Weeks after an eviction drive in Darrang district’s Dholpur turned violent, leaving two dead, the Assam government Monday carried out a similar drive to clear alleged encroachers from Hojai district’s Lumding Reserve Forest in the presence of heavy security. “It has been peaceful so far, without any resistance,” said Anupam Choudhury, DC, Hojai district.
Last month, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had said that the drive would be carried out in an ‘amicable manner’ and he had been holding discussions with ‘minority leaders’ about it.
Speaking to reporters, Sarma said the drive had been peaceful. He added that encroachers had engaged in illegal felling of trees since 2012, and done ginger cultivation in place. “Every year farming worth 25 crores is done illegally in these forest lands. When we do an eviction, we are asked why we are evicting landless people,” said Sarma.
Lumding Reserve Forest, part of Dhansiri-Lumding Elephant Reserve, is considered an important wildlife habitat in Assam and stretches through the Lanka and Lumding ranges of Nagaon South Forest division. It covers an area of 22,403 hectares.
The eviction — which has been mandated by the Gauhati High Court based on a PIL by former BJP MLA of Hojai Assembly constituency Shiladitya Dev — was carried out by the Forest Department with assistance from the district police and administration.
“It started at 8 am and we demolished 487 homes over 807 hectares of land in the northwestern side of the Lumding Reserve Forest,” said Bankim Sarma, Conservator of Forests, Northern Assam Circle, under which the forest falls. DC Choudhury added that most of the families had left earlier, following at least two weeks of ‘counselling’ by the district police and administration officials.
Seven Forest Department elephants and ten JCB excavators were deployed for the drive. Security was provided by four companies of the Central Reserve Police Force, three companies of the state armed battalion as well as the district police.
After MLA Dev’s petition claiming that there was “huge encroachment spreading over more than 1,000 hectares” as well as “massive deforestation” inside the forest, the court had on September 14 asked the government to file an action taken report with regard to the phase-wise eviction plan submitted by the government. As per the order, the eviction is to be carried out between the months of October 2021 and February 2022.
Sarma said 500 out of the 1,410 hectares earmarked were cleared on Monday. “We should finish by Tuesday. Few groups have asked us for more time but it should happen soon,” he said, adding that the Forest Department would start a massive afforestation drive in the cleared-up land.
When asked about rehabilitation, a district administration official said most of the evicted families had left for their respective native districts. “Many of them had moved here for agriculture. Now they have to apply for rehabilitation in their respective districts. If they are truly landless, they can apply formally in our district. If they are found eligible, we can allot them land but we have not received any application,” he said.
Another official, who did not wish to be named, said that while a few of them had gone away, most had taken refuge by building temporary shelters by the side of the road.
Meanwhile, the All Assam Minorities Students’ Union (AAMSU) staged a sit-in demonstration in New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar on Monday to protest the “arbitrary, selective and illegal” eviction drives carried out by the government in various districts of the state.
In a memo to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the students’ union said: “Such evictions have rendered thousands of Indian citizens homeless, forcing these people to lead a beastly nomadic life.”
“A large section of the religious minority community settled on the banks of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries, ushering an era of the agricultural revolution. However, they also face the wrath of the rivers as hundreds of hectares of land get submerged due to devastating floods and erosion leading to frequent migration to habitable lands,” AAMSU said. It added that the government should carry out proper rehabilitation and provide basic amenities to the displaced families.