referring to the WBFDC] le hamro ban-jungal nasyo, hamro chara-churangi, rukh-pat, ban-jantu turyo… hamro sampatee lutnu samma lutyo… hami le garee khaney bato dharee rakhi diyena… bhan nu nai ho bhanye, Corporation le hamro pahar ko balatkar garyo… tara kasai le tyesko birodh ma ek sabda pani bolyena… hamee ta anpad thiun, kura bujh thiuna… tara tyeti bela padeka-lekhyeka haru le dharee kehi bhanyena… ra chai aju esto gatee bhayo hamro pahar ko… [she pointed towards the barren areas and said] nango jhar banayo hamro pahar lai yo Corporation bhan ne le.’
‘The WBFDC ruined our forests; it finished our birds, trees and wild animals; it stole our natural heritage and property; it did not even leave us with the means to earn our livelihood; to put it bluntly, the Corporation raped our hills… but there was no one who spoke against it… we were uneducated and did not know any better, but those who were educated and should have known better also kept quiet… which is why this is what has become of our hills… they have stripped our hills naked’.
Non Implementation of FRA
Such is the apathy towards the Hills, Terai and Dooars that despite the adaptation of the National Forest Policy of 1988 (NFP), which bans the felling of trees in all forests located above an altitude of 1000 meters, and a Supreme Court order which bans thinning of trees upto 1000 meters and clear cutting below 500 meters, the WBFDC has continued to cut trees in the Darjeeling, Terai and Dooars region. Despite the WBFDC Board of Directors recommending to the State Government that all the areas under lease with the WBFDCL be reduced to 100.66 sq km (all forest areas below 500 mt altitude) in March 2010 itself, the West Bengal government has refused to pay heed, and has continued to use WBFDC as its revenue generating tool.
Furthermore, the West Bengal Government has refused to implement the Forest Rights Act of 2006 in Darjeeling and Doors region, which recognizes the traditional rights of tribals and other forest dwellers. If you look at the forest map of Bengal, you will notice that Darjeeling, Terai and Dooars region account for over 70% of the total forest area, and the WBFDC has earned hundreds of crores in revenue every year since 1974 from forestry and related activities, but none of that revenue is used to regenerate the forest, or to provide assistance to the forest dwellers in the Hills, Terai and Dooars.
Exploitation of Rivers
Another avenue through which West Bengal continues to exploit the Darjeeling, Terai and Dooars is through the exploitation of our rivers. With the commissioning of Teesta Stage – III and Teesta Stage – IV, total electricity production from the Darjeeling, Terai and Dooars region currently stands at around 365 MW. This includes the hydro power plants at: Rammam, Jaldhaka, Rinchington, Little Rangit, Mungpoo – Kalikhola, Sidrabung, Fazi, Teesta – III and Teesta – IV.
Even by conservative estimates, the West Bengal government is earning around Rs 75 to 100 Crores annually from these hydro developments, yet nothing trickles back to the people in the Hills, Terai and Dooars. Such is the discrimination against the hill folks that Ramam village which is home to one of the earliest hydel projects in India and its nearby villages are yet to be connected with electricity.
It is beyond my capacity to understand how electricity from Ramam can be taken down to Siliguri and Calcutta, yet the village in which the project is based cannot be connected to electricity? If this is not discrimination, I don’t know what is.
*First published in the August issue of Eclectic NorthEast
*The writer Upendra M Pradha writes the column ‘Voice of Darjeeling’ for www.darjeelingtimes.com and is editor at large at The Darjeeling Chronicle