Encroachment of land designated as “government lands”, “reserve forests” or “grazing lands” and the eviction of “encroachers” have long been a staple of politics in Assam. The recent evictions in Sipajhar are in line with this history, but they also stand strikingly apart in significant ways.
Encroachments and evictions are not unique to Assam. But they are more common and widespread — and they span the urban-rural divide — because of certain peculiarities of the region’s physical landscape and political and demographic history.
Assam regularly loses large swathes of land to riverbank erosion. Unlike the annual floods that attract significant media attention — though yielding little by way of a long-term flood hazard management strategy — riverbank erosion is less dramatic, and it barely makes news. Significant numbers of people are regularly displaced and dispossessed by riverbank erosion. An article by an IAS officer, Aranyak Saikia, that draws on his experience as assistant commissioner of a flood-prone district in Assam is quite telling (‘Not just floods, Assam needs an urgent, long-term strategy on erosion’, IE, September 12, 2021). Riverbank erosion uproots people from their land — their most important asset — forcing them to relocate. Some of the displaced, he observes, seek refuge in government lands, protected forests, or wildlife sanctuaries. “While undocumented migration has been a historical problem in Assam,” writes Saikia, “today a large fraction of the encroachments are also by families, uprooted by erosion”.
For more than a century Assam and Northeast India have been a settlement frontier attracting massive immigration from the rest of the subcontinent. While the colonial government that pictured Assam as a wasteland initially encouraged immigration and settlement by peasants from deltaic eastern Bengal to raise revenue, it also introduced the line system demarcating areas where immigrants could settle. But the colonial state found it difficult to defend the no-occupation areas against the pressure of immigration and many forest reserves, grazing reserves and tribal belts had to be de-reserved. The state, in effect, accepted its failure to prevent settlement in those spaces. This process has continued in old and new forms since decolonisation.
In recent decades, internal factors such as riverbank erosion and development-induced displacement — not immigration — have been the primary sources of demographic pressure on public lands. For example, Assam’s present capital complex in Dispur was built in the 1970s after the “de-tribalisation” of land belonging to a tribal belt. Like those displaced by riverbank erosion, those displaced by development too find their way into government lands and reserve forests, turning these land-use designations into little more than legal fictions.
It is hardly surprising that while officials like to present the eviction of encroachments in the apparently neutral language of the law, it has been an intensely political subject.
Evictions became an explosive political issue in the 1980s. One of the demands of the Assam movement (1979-85) was the eviction of non-tribals from the tribal belts. The All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) were behind this demand. One of the clauses of the Assam Accord stipulated the prevention of encroachment and the eviction of unauthorised encroachers from public lands and tribal belts and blocks. But when the first Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) government tried to implement this clause, it quickly learned that the “unauthorised encroachers” are a motley group of people that included many Bodos and other tribals as well.
It was a costly political mistake for the AGP. It was the single major factor that alienated the Bodos from the ethnic Assamese political society and radicalised the Bodo movement. From a movement focused on Bodo culture and the deprivation of educational and employment opportunities, the focus of the Bodo movement changed to the demand for a separate state, captured by the slogan, “Divide Assam 50-50”.
Assam has come a long way since then. The current state government of Assam does not take any political chances. Evictable encroached areas are carefully identified and targeted for development projects, which apparently involves foreknowledge of the alleged encroachers to be evicted. Their religious and ethnic affiliations appear to feature in the design of the project. The development project is fast-tracked to start immediately after the physical eviction is completed by the police, bulldozers, and elephants.
In her budget speech to the state Assembly in July, Finance Minister Ajanta Neog spoke of an “experiment” to “remove encroachers from more than 77,420 bighas of land” in the Garukhuti area of Sipajhar. A committee of legislators was formed “to lead the agricultural initiatives for development of agriculture and allied activities”. The project’s goal, she claimed, was to provide livelihood opportunities to the area’s “indigenous youth”.
The so-called experiment was fast-tracked in an unparalleled manner. The state government had already identified a group of farmers to form part of a Multipurpose Agricultural Producer Organisation. There was no explanation for why none of the alleged encroachers could be included among the project’s potential beneficiaries.
The government, she said, had already deployed an advance party of the Indian Army’s 134 battalion of the Ecological Task Force (ETF) to undertake “massive afforestation activities” in the evicted area; and a veterinary expert team from Gujarat was already in place to oversee a pilot project for the introduction of the Gir cow to the area.
The local media reported that the committee of legislators overseeing the project had “camped in the Gorukhuti area to monitor the eviction drive”. On the day of the eviction, the committee chairman said it had engaged 22 tractors to till the land.
Development has been aptly called “a concept of monumental emptiness” since it can mean just about anything. Therefore critical scholars of development have long argued that it is crucial to ask, “what development does, who does it, and whom it actually benefits”. It is hard to think of a better case to illustrate this argument than Assam’s new “experiment” with eviction for development.
This column first appeared in the print edition on October 8, 2021 under the title ‘Eviction and development’. The writer is Professor of Political Studies at Bard College, New York.