The struggles of residents of Laika Dodhia are a familiar sight in a state where indigenous people continue to struggle to claim what has always been theirs. Despite having been promised rehabilitation nearly two decades ago, they have been left to fend for themselves in the harshest weather conditions. Anupam Chakravartty and Noihrit Gogoi document the struggles, tribulations, and disappointments of the people who merely want what they have always been promised. In this two-part series, Chakravartty and Gogoi tell us how the fight between conservation and rehabilitation has always affected the most marginalised communities. In this first part, the authors explain the background, the issues, and the stories of the Laika Dodhia residents. In the second part, they explain the current movement, and the expectations of locals caught between unforgiving weather and an indifferent administration.
Tinsukia: Indira Mili, 55, a resident of Laika village, spent the annual harvest festival, Magh Bihu, in a Tinsukia hospital. Along with 700-odd people, Mili, and her family from Laika and Dodhia, the two clusters of forest villages inside Dibru Saikhowa National Park, left their homes on the morning of December 21. Braving the winter chill, the people crossed Dangori, a tributary of the Brahmaputra on country boats and walked 22 kilometres to the nearest town, Tinsukia. People from these villages allege that the Assam government backtracked its promise to resettle them, even as a state-appointed committee claims that it is scrounging for places to settle around 12,000 people living in these clusters. Their plight has brought back the much-needed debate around flood-affected communities and questions over land ownership.
After reaching Tinsukia, the Laika and Dodhia residents took out a procession demanding their land rights outside the Deputy Commissioner’s office. By December 21 evening, almost 2,000 people, mostly from the Mising community along with Adivasi (tea tribe) residents reached Lezaihola Borguri village situated close to the Tinsukia district courts and set up camp.
Women stand as guards to regulate people’s entry into the camp, even as the cold weather takes a toll on their health. The camp, which continues to grow with more people joining the protest, witnessed three deaths: Kusmita Morang (24) died after suffering a miscarriage, while Rebati Pawo (50) succumbed to the severe cold in the campsite after staying for a week in the camp. Boleshwar Dang, 68, from Charisuti Dodhia village, succumbed to extreme cold on January 14. In the last three weeks, four women from the campsite have been hospitalised, including a three-year-old girl.
Indira Mili’s daughter, Bina (name changed on request), was worried when doctors told her that her mother is recovering slowly. Between the hospital and the makeshift camp that houses more than 2,000 people from these forest villages, Bina wishes they find their new home soon.
Bina is not the only one to feel this way in the camp. “This unsettling feeling is not new. Even since the state government declared Dibru Saikhowa Wildlife Sanctuary as a National Park in 1999, the authorities forced us to think that our villages and our homes are somewhere else. Sadly, even after a written agreement to resettle our community, the Assam government did not fulfil the promise,” says Apko Taid, a resident of Laika Village who is also a part of Takam Mising Porin Kébang (TMPK), a Mising students’ organisation.
Taid and several others protesting at the camp say that in 2020, former Tinsukia Deputy Commissioner Bhaskar Pegu held several rounds of discussion with Laika-Dodhia residents. “We were certain that 320 hectares of land would be given to us at Ouguri in Lakhipathar area of Tinsukia. Our people had also visited the area. Suddenly, we learned from the local forest officials that Ouguri land was not available since 8,000 trees will be cut. We did not ask for Ouguri initially. The state government suggested the area and then took a U-turn,” Taid recounts.
According to Minturaj Morang, the Vice President of the Tinsukia district chapter of TMPK, this sudden shift of the government’s stance triggered a spontaneous movement. Morang and several others ascribe this change of stance to the Morans, one of the most important tribal communities in the Tinsukia district. “The Moran students’ union opposed our resettlement. We think that the entire issue of tree felling is a ruse because the Moran community had been opposing our resettlement in these areas,” alleges Morang. Tinsukia forest officials, however, refute the allegations levelled by TMPK. They say the area is frequented by elephants which would have disturbed their settlements. Morang, however, maintains that the area is already a degraded forest land.
