The much-hyped eviction drive at the wildlife sanctuary near Guwahati in Assam in 2017 has also raised a million-dollar question on the definition of ‘indigenous people’
Guwahati: Call it a political game plan or the failure of the state government to assess the “rehabilitation and relief measures admissible to the indigenous families of Assam recently evicted from Amchang” about two years ago, thousands of people living around the wildlife sanctuary near Guwahati in Assam are still passing sleepless nights under the open sky.
The much-hyped eviction drive at Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary in November 2017 has also raised a million-dollar question on the definition of “indigenous people”. It has been broadly alleged that people having electricity connections, election identity cards, government identity documents, land rights and land revenue documents, among other “accepted” papers, have had to bear the brunt of government apathy. Some of these residents had also reportedly contested in the recent panchayat elections in state.
On February 13 this year, the Supreme Court of India ordered and asked all the state governments what steps they had taken to evict encroachers of forest land, implying that encroachers ought to be evicted from forests by July this year.
After the eviction order was issued by the Supreme Court, Assam health and finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had tweeted, “Assam is going to file a review petition without any delay. We all are committed to protect and preserve identity and rights of our tribal brothers and sisters.” It is estimated that in Assam, 27,534 forest dwellers face eviction and they would not be able to get any compensation of rehabilitation package.
The SC order triggered protests from forest rights groups across the country, who contended that wildlife conservation cannot overcome natural justice goals. At the same time, some wildlife conservationists – especially those who had filed the original petition – said that the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006 has caused forests to become fragmented, and said some people had filed bogus claims to forest land.
After widespread criticism and a petition by the Central government, the Supreme Court temporarily stayed its order on February 28 this year.
However, this was not after villagers living on the fringe areas of forests in Assam, along with other states, lived in a state of panic following the Supreme Court order. The affidavit filed by the Assam government in Supreme Court said that 22,398 claims out of 74,364 filed by Scheduled Tribe communities were rejected while 5,136 claims of the 19,966 claims made by other traditional forest dwellers were not accepted.
The story so far
The BJP-led government in Assam started an eviction drive in Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary, Kaziranga National Park, Garbhanga Reserved Forest and Dibru-Saikhowa National Park since 2016 with an order from the Gauhati High Court. Those eviction drives had to be stalled due to public protests and litigation by some organisations.
In Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary, about 10 sq km of 78.64 sq km area, is allegedly under encroachment by an estimated 864 families. The Assam government, acting on a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) by an environmental organisation, Early Birds, carried out eviction drives around Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary in Kamrup district since August 25, 2017.
On November 27, 2017, the state government carried out a massive eviction drive as per the Gauhati High Court order in the area declared an eco-sensitive zone (ECZ) by the Union ministry of environment, forests and climate change around the wildlife sanctuary. Such was the brutality of the eviction that it became national news with all media houses giving extensive coverage to it. There was a massive outrage against the eviction. Takam Mising Porin Kébang (TMPK), a students’ organisation of the indigenous Mising community that works as an activist group demanding rehabilitation rights for the people, issued a press release soon after the eviction, condemning the Amchang eviction.
It said, “We condemned the merciless eviction drive on the indigenous people in Guwahati without looking at the humanitarian angle.”
Over the past few decades, a number of villages have mushroomed in the disputed periphery of the Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary, which prior to 2004, were three reserved forests. Almost all the residents of Yusuf Nagar on the ‘outskirts’ of Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary are Muslims with a few handful families belonging to other communities such as Hindu Bengalis and tribal people belonging to the Mising community.
“The Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary was notified in 2004 by the Assam government. Although demarcation of the forest was stated officially, on ground, the periphery of the forest was not clarified properly,” said Abdul Hakim, a villager of Yusuf Nagar.
Abdul Halim, another villager of Yusuf Nagar, explained, “Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary is divided into two blocks -- Block-I and Block-II. Complications arose during the demarcation of Block-I when the officers found that the reference point mentioned in the notification of 2004, from which the survey was to start, had disappeared and they decided to use 50-year-old map from 1967–68 to identify a new reference point.”
During the entire survey, villagers were allegedly kept in the dark. Explaining further about the eviction, Abdul said, “We knew nothing about the PIL or what the survey was about. These villages existed for decades. Some were tribal villages, some had Muslims, some housed the Assamese-speaking and some consisted of all. Many of these villagers had settled here after migrating from flood and erosion affected regions of the state. In due course of time, we had come to be identified as the residents of these villages and had been provided electricity connections, election identity cards and other government identity documents.”
Interestingly, many villagers from Yusuf Nagar were also in possession of land rights and were paying land revenue. Even some of them had contested in the last Panchayat elections in the state.
Monoruddin Miya (84), who faced eviction and continue to stay at the same place in Yusuf Nagar, said, “Our forefathers had been living here since prior to India’s Independence, whereas some others had been displaced by recurrent floods in districts of upper Assam (Lakhimpur and Dhemaji) and Barak Valley (Karimganj and Hailakandi ). Now, I have been marked as an illegal encroacher of a forested area, this is the saddest part of the state. The Assam government treats its own people as illegal inhabitants of the state. There is no difference between the current and previous ruling party. We are living as refugees in our own land.”
He asserted further, “On August 25, 2017 when the eviction took place, very few people could recover their belongings, we lost everything. Police came to our village without any notice and vandalised our houses.”
