A controversial eviction drive

Print edition : July 20, 2002

The Assam government's move, as mandated by a Supreme Court order, to evict those who have encroached on forest land raises some green hopes but kicks up much dust.

THE six-week eviction drive launched in May by Assam's Forest Department was in fact a much-delayed response to a Supreme Court of India directive issued in December 1996. In its ruling, the apex court had directed nine States including Assam, to stop further encroachment of reserve forest lands. This was followed by repeated interventions by the Supreme Court and the High Courts as well as by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests(MoEF). On January 15, 1998, the apex court directed that for forest wealth to be safeguarded in the northeastern States, forest officers in these States should be empowered to investigate, prosecute and confiscate - powers similar to those conferred on forest officers in other States. In January 2000, the Guwahati High Court ordered the P.K. Mahanta government to take steps to protect the Sarusola beel and other wetlands around the State capital city.

On February 18, 2002, the Supreme Court directed the Chief Secretaries of Orissa, West Bengal, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Assam, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Kerala to submit to it a list of measures taken by them to prevent further encroachment of forest land, particularly in the hilly terrain and in national parks and sanctuaries. On May 3, 2001, the MoEF directed the Assam government to ensure that the eviction operations against encroachments that were not eligible for regularisation were completed by September 30 this year.

Forest Department officials demolish with the help of elephants illegal structures put up by encroachers in the Hangrabari reserve forest in Guwahati.-RITU RAJ KONWAR

It was this directive that prompted the State Forest Department to intensify its drive against encroachers. The felling of trees had continued unabated despite the Supreme Court's order of 1996, and this had depleted the State's forest cover to 20 per cent of its geographical area against the stipulated 33 per cent. Of the 23,424 lakh hectares of reserve forest area in the State, 2,764 lakh hectares had been encroached upon, according to official figures. A large part of the 10 reserve forests around Guwahati has for long been subjected to encroachment. Encroach-ment of forest land had begun soon after Independence in the districts of Kamrup, Kokrajhar, Sivasagar, Golaghat, Lakhimpur, Nagaon and Darrang.

The eviction drive has a lot of detractors, including ruling party leaders, and has proved to be an acid test for the Tarun Gogoi-led Congress government. The Opposition Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) has challenged the Gogoi government to evict encroachers from the Kaziranga National Park (KNP) areas: a substantial section of the immigrant settlers was settled there allegedly by earlier Congress(I) governments in order to build a vote bank. While the KNP did begin an eviction drive, the State-wide operation was suspended after six weeks as the monsoon set in and the State government wanted to take stock of the situation following the eviction operations. The problem has been compounded by the fact that successive State governments since Independence have failed to demarcate the State's forests. The Congress(I) is the party that has ruled Assam for most part of its existence, and even before the separation of other northeastern States from it. In several cases, the authorities have routinely settled in forested areas families affected by floods, soil erosion and earthquakes.

FOR several years now, Guwahati's civic problems have been greatly compounded by illegal encroachments. The burgeoning population of the city and also the unregulated activities of builders have contributed to these too. Construction activity in and around Guwahati has long been haphazard, and land-grabbers have consistently turned a blind eye to environmental constraints. The Forest Department had launched several eviction drives earlier, but these petered out.

Until the mid-19th century, housing norms revolved around the bamboo-and-wood structures with thatched roofs that were ubiquitous over much of the region. Following the great earthquake of 1897, Assam, situated in a seismic zone, fostered the development of a unique architectural style - the 'Assam-type' architectural style, low level, bamboo-elevated, which is eminently suitable for an earthquake-prone region with a prolonged rainy season. The 1950 earthquake levelled several large structures but left the Assam-type ones mostly untouched. But the rapid expansion of the population has led to the diminished popularity of Assam-type structures as these are unable to house multiple family units. The results are all too clear. The highrise buildings that have come up in recent years do not in any way conform to the safety standards required for a region of abnormally high seismic activity.

Rampant destruction of the surrounding hills has led to the clogging of Guwahati's drains and sewage systems by mud and silt. The city is frequently plagued by water-logging, flash floods and landslips. Two years after the High Court's directive, the district administration initiated steps to remove encroachments on Sarusola beel - the natural stormwater drain of Guwahati, which had been responsible for severe water-logging problems in vast areas of the city. There are 3,515 wetlands of different categories that make up 1.29 per cent of the State's total geographical area. But in the absence of conservation measures, most of these have been systematically encroached upon. Environmental scientists have pointed out that the shrinkage of wetlands may have a disastrous impact on water-table levels in adjoining areas, apart from the threat to aquatic flora and fauna. Only late last year, the district administration declared both Borsola and Sarusola beels to be reserve wetlands.

The crackdown on encroachments has been timely. In the course of its eviction drive in the reserve forests in and around the city, the Forest Department met with violent resistance from encroachers. Organisations have mushroomed, claiming to speak for the evicted. The Dakshin-Pachim Guwahati Samaj Hitaishi Sabha has vehemently opposed the eviction of people from the revenue village in the Fatasil reserve forest area. The Sabha claimed that the area had been gradually developed by various government departments - the Departments of Education, Social Welfare, Electricity, Public Works, Telecommunication, and so on - and that the Revenue Department was in the process of issuing pattas to the residents.

