Decades of government apathy fuelled by vote-bank politics have converted vast swathes of pristine forests in Assam into human colonies, data given by the government in response to an RTI query has revealed.
Close to 4 lakh hectares of forest land has been encroached upon in Assam, including national parks such as the World Heritage Site of Manas, reserve forests, and numerous wildlife sanctuaries.
The data, given in response to an RTI application by Nityananda Kalita, identified as many as 26 out of 33 districts in the northeastern state that have suffered encroachment. The total encroachment adds up to 3,87,885 hectares which is 22 percent out of the total of 17,36,301 hectares of the state's forest cover.
The districts with a high number of households (Goalpara, Nagaon and Kokrajhar) are known to have a high percentage of Bengali-speaking settlers. Approximately 14,000 hectares in three national parks and seven wildlife sanctuaries have also been encroached upon in a chain of developments that had its origin in the early 1990s.
Interestingly, state capital Guwahati (Kamrup Metro), the gateway to the North East has 6,738 hectares of reserved forests under illegal occupation which the government has been unable to evict. Forests in Gotanagar and Garbhanga are the worst affected in the city where concrete structures have also been built over the years as a result of the government’s indifference.
Encroachment of forests is a phenomenon witnessed in several of India's states. A statement in Parliament by the government on 22 December, 2015, said about 19 lakh hectares of forests are under encroachment with Madhya Pradesh topping the list at 27 percent and Assam in second position. However, the figure on Assam tabled in Parliament does not match the RTI reply, with the latter showing about 70,000 hectares more than what was stated as having been encroached.
An official with the Department of Environment and Forest, who chose not to be named said, "The situation in Assam is much more serious but it has remained camouflaged. The numerous government reports like the Forest Survey of India (FSI) do not reveal the actual forest cover in the state. In real terms, there has been a tremendous shrinkage of dense forest cover which is bound to have an adverse ecological impact in the future."
Who are the encroachers?
There is diversity of views on the identity of the illegal settlers in the forests. Activists belonging to the civil society groups campaigning for the identification and expulsion of illegal migrants are hardly in doubt that the encroachers are from Bangladesh.
"There is no need for the original inhabitants of the state to encroach forests except that they would migrate to the cities and try to occupy the forests around them. If you have 80 lakh illegal migrants as admitted by the NDA regime, then they will have to settle somewhere," said Upamanyu Hazarika, convener of Prabrajan Virodhi Manch.
The encroachment of forests in Assam began many decades ago but what began as a trickle was transformed into a wave in the 1990s. Some government officials say every district displays a unique scenario where the communities and the causes of encroachment are different.
"In fact, the illegal settlers are people from all the communities. But the damage has been done everywhere," explained MC Malakar, former principal chief conservator of forests. Malakar carried out several anti-encroachment drives in Barak Valley in the early 1980s until it was halted by the Congress government following protests.
The diverse patterns of encroachment were evident from some areas. In Laokhowa Wildlife Sanctuary, located 150 kilometres east of Guwahati, the settlers are Bengali-speaking Muslims from Bangladesh who settled here in the 1980s, similar to some regions in western Assam. On the other hand, reserve forests in Sonitpur on the north bank of the Brahmaputra have mostly been occupied by Bodos and Adivasis (tea tribes) some of whom were assisted by a former legislator for creating a vote bank.
What is the government plan?
In 1995, the government launched a series of eviction drives in the forests of Sonitpur with more than 600 illegal settlers arrested and hundreds of houses demolished. For two years, the forests in the district were devoid of encroachers but they surfaced in 1997 and were never expelled again.
The same story is evident in other reserved forests and wildlife sanctuaries in Assam, where illegal settlers have also been given voting rights and other facilities. Over the years, their numbers grew and political parties vied with one another to capture their votes. The question of rehabilitation at an alternative spot was forever put on the backburner.
Sonai Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary, for instance, was carved out of Chariduar Reserve Forest in Sonitpur with a total area of 220 square kilometres but only an area of about 90 square kilometres is in existence. Media reports have been highlighting the activities of the timber mafia in systematically wiping out large tracts in the region in collusion with government officials.
Officials described the eviction operations by the government as "knee-jerk reactions" without any long-term plan. "It is only natural that the settlers would produce all legal documents, go to court and get a stay-order on the eviction. The matter invariably ends there never to be taken up again," they said.
The most recent example comes from the Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary in Guwahati where an operation began last year to remove encroachments following an order from Gauhati High Court. About 700 families, most of whom hailed from the Mising community, were evicted but the drive was stopped on the third day following protests. Former state forest and environment minister Pramila Rani Brahma blamed the previous Congress government for turning a blind eye to the encroachment which had been on since after Amchang was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 2004.
With no plans either to rehabilitate the illegal settlers or streamline the administration of forests, the possibility of more areas being occupied cannot be ruled out. Officials said that a large chunk of people in the forests are families who have lost their homes due to riverbank erosion which is also continuing at a frenetic pace at many places in Assam.
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Updated Date: Jul 10, 2018 21:21:20 IST