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 the first part, the authors explained the background, the issues, and the stories of the Laika Dodhia residents. In this part, they explain the origins of the current movement, and the expectations of locals caught between unforgiving weather and an indifferent administration.
On December 30, Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal took note of the situation and constituted a ten-member committee with Environment and Forest Minister, Parimal Suklabadya as its Chairperson and Revenue and Disaster Management Minister, Jogen Mohan and Principal Secretary (Forests) as its member secretary. The other members of the committee are Lakhimpur Member of Parliament, Pradan Baruah, Chabua Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA), Binod Hazarika, Dhemaji MLA Ranuj Pegu, Commissioner and Secretary Revenue and Disaster Management, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Deputy Commissioner Tinsukia and Lakhimpur.
Ranuj Pegu, MLA from Dhemaji district and also a senior leader from the Mising community told EastMojo that the Assam government had fixed alternative sites for Tinsukia and Lakhimpur districts. “After the deliberations, we have decided that the community will be given land in Paharpur near Ledo, Namphai in Jagun, Mamorani near Kakopathar, Saleki near Ledo and Poba area in Lakhimpur,” said Pegu adding that Assam government will resettle the people before January 31.
On January 8, the committee sent a fresh proposal with alternative sites to the State Government. The new proposal seeks to divert 135 hectares of forest land for the Dodhia residents at Adhkhona-Adielani area under Lakhimpur Forest Division which is connected to Poba Wildlife Sanctuary, 166 hectares of Paharpur reserve forest and 72 hectares land from Namphai reserve forest under Digboi forest division for Laika. According to Digboi Divisional Forest Officer, Ranjit Dutta, both the areas under his division are degraded forests. “These areas have been encroached by tea gardens and illegal coal mines. While we have completely stopped the illegal coal mining in these areas, we will start the process of surveying the tea gardens and issue eviction notices after we get a clearance from the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change,” Dutta told EastMojo. The forest official added the entire process may take around 10 to 15 days. “The state government is willing to give an in-principle clearance to the forest land diversion. The proposal will then be forwarded to the Forest Advisory Committee. Since these areas are degraded forests, we are hoping that these proposals will be cleared soon,” added Dutta.
The proposal, however, has not found any support from a large section of Laika and Dodhia residents. Between January 6 and 7, representatives of TMPK accompanied by Laika-Dodhia residents and forest officials surveyed the proposed locations for the resettlement of these villages. After forest officials sent the proposal to the government, TMPK, in a letter to the Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal stated that Namphai under Digboi division and Adhkhona-Adielani in Lakhimpur were not acceptable to the people. “Flood-affected tribal people such as Bodos, Kacharis and Mising communities have already made their home in Namphai. If our people are resettled in the areas, these communities have to be evicted. We oppose any kind of evictions which may lead to conflict between our people and the people who are living in these parts,” said Mintoraj Morang.
On the other hand, Dodhia residents are opposed to their resettlement in Adhkhona-Adielani area in Lakhimpur stating that the area is flood-prone. A letter signed by the gaonburhas (village headmen) along with the TMPK pointed out that the proposed resettlement area in Adhkhona-Adielani is out of the area protected by a government embankment. “We also came to know that some Muslim peasants are already cultivating the area. We do not harbour any communal hatred towards Muslim people. Besides, the area is flood-prone,” Morang added.
Instead of Namphai, TMPK and residents of Laika and Dodhia have asked for land in Tokopani or Tinkupani Reserve Forest which falls in the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve, according to Digboi forest officials. “Tinkupani is suitable for our people as no other communities are present in these areas,” said Morang. Forest officials, however, maintain that Tinkupani is a contiguous dense rainforest attached to Dehing Paktai Wildlife Sanctuary. “The tree density is 0.7 to 0.8 inside Tinkupani reserve forest which falls under ‘very dense’ category of forests as per Forest Survey of India,” added Dutta, the Digboi Divisional Forest Officer. Curiously, several reports indicate that large scale coal mining and illegal timber trade are already underway in Tinkupani.
For Paharpur, the protestors led by TMPK have stated that the entire area belongs to an influential tea planter, Jewel Ali, who had been cultivating tea for the last 40 years in the forest land measuring 1000 Bighas (134 hectares). “If we are to settle in this area, we want the government to free the lands from encroachment completely and provide security to our people,” the TMPK letter to the CM states.