Since late 2017, all families living near Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary have been sleeping under the open sky. Children have been the worst affected due to this eviction process. Electricity connection has been cut off. The Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) centre has also stopped its operations. Many students continue to study under candlelight conditions at night.
A villager of Yusuf Nagar, who wished to be anonymous, has questioned, “Why the industrial units in this area have not been touched yet?” He claimed, “The Assam government granted huge forest lands across the state, including elephant corridors to corporate. And these evictions are carried out to compensate those lands.” Meanwhile on November 29, 2017, forest officials, led by police force, carried out demolition of a unit of SM Cement Industries on the outskirts of Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary.”
The draft notification submitted by the Assam government to the Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEF), which published in The Gazette of India on June 7, 2017, clearly mentioned that there are 37 revenue villages falling within the ECZ of Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary but still no attempt was reportedly made to resort to a rehabilitation plan for these villagers.
The villages named in the notification are Kamarkuchi Gaon, Jhor Gaon, Sagoli Gaon, Patorkuchi, Hatimura, Jagdalgram, Medhikuchi Gram, Goria Guli Gram, Ghanashyam Basti, Botaghuli (Yusuf Nagar), Jharna Basti, Ghuli Gaon, Haldhibari Gram, Hastinapur, Nazirakhat, Botakuchi Gram, Belguri Basti, Kolitakuchi Basti, Taltol Nepali Basti, Imli Basti, Sat Gaon, Sattol Basti, Khanapara (N.K. Basti), Madhan Nagar, Nabajyoti Nagar, Aamgaon Tatibagan, Barikuchi Gram, Thakurkuchi Gram, Hazambori Gram, Hatisila Pahar, Ekora Basti, Lahapara (Panikhaiti), Panikhaiti Railway Gate, Panbari Gram, Garo Basti RojaKuchi, Beerkuchi No.2, and Gandhi Nagar (Panikhati).
Victims of fate?
Peasant leader Akhil Gogoi-led Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), which has been opposing these drive since 2017, also expressed its opposition to the government’s move. Gogoi claimed, “The whole eviction process was corrupt and there is a nexus between the corporate houses and the government in the state.”
People living in flood-affected districts of Assam continue to lose most of their land due to constant floods, forcing the affected people to look for alternate living spaces. “The land, allegedly encroached by villagers, belongs to the people for decades and the areas fall under revenue villages. The government should exclude these villages from the map and demolish new industries around the wildlife sanctuary. Unfortunately, the government is doing the opposite thing. It proves the nexus,” Gogoi added.
A report published on October 4, 2018 in an Assamese newspaper, Amar Asom, claimed that the state forest department “intentionally demolished settlements at Yusuf Nagar to safeguard illegal constructions of two cement factories located adjacent to the Amchang Wildlife sanctuary.”
On the basis of a state government’s submission, the Gauhati High Court suspended the eviction drives on December 1, 2017 for two months to give time to the state government “to work out a rehabilitation plan and compensation package for evicted people”. These flood-affected landless people were applicable for a rehabilitation package under the Assam Special Scheme for Rehabilitation of Erosion Affected Families but they were left homeless for past 19 months without any compensation.
Samar Bezbaruah, convenor of Assam Sangrami Mancha, claimed that these eviction drives were deliberate and planned to marginalise Assamese people. “The state land revenue department has allotted lands to corporate outside Guwahati metropolitan area (Sonapur) since 2014. Along with revenue lands, they also allotted forest lands for industries. Now, they manipulated the forest map to compensate those lands,” Samar said.
He further explained, “Assam government is still following the 18th-century British land grabbing policies. Nowadays, influential personalities like Ramdev get land for business but Assamese people are getting landless day by day. We urge the government to publish a fresh map of Amchang in consultation with all stakeholders.”
Who are indigenous families?
On January 2, 2018, the government issued a notification constituting a committee. In the notification, it mentioned that the purpose of the committee was to assess the “rehabilitation and relief measures admissible to the indigenous families of Assam recently evicted from Amchang” and members were instructed to submit the report within 15 days. Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), an association of lawyers and activists dedicated to provide pro bono legal aid to marginalised community across India, expressed its dissatisfaction about the word “indigenous”. They questioned, “Who are these indigenous families?”
It is unclear and unlikely that any official document clarifies who the indigenous families of Assam are and what about those who are not indigenous but simply citizens of the country? “Ascertaining indigenousness in the context of Amchang will mean people are going to be discriminated on the basis of their place of birth, and covertly, their religion. Such discrimination is clearly prohibited by Article 14 and 15 of the Constitution of India. In the case of Amchang, there appears no reasonability to justify such discrimination. Moreover, Article 19(e) grants all citizens a fundamental right to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India,” HRLN asserted.
Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary is a treat for nature lovers. One can see some of the rare species of animals and birds. These include mammals such as Chinese pangolin, flying fox, slow loris, Assamese macaque, rhesus macaque, capped langur, hoolock gibbon, jungle cat, leopard cat, leopard, elephant, wild pig, sambar, barking deer, gaur and porcupine, etc. Bird species found here include lesser adjutant, greater adjutant, white-backed vulture, slender-billed vulture, khaleej pheasant green imperial pigeon and lesser pied hornbill, among others.
(Tanmoy Bhaduri is a Kolkata-based independent photojournalist who focuses on social, cultural and environmental issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)