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Struggle to save Guwahati hills and wetlands

Protecting Guwahati’s numerous hills and wetlands from encroachers has once again emerged a tricky problem for the Assam government.

Written by Samudra Gupta Kashyap | Guwahati |
June 29, 2011 1:52:21 am

Protecting Guwahati’s numerous hills and wetlands from encroachers has once again emerged a tricky problem for the Assam government.

There has been large-scale encroachment on the 19 hills in and around the city,all of which are supposed to reserved forests,and on the rivers Bharalu,Bahini and Mora-Bharalu. Add to this pressure on half-a-dozen wetlands including Deepor Beel,a Ramsar site,whose area has shrunk from about 41 sq km to just about 10 sq km in less than two decades.

“The government would definitely want to free the hills and the wetlands so that the city becomes liveable and beautiful,” said Forest Minister Rockybul Hussain.

According to official estimates,the number of encroachers is between 3 and 4 lakh. The government had launched a massive eviction drive earlier this month but was compelled to suspend it temporarily in the wake of protests. A demonstration last week turned into a clash with the police just about 400 metres from Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi’s office,leading to the death of three persons including a nine-year old boy.

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The government has the eviction drive in the hills on hold but also announced there would be no sparing of encroachment on wetlands. “The eviction drive in the hills has been suspended for now but the government will not compromise when it comes to freeing wetlands from encroachment,” government spokesman and minister Himanta Biswa Sharma said.

Two laws are in place but neither the Assam Hill Land and Ecological Sites (Protection and Management) Act of 2006 and the Guwahati Waterbodies (Preservation and Conservation) Act of 2008 has made much impact. The 2006 Act blames destruction of hill land for heavy erosion,landslides and soil movement with rainwater; landslides on the Guwahati hills alone have claimed over 100 lives in about a decade. Both Acts express concern about the shrinking size of waterbodies; the 2008 one says this has been caused by encroachment and has aggravated the problem of artificial floods.

Historian Kumudeswar Hazarika links the problem to the reorgainsation of the Northeastern region during Indira Gandhi’s regime. “This led to the creation of Meghalaya that in turn prompted overnight shifting of Assam’s capital from Shillong to here,” he said.

Since then,as the city’s growth has been unplanned and haphazard. “Guwahati has long ago exceeded its population-carrying capacity,” said Amiya Kumar Das,veteran architect and town planner.

The government has said it won’t evict those who had settled for more than 15 years but will give them land rights. “The government is always sympathetic to the cause of poor and landless people. We have decided to form a committee to look into the grievances of the aggrieved people,” the Chief Minister has said. He has promised a land policy for the entire state.

The government will meet leaders of the aggrieved people; while a Chief Secretary-level meeting too has been also for July 21. By then,the monsoon will have arrived,and Guwahati will have to bear with flash floods,waterlogging and landslides.

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