On September 19, two people lost their lives in a village inside the Kaziranga National Park in Assam in clashes with the police. Kaziranga has been dogged by encroachment problems ever since it was designated a national park in 1974. On September 19, the Assam government sent bulldozers to evict three encroached villages: Banderdubi, Deucher-chang and Palkowa. Assam’s BJP-led coalition government claims that the police action was a part of its drive to evict encroachers from forestland. But the opposition Congress and AIUDF have accused it of targeting minority villages. The state government has denied the charge, but the language used by some BJP leaders in the aftermath of the firing has not helped its cause. Immediately after the incident, BJP national general secretary Ram Madhav tweeted, “Kaziranga cleared of infiltrators”. Kaziranga’s longstanding problem has acquired a new dimension that threatens to overtake its pressing ecological problems.
On paper, Kaziranga sprawls over 440 sq km. Six additional chunks were to be added to the park that would have doubled its total area. But more than 40 years after it was designated a national park, only about 45 sq km have been added. In this period, the park has become a conservation success. In 1970, Kaziranga had 650 rhinos, today it is home to more than 2,400 one-horned creatures. It is also home to other megaherbivores like the Asian water buffalao, elephants and the sambar deer, which compete for habitat and food. Rhinos stray into areas earmarked as extensions to the park. But human settlements in these areas have militated against extending it. In October 2015, the Guwahati High Court directed the state government to evict all encroachers from Kaziranga, adjoining forestland and animal corridors.
Encroachment is, however, only one of Kaziranga’s problems. A 2009 study by researchers from Delhi University found that less than 10 per cent of the park had short grass on which the rhinos feed — a large area of the park has been overtaken by weeds. Moreover, when the Brahmaputra floods, it chips away a bit of Kaziranga. So the park is a good 30 sq km less than what is on paper. There has been no study, moreover, to determine if the shrinking park can accommodate the growing number of animals. Assam’s BJP government has often made claims to regional pride. It’s time it acts to remedy matters in a park that has become one of its most significant markers.