In the latest update, On January 15, a state government committee agreed to a relocation plan. This plan will see the light of day only after the Government of India approves the diversion of degraded forests.
TMPK and all the other protestors from Laika-Dodhia also made a list of the preferred places for relocation in which Paharpur is the least preferred while Ouguri in Lakhipathar and Mamorani in Kakopathar, both under Tinsukia Forest Division are most favourable places. “We demand that 470 hectares in Ouguri and 320 hectares in Mamorani should be given to the residents of Laika-Dodhia followed by Tinkupani and Paharpur under Digboi Forest Division,” stated the letter.
Curiously, Mamorani was one of the areas where the state government had initially identified 320 hectares of degraded forest land in 2018. According to Ajay Doley, TMPK District Vice President, after the forest department identified 320 hectares of degraded forest at Mamorani, the Moran community set up a monastery (Xatra) by allegedly encroaching upon the land. “The forest department evicted the people from the monastery two years ago. When we demanded the land for Laika-Dodhia residents, the Moran community opposed the idea. We are respectful towards our Moran brothers and their beliefs so we also gave up the demand,” said Doley.
According to Doley, they revived the demand since Moran Students’ Union only agreed to the resettlement of people from Laika which falls in Tinsukia district. “They said that the Dodhia people have to go somewhere else which is not acceptable to us,” added Doley. TMPK and other protestors in a bid to accommodate all the oppositions towards their resettlement now say the most agreeable solution would be for Laika residents to settle in Ouguri while Dodhia people move to Tinkupani Reserve Forest under Digboi Division. “Tinkupani is facing degradation due to illicit coal mining and timber logging which is harming the environment badly. Some of the areas within this forest has also been marked for oil exploration. Our people at best can protect the environment with our sustainable agricultural practice,” reiterated Doley.
TMPK and residents of Laika-Dodhia have also demanded that each family moving out of the Dibru Saikhowa National Park should be given five bighas (0.67 hectares) of land. The Forest Department, however, maintains that Dodhia would be given 238 hectares while 135 hectares for Laika residents. “This is a 1950 estimate in which 238 hectares of land was given to Dodhia and 135 hectares were given to Laika. At that time Dodhiya had 90 families while there were 75 families in Laika. Now Dodhia has 908 families while Laika has 572 families. They have to provide five bighas [0.66 hectares] per family,” said Doley.
Here’s how the land would be distributed among residents of Laika and Dodhia if their demands for five bighas per family are accepted. For Dodhia, Assam government has to provide 608 hectares (approximately 4540 bighas) and for Laika about 383 hectares (2860 bigha) of land. At present, according to TMPK, Assam government has only agreed to give 383 hectares for both the villages combined with each family getting a little less than two bighas of land (0.23 to 0.26 hectares) on an average. In 1950, families in Laika owned about 2.31 bigha (0.31 hectare) on an average while each family in Dodhia owned about 4.11 bigha (0.55 hectare) of land on an average.
At present, residents claim that each family in these villages own more than 10 to 12 hectares. But they are slowly losing that land. A recent report by Wildlife Institute of India (WII) on Dibru Saikhowa National Park stated that river courses around the region shift 240 metres on an average. Between 1990 and 2019, Dibru Saikhowa National Park on which clusters of Laika-Dodhia villages lie, 135 square kilometres of land have been eroded away, according to an estimate presented at North East Space Application Centre Meghalaya by researchers of Dibrugarh University who used GIS technology to track fluvial changes along the Brahmaputra basin.
“On one side there is the National Park, on the other side the river is slowly eroding our lands,” says Ananda Padi who moved to Borguri village years ago. Padi’s sister and her husband walked to Leziahula Borguri leaving their homes in Laika. “We do not have any land here. Just some hope that our leaders do not break our promises,” Padi added.
Laika-Dodhia’s case is one of the many symptoms of a larger crisis of homelessness that many vulnerable communities face in Assam. Despite strong legislation such as the Forests Rights Act (FRA) of 2006, in Assam, only a small section of indigenous tribal communities earned their land rights through this act. As more and more areas of the state become flood-prone, would the state government wait for another march by another set of flood-affected people to camp in the cold? As the state goes to the polls this year, Laika Dodhia residents have upped the ante by placing their rights before their lives. “If they do not find us a suitable place to live before January 31, we will find the highest spot inside Dibru Saikhowa and settle there,” Apko Taid, the leader from Laika warned.