A year back the newly elected government in Assam started an eviction drive to free government land of illegal encroachers. While it started with Kaziranga, very soon such drives were carried out all over the state. The government initiative led to a mixed response from people. While many hailed it as a required initiative to save forest land and ensure land does not pass to the hands of outsiders, a large number of people felt deprived of their basic right to shelter. Irrespective of the question of legality, the eviction drive left a trail of homelessness.
After almost a year a similar drive is under way. In Sipajhar, the eviction drive carried out on 24th November followed the mysterious kidnapping and murder of one Ananda Das. Ananda Das, a native of the Kuruwa village disappeared on 21st November. His dead body was found exactly at the same place on 23rd November. Two people were arrested for interrogation, but a violent mob went on the rampage claiming that the villagers of Gandhia Pathar are illegal immigrants and they are responsible for the murder of Ananda Das. Few homes were ravaged and torched. The District administration immediately responded by announcing that an eviction will be carried out the very next day. And on 24th November, almost sixty families were evicted.
However eviction did not stop with Sipajhar. On 27th November, a similar drive was carried out in the Amchang Reserve Forest around Guwahati. This also displaced more than 700 families who allegedly encroached upon reserved forest land. The Amchang eviction was a response to a High Court order while the Sipajhar eviction was mostly carried out due to the demands of local Bajrang Dal activists. The Amchang eviction unlike the Sipajhar incident received much flak from every section of Assamese society and media as the evicted people were largely from Mishing and Bodo communities. These are people who lost their lands in Majuli, Lakhimpur, Dhemaji due to river erosion. However eviction was carried out without any assurance of rehabilitation. Left with no roof upon their head, survival in the open is becoming difficult for these people.
Both the instances of eviction have raised some difficult questions for one and all. In Sipajhar, a narrative was build to justify bulldozing homes of people. There was a ploy to delegitimize an entire community by portraying the villagers who were mostly Muslims of East Bengal origin as illegal immigrants. However almost all of them had voters’ id cards to prove their citizenship. Their earlier generations moved from places like Jonia in Barpeta to escape poverty and river erosion. These people were further tricked into buying government land from the locals of Kuruwa. But there was no investigation on the multiple level of exploitation that these people faced. Merely accusing them of being illegal immigrants somehow provided impunity to those who torched their homes. One must ask if these are illegal immigrants, why weren’t they sent to detention camps for gradual deportation?
Coming to the Amchang eviction, tribal communities which have co-existed with nature for ages and sustained them were accused of ruining forest resources. There is gross discrepancy with the very procedure of the Amchang eviction. This eviction was carried out in response to a High Court order on a PIL for ecological conservation. Many activists including Gana Shakti leader and MP Bhuvan Pegu raised serious allegations regarding the eviction. Some of the villages which were evicted were shown as revenue villages in Central government’s notification published in the month of May, 2017. While they were marked as eco sensitive, they were not part of Reserve forest. According to the government’s own admittance, encroachment happened in some parts even before the Amchang area was notified as Reserved Forest in 2004. As such these people’s rights will be safeguarded under the Forest Rights Act, 2006. However due to a 2009 High Court judgment which states that there are no forest dwelling communities in Assam, the Forest Rights Act does not help much. There was also a graded approach to displaced people vis a vis commercial resorts, cement industries and army firing range whose establishment in a reserved forest area also violated laws.
Similar concerns were raised by the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti a year back during the Kaziranga eviction. Revenue villages were randomly marked as part of the National Park and then evicted. Sadly protestors were fired upon and two people shot from closed range. While the government initially justified the drive by calling the settlers illegal immigrants, eight months later the government did pay a compensation of around 15 crores as these people were genuinely displaced by erosion and were settled there by erstwhile governments.
These procedural loopholes in the evictions raise some crucial questions. Why is so much of land being freed at such a human cost? Students’ text books strewn all over, young children in uniform coming back to demolished homes are heart wrenching images. What is the urgency to remove these people from areas in and around Guwahati? Is it a government ploy to hand over land to corporate? We are often told about how Guwahati is coming up as a big industrial and logistical hub. Considering the geo-strategic importance of Guwahati it will be one of its kind in the region. Goods and services will be funneled to the neighbouring states through Guwahati. It should be further mentioned that industries covering areas like Sipajhar, Morigaon, Boko, Chhaygaon etc will come up to sustain Guwahati’s industrial hub.
Keeping in line with the government’s larger policy of privatization, the industries will probably be privately owned or in partnership with the government while the government will act as an enabler. The first step will be providing easy access to large tracts of land. And while land acquisition continues to be difficult, acquisition by using the bogey of illegal encroachment is easier and it absolves the government of providing any compensation. These questions are bound to be raised because if saving ecological resources was the sole concern, then government should not have allowed open mining in different parts of the state which has almost destroyed the Patkai hills. Large amount of industrial wood has been extracted from areas falling under Rabha Hasong Autonomus Councils and Chirang in BTAD without any initiative for afforestation. Amidst scarcity of land, huge tracts of land in the tribal belt have already been handed over to industrial outfits like Patanjali, Dabur etc. Many have questioned, if government can hand over land to such outfits why cannot it rehabilitate the people before eviction. Accusations like government is taking away land from the people to hand it over to private industries portrays it as anti people and pro corporate. This government was voted to power on the promise of safeguarding the interest of the indigenous people. As such it should clarify its stand vis-à-vis the claims that development in Assam is being done at the cost of the livelihood of the common people. Should the rights of the commoners be pitted against MNCs and big capitalists?
One cannot deny the need to maintain forests and conserve the delicate balance between human beings and nature. Assam’s lush green forests should be conserved. Steps must be taken to ensure that the conflicts between humans and wild animals end, they don’t encroach each other’s habitat. To ensure this, government must come up with some solid steps. Every year a large part of the state’s land is lost to erosion leaving a large number of people homeless, landless. As such measures should be taken to systematically relocate people who lose their home and land to the mighty rivers. The government should undertake a land survey of the state and come up with a progressive land policy. Government along with the larger society must take into cognizance the fact that land redistribution was never implemented properly in India. As such a large number of Indians are landless. It is the duty of a welfare state to provide land to the landless. Government must first provide compensation, alternative options to people before evicting them. A government which has failed to provide its citizens with a basic safety net of shelter does not have the ethical right to take a moral high ground and harass people behind the garb of legality and judicial directives.
Parvin Sultana is an Assistant Professor of Political Science in Pramathesh Barua College of Assam. Her research interest includes Muslims in Assam, development and northeast, gender etc. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org