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Furore over forest firing

Sukna, Nov. 18: In an early morning raid today, forest guards opened fire on women of Khokhlong village, injuring two. The incident has sparked a mob fury and a debate on the pathetic condition of forest-village dwellers.

According to the forest department, Bobby Chettri (25) and Madhu Tamang (40), along with 25-30 other women, entered the Chumta block of Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary early this morning. 'Our guards caught the women felling a tree,' range officer J. Banerjee said adding that the forest-village dwellers, who are allowed to collect firewood from the forest, have lately resorted to felling trees as well. 'Several times earlier, we had asked them to stop the practice, but that went unheeded. This morning too when our four guards on duty tried to chase the women away, they came at them with khukris. A blank fire yielded no results, which is why the guards were forced to fire two more rounds, in which the women were injured.'

Both the women were rushed to Sukna primary health centre from where they were taken to a nursing home in Siliguri. 'We went to the forest to collect firewood and not fell trees,' they said from their hospital beds.

Soon after the incident, about 50 irate villagers ransacked the Sukna range office here, 10 km from Siliguri, and broke the windowpanes. Forces from Kurseong and Matigara police stations and Sukna restored normality in the area.

Sukna gram panchayat pradhan Teshering Dahal has called a meeting with villagers tomorrow to decide on the future course of action. 'Why are they not able to show us anything to substantiate their allegation' Dahal said.

Describing the condition of the three forest villages of the area, home to about 150 families, as pathetic, she said: 'There is no source of income. Agriculture is impossible because the elephants eat up whatever little is grown. It is because the people have been pushed to the brink of poverty that their dependence on forests has increased manifold. Even the eco-development committees are defunct.'

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