Activists of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) hold a demonstration outside the Raj Bhavan against the eviction drive. They submitted to the Governor a memorandum addressed to the President.-RITU RAJ KONWAR

The AGP's Guwahati unit alleged that the Forest Department had launched the eviction drive without demarcating the forest area. This, according to the party, made the indigenous people refugees in their own land. People who have been living in hilly areas for more than 25 years had been evicted, it said. The AGP insisted that the State government had ignored the Supreme Court guidelines which instructed the government to evict only encroachers and that such evictions had to be done only after giving a month's notice. The AGP cited the case of 48 families in the Madhupur area near Guwahati, which were faced with the prospect of eviction. However, these families, like others living near forests, were settled there by the Dibrugarh (then Lakhimpur) district administration soon after the 1956 floods.

The All Assam Small Tea Growers' Association (AASTGA) also condemned the evictions. It alleged that what was being done in the name of eviction of encroachers in "so-called reserve forests" affected several small-time tea growers as their plantations were destroyed. Opponents of the government's drive including several groups such as the Brihattar Guwahati Ussedita-Nirjatita Gana Mancha, supported by political parties including the Left parties, called a bandh on May 25 to protest against the 'inhuman, arbitrary, biased and unplanned' manner of the eviction drive. Taking cognisance of a petition submitted to it by the Youth Leadership Centre, a local association in Guwahati, the National Human Rights Commission sent notices to the Chief Secretary and the Director-General of Police, Assam, asking for details of the eviction drive. Investigating teams of the Youth Leadership Centre claimed that they had first-hand information about the inhuman approach of the police and the forest staff.

Several organisations of ethnic groups in the State have come together to form a joint action committee to resist the eviction process. These include the Tribal Students' Federation, the All Assam Moran Students' Union, the All Assam Deuri Students' Union, the All Tai Ahom Students' Union, the Assam Sonowal Kachari Students' Union, the Assam Tea Tribes Students' Association and the Tai Yuba Chatra Santha. The Tiara Autonomy Demand Committee has cited a petition filed before the Guwahati High Court by 250 families from three villages near Doom Dooma, which were settled there six years after the earthquake of 1950. These families are now faced with the threat of eviction. Bodo groups have decried the eviction carried out in 10 Bodo villages near the Balipara reserve forest area. Biswajit Daimary, who represents the area in the State Assembly, said that poor people had settled in the area over the past 30 to 35 years as a result of large-scale encroachment in the tribal belt and tribal blocks by non-tribal people. Most of the unhappiness stems from the chronic apathy of successive governments which have failed to ensure the rehabilitation of the victims, according to him.

The eviction drive has also affected people who live in the foothills bordering Arunchal Pradesh and in the reserve forests that lie on the disputed border between Assam and Nagaland. The Arunachal Pradesh government has filed a fresh petition in the Supreme Court seeking to restrain Assam officials from carrying out evictions in the disputed sections of the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border.

ANIMAL welfare experts have condemned the use of elephants by the Forest Department to demolish illegal structures. Using such animals to carry out the demolition of concrete structures, which have corrugated iron sheet roofs, is a violation of Section 11 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PCA) Act, 1960, and is punishable.

Although the eviction drive has since been suspended, the Congress government is determined to fulfil the court's directives; it has promised to continue the drive until all forest areas including wildlife sanctuaries and national parks are cleared of encroachers. It hopes to pursue the eviction operations along with social education programmes. A scheme is under preparation for raising a plantation of 30 species of medicinal plants with active public participation. Plans are also afoot to draw up joint forest management plans for people who live in areas adjoining forests and reserve forests, in order to provide development facilities in the villages concerned.

The Forest Department has raised a revolving fund of over Rs.9 crores from the sale of seized timber, according to the Supreme Court order of January 15, 1998, for the protection and development of forest areas. Fifty per cent of the amount may be utilised for the afforestation of the recovered land. In places such as Guwahati, where forest areas are vulnerable to re-encroachment, barbed wire fencing and camps manned by Home Guards are planned.

While the eviction drive has had the support of large sections of Guwahati's citizens, who have for long suffered the consequences of environmental degradation, as well that of green groups, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and student bodies, there are troubled days ahead for the Chief Minister. The evicted persons have often refused to move to the land set aside for them: they include several former garden labourers and persons belonging to Nepali and Mising grazing communities evicted from the Nameri reserved forest area.

Although the government is aware of the deadline of September 30 fixed by the MoEF for the completion of eviction operations, it hopes that the Centre will grant it more time. The government contemplates the submission of a proposal to the Centre, requesting it to regularise the lands in the possession of those who live with "valid documents" inside the forest areas that are governed by the Forest Protection Act of the Government of India.

But the administration's initiative has raised some green hopes. Of the about 6,000 sq km forest area under encroachment, 11,554 hectares has already been cleared. Instructions have been issued to display maps outlining the State's reserve and protected forest areas in the office of every District Forest Officer. Although environmentalists are optimistic that Guwahati may still be saved, it would be premature to have undue expectations without ascertaining whether the current drive sustains itself.

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