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Forest folk to press Nota button
- Denial of rights triggers decision to rule candidates out

Darjeeling, March 21: Two associations representing around 260 forest villages in north Bengal today said people in the areas would press the None-Of-The-Above (Nota) button in the Lok Sabha election to protest the denial of rights enshrined in an Act passed by Parliament for the forest dwellers

The villages have a combined population of 1.5 lakh and are spread over Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar districts. Of the 260-odd villages, around 150 are in three subdivisions in the Darjeeling hills. This would mean that the Darjeeling Lok Sabha constituency would be the most affected by the decision.

The rights accrued to the forest dwellers include land pattas and formation of gram sabhas which are vested with certain powers.

The decision to press the Nota button was announced jointly by the Himalayan Forest Villagers’ Organisation and Uttar Banga Van-Jan Shromojivi Manch in Darjeeling today. “Even though the Schedule Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights), 2006 Act, which is commonly called the Forest Rights Act was passed in Parliament, it has not been properly implemented in Bengal. That is why people of the 260-odd villages have decided to press the Nota button in the Lok Sabha elections,” said Lila Kumar Gurung, the secretary of the Himalayan organisation.

Swarup Saha, a member of the Manch, claimed that the 260-odd forest villages had over 50,000 voters. “According to the Act, the forest villagers are supposed to get land pattas (land deeds) but the administration has not done anything yet.”

He added that every forest village should have a gram sabha, which has the power to give permission for development works and the right to handle forest produce, except timber. “But the sabhas are not formed and the forest department is citing various other Acts to deny us rights.”

A senior government official said the matter was complex and it would need time to implement all the provisions. “Issues like whether the pattas are to be issued by the district administration or the GTA Sabha, non-implementation of panchayat system in the hills and many other factors are involved in the matter. So, it will take time to implement all the provisions of the Act,” said the official.