The BHRPC thinks there are strong reasons to suspect thebona fide of this drive of forced eviction since there are many a cases whenforest land has been reclaimed from forest dwellers only to be utilized in theinterest of a class of rich businessmen, local mafia and other vestedinterests
THE GOVERNMENT of Assam has sent a 160 member-strongtask force of forest officers to forcibly evict both the ‘encroachers’ and‘other traditional forest dwellers’ living in the reserve forests of Karimganjdistrict. A huge police force from both the state police and the centralreserve police force (CRPF) have been placed at their disposal. The BHRPC isdeeply concerned about the danger of forcible eviction of an estimated 300families of forest dwellers living in Patharia reserve forest for generations.
In the course of a fact-finding study conducted by the BHRPC in Patharia reserve forest that has approximately 7647.300 hectares ofland it was revealed that some businessmen grabbed lands measuringapproximately 130 hectares (330 acres) falling in and around Patharia reserveforest for rubber cultivation allegedly in connivance with the local politicianMinister of state for co-operative and border areas development Mr Siddeque Ahmed.
The land provided the residents of Satkoragul, Mokkergul and Bhitorgulvillages in Nilambazar with the only means of livelihoods and dwelling places.As the rubber planters grabbed their lands the villagers lost their livelihoodsand now living half-starved for months. Although the Minister later denied hisinvolved he maintained that the lands belonged to the land and revenuedepartment and the department has leased the land to a non-governmentorganization called Asalkandi Grameen Bikash Kendra, while the forestdepartment claimed that the lands belong to it. The villagers claim thatalthough the largest part of their land falls in the reserve forest, one partis farag (Zamindari) land and another small part is government khas (unalotted) land.
After the villagers staged several protest demonstrationsand the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) registered a case (NHRC CaseNo. 99/3/10/2012) in the matter on a complaint filed by the BHRPC and thematter was brought to the notice of other authorities including the PrimeMinister, the government of Assam made some moves, most of which are in not inright intent and directions. Two deputy rangers, one assistant ranger and onebeat officer in the forest department were suspended for dereliction in duties.On the other hand, two officials of the revenue department posted at theNilambazar circle office were also suspended for fabricating false leasedocuments showing forest land as land under the revenue department as found byan inquiry conducted by Karimganj sub-divisional magistrate N Shanti Singh.Despite a writ petition is pending before the Gauhati High Court in the matterof claim of the forest department that farag title has no validity and theentire plot of land is forest land, the government has started forcibleeviction even from these disputed parts of land. The task force has beendeployed apparently to recapture the forest land from rubber planters as wellas other ‘encroachers’. The operation has been going on since 3 April inDohalia reserve forest and at any moment they can use force against theinhabitants of Patharia.
When contacted by the BHRPC (on 4 April) the conservatorof forest, southern range, Mr. Abdus Shahid Laskar has confirmed that thegovernment does not recognize the forest rights of the traditional and othertraditional forest dwellers under the Scheduled Tribes and Other TraditionalForest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. He warned that theland-grabbers and the forest dwellers would be dealt with similarly. Bylaunching a misinterpretation of law he categorically asserted that anythingthat has happened after declaring the area as reserve forest in 1920 has novalidity implying that any human settlement made after that year can not beconsidered under the Forest Rights Act in flagrant contradiction to the expressprovisions of clause (o) of section 2 of Act that defines "othertraditional forest dweller" as any member or community who has for atleast three generations prior to the 13th day of December, 2005 primarily residedin and who depend on the forest or forests land for bona fide livelihood needs.He also falsely claimed that there was a public hearing held by the Britishcolonialists in 1920s and they did not find any human habitation within thearea. Nonetheless, the dwellers claim that they have been living there forgenerations spanning more than 75 years.
Moreover, the forcible eviction involves violations of ahost of fundamental rights guaranteed under the constitution of Indiaas well as basic human rights enshrined in the international human rightsinstruments such as right to life with dignity, right to livelihood, right toadequate housing, right to freedom of residence etc. Especially for people whosettled in reserve forests and eke out a livelihood in connection with theirhabitat and environment by cultivation or other professional activities are nowfacing a grave threat to their livelihood, as their access to their foresthabitat will predictably be denied to them, in case of the effectuation of theeviction drive.
The BHRPC thinks there are strong reasons to suspect thebona fide of this drive of forced eviction since there are many a cases whenforest land has been reclaimed from forest dwellers only to be utilized in theinterest of a class of rich businessmen, local mafia and other vestedinterests. Needless to say, such a powerful lobby of interests is also actingbehind this move by the forest department to evict and reclaim the forest landso that they can take over slowly the land recovered. There is no guaranteethat the land that is reclaimed by way of eviction today will remain as forestland tomorrow, once there are no forest dwellers. Such a land could be easilyutilized by vested interests for their own purposes even while keeping the landunder the ownership of the forest department. Reserve forest without dwellersin every part of Assamis getting denuded in the absence of any accountability of the concernedgovernment and its agencies. Two categories of land could be identified incases of reclamation: land with unspoilt forest and land with denuded forest.Patahria forest, being of the first category constitutes an easy allurement forvested interests to work through abuse of legal power of forest department andpolice to deny rights of settlers as per Forest Rights Act. The disused rightsof forest settlers of Patahria wields this cruel promise of reclamation, aprogramme that only marks use of brute force against helpless victim-residentsin Pataharia forest.
The BHRPC has filed a supplementary submission at theNHRC in the case that was registered in this regard urging the commission topass an interim recommendation calling upon the authorities to halt theeviction drive immediately and stop the destruction of vegetables and othercrops grown by the villagers; to take urgent actions to restore immediatelypossession of the land to the villagers and reiterated its earlier demands thatthe villagers should be provided with adequate monetary compensation for lossof property and mental agony caused by destruction of forest and vegetables andcorps grown by them, dispossession of land and threat of imminent danger tolife and limb; the victims and witnesses should be provided with adequatesecurity; a prompt, fair and objective inquiry should be conducted by theCentral Bureau of Investigation particularly into the alleged crimes andinvolvement of the minister therein; the rights of the other traditional forestdwellers under the FRA, 2006 of the villagers who have been living there forgenerations should be recognized; the khas lands that are possessed by thevillagers uninterruptedly for generations and who are otherwise landless shouldbe settled in their names as per government policy; and all other actions andmeasures necessary to ensure full enjoyment of the rights to life with dignityunder adequate standard of living by the villagers should also be taken.