Kolkata: In June this year, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) directed the West Bengal government to immediately close down all hotels, camping sites, homestays,
lodges and restaurants within the Buxa Tiger Reserve, currently in Alipurduar district and earlier in undivided Jalpaiguri district in the northern part of the state. The NGT order gave hope to environmentalists that this is the first positive move for freeing the jungles not only in Buxa but the entire north Bengal of human encroachments.
However, almost three months have passed since the NGT order, and the activists allege that the judgement has not been honoured in its true spirit and tourism activities within the core area are still being carried out albeit in a reduced manner. They also allege negligence on the part of the state government in putting in place a proper displacement and
rehabilitation policy for the tribal population in the villages within the core areas.
Speaking to IANS, environmental rights activist Dr Raja Raut said that although after the NGT order the state government has
taken some steps to limit tourism within the Buxa Tiger Reserve, the order has not been implemented in its true spirit.
"Although night stays within the reserve forest area have been banned after the NGT order, some lodges with dining arrangements are still operating during the day till sunset. And with these arrangements continuing, the tourists flock, play music, litter food and food packets which continue to affect the natural ambience of the forest. We along with other environment activists had intimated the state forest department several times and what we got are just assurances. I understand that the state government is promoting tourism and homestay culture in north Bengal. But it cannot be at the cost of the natural ambience of the jungle," Raut said.
Besides the Royal Bengal tiger the fauna of Buxa Tiger Reserve, a part of which is also in neighbouring Bhutan, includes elephants, leopards, giant squirrels, chital deer, wild boar and
Raut said the continued existence of around 100 small forest villages within the core forest areas scattered over the three districts in north Bengal, namely Jalpaiguri, Alipurduar and Darjeeling is yet another hurdle in making the core forest
areas totally free of human encroachment. "These are extremely small forest villages housing hardly 1,000 to 1,200 families. I do not think that rehabilitation of these families is a difficult task. But I think some political interference poses hurdles in that rehabilitation process," Raut said.
According to forest minister Jyotipriyo Mullick, the state government is keen on rehabilitating the population in the forest villages and talks are going on in this regard.
However, there is a technical hitch since these forest villagers mostly do not have land rights and it is often difficult for the state government to offer rehabilitation packages under the existing legal framework.
Mullick added that the state government has urged the Union government to share the compensation burden. "We expect the rehabilitation package to be finalised soon," he said.
On the issue of the continuing day time operations of some homestays, he said that he will ask his officials to look into the matter.
However, a senior state forest official, on condition of anonymity said that ensuring a 100 per cent closure of all tourism-related commercial operations in the forest areas like
homestays and restaurants is not an easy task. "As it is, entry
restrictions in the core area have left the local villagers fuming since that was an important source of income. The people have invested in setting up homestays after the state
government encouraged that. Now the overnight closing down of all operations will antagonize them," the official said.
He said that unless the state government arranges for alternative sources of income for these villagers besides
giving them a one-time compensation, displacing them from the core areas will be an uphill task.