Children of the river
Laika and Dodhia village clusters are situated at the birthplace of the Brahmaputra in Dibru Saikhowa National Park, where nine rivers converge carrying huge volumes of water from the Himalayas and rainforests of Patkai Hills. The Brahmaputra assumes a gigantic form in this region to continue the journey westwards through the rest of Assam. While Laika consists of Pomua, Rigbi, and Pasidiya villages, Dodhia has several small hamlets, but the prominent ones are Dodhia Mohmora, Dodhia Kuligaon, Dodhia Charisuti, and Dodhia Tengabari.
The history of these settlements is closely tied to the geological history of Assam. The major tremor of the 1950s altered the course of the Brahmaputra in which vast swathes of land subsided leading to flash floods. Originally hailing from the foothills of Dhemaji and Lakhimpur districts, the first five Mising families settled in Dibru Saikhowa in 1943. “However, there was mass exodus after the big earthquake,” says Taid, who adds that four generations thrived in the National Park battling floods and wilderness.
Although remote, Laika-Dodhia faced the brunt of the anti-insurgency operations by Indian Army in 2005. According to Niranta Gohain, an environmental activist based in Natun Rongagora near Guijan on the bank opposite Dibru Saikhowa National Park, the Indian Army conducted several operations and committed human rights atrocities on the community while searching for ULFA rebels. Armed forces have withdrawn from these areas, but floods and conflict between the forest department and Laika-Dodhia residents have intensified over the years.
Dibang, Lohit, and Siang, the three tributaries of Brahmaputra along with smaller rivers such as Dangori and Dibru, wreak havoc during the monsoons. Although the Mising community is known for their adaptability to floods in Assam, Taid and several other residents say that they have had to increase the heights of stilts which support their abodes. “The floodwater keeps increasing every year. We keep losing the land as we have been pushed by the National Park to stay close to the rivers,” Taid says. The Laika resident says that every year, 130-140 families are uprooted by floods. “Many don’t return. Who can stay when you have a river taking away your land and forest department pushing into the river?” asks Taid.
Several families have moved to other Mising dominated villages or Borguri Lezaihula or Guijan 5 rehabilitation colonies which barely receive any government support. Incidentally, both the clusters of villages inside the National Park fall under Bindhakata Gram Panchayat which are in Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal’s constituency.
Niranta Gohain says the numbers of families in rehabilitation camps goes up during monsoons. “During floods, the situation in these camps is pathetic. Although relief is available, there is no rehabilitation for these families living next to the National Park,” says Gohain.
Bereft of the amenities, tired of cycles of floods, families from Laika-Dodhia keep attempting to move to higher ground in Tinsukia. During the peak of the flood season in July 2017, 1,200 people reached Tarani Reserve Forest in the Tinsukia district and camped next to a school. Close to 700 people entered the forest with pickaxes and tarpaulin to set up their homes. “That ended up with the then Forest Minister Pramila Rani Brahma agreeing to find land and let us settle,” says Taid. On other occasions, several families had been chased out with people calling them names, the residents.
Manoranjan Pegu, the South Asia Regional Coordinator of the Trade Union Solidarity Centre of Finland (SASK), who has been writing on various issues faced by the Mising community, opines that the problem faced by the tribals in Dibru-Saikhowa and Kaziranga must be seen in the larger context of the crisis of the indigenous inhabitants of Assam. “Tribal belts and blocks were created to safeguard the interest of the tribal population after independence through the adoption of the Assam Land and Revenue (Regulation) Act, 1886. This has met with failure due to non-implementation. Violent conflict has flared up in various parts of Assam due to competition for land resources over the last few decades. The people of Dibru-Saikhowa National Park who are trying to settle on higher ground in forest areas close to other settled villages seem to have been pushed into even deeper marginality by local groups. This reflects the atmosphere of mistrust and the lack of a humanitarian outlook among the communities of Assam,” he wrote in an article along with Bhaskar Pegu, a research scholar from IIT- Guwahati, published in the Economic and Political Weekly highlighting the issues of Laika and Dodhia residents.
They have been desperate for resettlement, and that is where the origins of the present movement lie. Part two of the series will discuss the same.