Darjeeling (WB): In the conflict between forest guards and forest dwellers in West Bengal`s Doors and Terai regions, 13 tribals have died in firing by forest guards since 2007, according to the state Forest Department.
While the Forest Department described those killed as belonging to the timber mafia, rights bodies claimed they were just poor and innocent tribals who merely entered the forest in search of firewood and forest waste.
Jatiswar Bharati, a member of the Jalpaiguri branch of the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR), allleged that there were discrepancies in the death figures provided by Forest Department officials.
He quoted the field director of Buxa Tiger Reserve, Ravinder Pal Saini, as saying that 11 persons had died in firing at the reserve alone till 2009.
The Uttarbanga Bana Sramajibi Mancha (UBSM), a forest rights group, gave an example of Milan Rawtia, 39, a tribal worker from Loha Singh tea garden in the Terai`s Naxalibari area, who was an innocent victim of the conflict.
The rights body quoted Milan`s wife Reshmi as having claimed that her husband had entered the adjoining Taippo forest to fetch his cow around 4pm on June 21 when the forest guards shot him and took him to a hospital where he was declared dead.
He was accused of felling timber illegally, the rights body said.
On April 28 this year, Anil Kheria, a young tribal from Haldibari tea estate in Banarhat, was shot dead inside the Moraghat forest, while collecting firewood, his family claimed.
But, Forest Department sources claimed Anil was involved in illegal felling of trees.
Ritu Oraon, Anil`s neighbour and a tribal Congress member of the Haldibari panchayat, said most of the victims were shot at while they collected firewood and non-timber minor forest produce such as tubers, fruits and mushrooms, which is legally permitted.
"We want a high-level inquiry into these killings and other atrocities by forest officials on innocent tribals," UBSM convener Lal Singh Bhujel said.
The Buxa Tiger Reserve field director cocked a snook at Bhujel`s contention, saying, "We don`t stop villagers from collecting firewood. But, what were these so-called innocent victims doing in the forest in the dead of night?"
He argued that the forest guards opened fire after being "outnumbered and attacked by armed illegal tree fellers" and that "targets cannot be ascertained in the dark."
Suman Goswami, an APDR activist in Alipurduar, countered that, saying despite Forest Department claims about the victims being heavily armed, "no forester has died in these so-called encounters".
State forest minister Hiten Barman had recently said in Siliguri that the Sashastra Seema Bal, a central paramilitary force deployed on Nepal and Bhutan borders, and the state armed police would be pressed into action to counter the superior firepower of the mafia in the Buxa reserve.
Six patrol boats would criss-cross the forest rivers to look out for timber gangs and recover the clandestinely chopped logs the mafia transports downstream along the tide, he had said.
Although the state`s forest cover has risen from 13 per cent to 16 per cent, the density of the reserved forests, particularly in the Buxa reserve, has dwindled because of felling by gangs operating from across the Bhutan border, he had observed.
Gautam Deb, minister for north Bengal development, said, "We have received complaints from the forest villagers. Chief minister Mamata Banerjee wants the law-enforcers to be more humane in dealing with the tribals while protecting the forests and wildlife. They need to be more careful about firing."