Cost of conservation: While resorts flourish, why are locals being evicted in Kaziranga?
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On October 9, 2023, the residents of Borbil, a village located at the border of the Kaziranga National Park in Assam, received a notice from the SDO Office, Bokakhat (under Golaghat district) granting them a compensation amount ranging from Rs 5,50,000 to Rs.7,36,000 towards their cultivation and homes. 

Not all who live in Borbil received the notice. The notice invoked no law, gave little context, and came as somewhat of a shock to people, especially since earlier in the year they had applied for regularisation of their land under the much-touted Mission Basundhara. The land is officially classified as government land. Following this, the mandal had even visited their village a few months ago to carry out the geo-tagging of their lands. The administration, for its part, invokes the new Land Acquisition Act 2013, under which awards are now being disbursed in order to finalise a land acquisition process that is now nearly four decades old. 

The Number 2 Sildubi Revenue Village, the official name of Borbil, falls under the second edition of the continuously expanding Kaziranga National Park, declared in 1985. It is home to Misings, Adivasis, a smaller number of Assamese households, and also contains agricultural lands belonging to tea garden workers of the neighbouring Hathikuli tea garden. Today, the people of Borbil are outraged. They are demanding patta to the land they claim as theirs. Only after gaining pattas are they willing to speak to the state. They are not interested in accepting any monetary compensation, that is itself only compensation for the values of their homes and agricultural production and not of the land itself. If they are to be moved, they demand, they must be given land-for-land. 

The story of Borbil goes back to the late sixties and early seventies when flood-affected families, particularly from in and around Dhansirimukh, were resettled by the state on these very lands, as narrated by the people. The land itself was said to be part of the Hathikuli tea garden but was handed over to the state as part of ceiling surplus lands for resettlement of flood-affected populations. By 1972, they had begun to settle on the land, and are said to have been given two bundles of tin sheets along with 300 rupees per household to build their homes. They were promised land pattas and asked to carve out their land so that the mandal could measure and register the lands in their names. People even claim their lands were initially entered into the registry and they began paying revenue. However, in 1985, following the formation of the newly-elected Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) government immediately after the signing of the historic Assam Accord, the Mising, Adivasi and Assamese families of Borbil received their first eviction notice as the land had been declared to be added to Kaziranga. They were told their names were not recorded as legitimate landholders and the land now belonged to the Forest Department and was to be treated as part of Kaziranga. 

For four decades now, the people of Borbil have been fighting the threat of eviction. Each time they receive a notice, there is panic among the people, they organise themselves, lobby with state officials, engage in political action and seek the support of civil society organisations. Each time they have received either verbal assurances or political rhetoric about how the indigenous people of Assam will not be rendered landless. This cycle repeats itself once every few years. This time, with the process having moved ahead to fix compensation amounts, eviction seems imminent. 

People have had the receipts of payment of ‘revenue’ since at least the eighties. However, the payment is accepted under the classification of households that are ‘touji bahira’ – outside the registry – and the sum is treated by the state not as revenue but as a fine – ‘bedakhali jurmana’ or ‘bejo’ – for occupying government land. A common practice across the state of Assam, peasants and farmers spend decades on land that continues to be classified as government land, paying bejo, a practice that the state uses to label them as ‘encroachers’. Today, No. 2 Sildubi is a revenue village (it is to be found in both the 2011 Census data as well as on Dharitree, the digital land records management system of Assam) whose entire land is registered as government land, thereby making its 112 households (Census 2011) all ‘encroachers’. The absurdity of such a claim, not to mention its moral decrepitude, is lost on the state that invokes laws and documentary proof selectively to suit its particular needs. While it is the job of the state to routinely regularise landholdings, this principal duty has been almost entirely abandoned for the last sixty years, keeping the large majority of the cultivating population of Assam continuously precarious with respect to their claims and entitlement to the land. 

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Today the people of Borbil once again rise in anger against the arbitrariness of state action. Even though the notice is a part of the Land Acquisition Act, 2013, there is no mention of the Act in the notice, no explanation for the differing values of compensation awarded to different households, nor any elaboration of how this has been calculated. The valuation of assets on/from the land (on which the compensation amount is based) is said to have been done on the basis of a survey carried out in 2016. However, this survey report has neither been mentioned to the people nor has it been shared with them. The historical tendency of the state to see working people as unworthy of explanation, information, transparency and accountability is an old one that is playing itself out once again in the latest instance of forcible eviction of peasants and farmers from their lands. 

Finally, given that Kaziranga has only grown to be lauded as a huge success in terms of conservation and increase of its Rhino population over the last 4-5 decades, while Borbil has stood where it has, the question that needs to be asked is – why is it so important to take away the land of 112 (and more) families that live on and depend on this land? Is it in fact so essential to the ‘protection’ and ‘preservation’ of Kaziranga? Or will Kaziranga flourish alongside the flourishing population of Borbil? If anything, the people of Borbil have fed the animals of Kaziranga and laboured to protect its wildlife and flora. Meanwhile, larger and grander resorts and hotels now dot the highway only a few kilometres ahead. In this scenario, it is important to ask the state – does it need to displace poor and working-class families and strip them of their source of livelihood in order to ‘protect’ Kaziranga? Is it not, in fact, an immoral act at a time when landlessness is already a grave issue in the state, and agrarian populations already lead vulnerable and precarious lives?

The author is assistant professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Guwahati. The opinions expressed in the article are of the author and do not reflect the view of EastMojo.

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