Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Expansion of national park in Assam uproots 3000 predominantly Muslim families

A child carries a tin sheet, removed from the roof of his uncle’s home from Nabur Char. Photo: Mahibul Hoque/Maktoob

Ajiran, who goes by her first name, sat on the bank of the Dhansiri river near the confluence point with the Brahmaputra with her children oblivious about their future.

Her family of eight members uprooted their home from Kasem char in Assam‘s Darrang district as the forest authorities started the removal of “encroachment” from 11 char areas of the district as part of the annexation of 21,000 bighas (A local unit of measurement: I bigha = 0.619 acre) of land into Orang National Park.

“Now that we had to give up our land and home for the forest, I am not sure how long I will be able to have children with me”, said the 42-year-old woman as she fought to hold back her tears under the scorching sun on the river bank.

At the bank of Dhansiri River, authorities have set up a camp for 1200 men-strong force and additional two companies of CRPF personnel standby to carry out the eviction of a total of nine chars which fall under Morigaon district.

Ajiran sits on the bank of Dhansiri river after she had remove her house during the eviction drive. Photo: Mahibul Hoque/Maktoob

30 May 2023, marked the fourth day of removing “encroached squatters” following the three days of eviction drive in Sonitpur district where nine char — riverine area — were “freed from encroachment”, according to forest officials.

Eviction for wildlife protection

The latest eviction drive is being carried out as part of the second addition to Orang National Park to around 1300 acres of land to create wildlife habitat and provide an animal corridor to connect with Kaziranga National Park.

Overseeing the ongoing eviction drive in Darrang district Pradipta Baruah said that from Sonitpur and Darrang districts 11,000 bighas and 10,000 bighas of encroached land would be freed from encroachment. 

Despite the fact that around 3,000 families had been living in these char areas, Baruah opined, “There are no revenue villages hence the settlements are actually encroachment into public land”.

Commenting on the situation at the eviction sites, IGP B K Bhuyan said, “After receiving notifications and verbal communication, the char dwellers removed their belongings without any claim to these lands and moved on their own peacefully without any resistance”.

Orang National Park spreads over 89 sq. km area and the second addition to the national park, a major tiger reserve area, was announced in 2022 by the state government.

‘Were able to put food in plates, now we may face starvation’

While authorities claimed that around 3000 families would be affected due to the eviction drive, the locals, who are predominantly Muslim peasants, said that more than 20000 people are being removed from their homes and hearths.

Like Ajiran, 22-year-old Chandra Bhanu appeared disdainful at the Assam government’s decision to remove her home. The mother of twins and pregnant, Bhanu, from Homur Char, was perplexed about her children’s future.

“My family used to cultivate around seven bighas of land and we had enough to feed ourselves through our own produce. I could feed my children three meals on time. But now I don’t what will happen. Without anything left, I may have to go without food in the coming days”, the woman sorrowfully expressed.

Every evicted person who had to demolish their homes has similar stories of losing their livelihood. As the day approached when government officials finally descended at the parched and almost inaccessible char areas to remove the settlers, 33-year-old Mutaleb had to pack his jute stem made and bamboo cane walls of his house and leave Kaurakaki char in a bid to find shelter at nearby Shyampur village.

Mutaleb loaded concrete polls, removed from his house, in a pickup van to go to a nearby village seeking shelter from relatives. Photo: Mahibul Hoque/Maktoob

“Though I did not receive any notice, it was clear that I will have to leave the land I used to cultivate. We used to grow paddy, jute, corn, cabbage and other vegetables and lead a satisfactory life even though we are poor. At the most, I may be able to find a space to set up our house, but I have no option other than becoming a labourer, either here or in any other state”, Mutaleb said, suggesting that he would have to become a migrant labourer.

Who are ‘encroachers’

In Assam, like annual floods, erosion is a perennial issue that displaces a huge number of populations. The state has lost more than 4.27 lakh hectares of land, which is around 8 percent of the total area, and has been swept away by the Brahmaputra, Barak and its tributaries since 1950.

According to the state disaster management authority data in 2006, the annual rate of erosion in the state is more than 8000 hectares.

Along the Brahmaputra River, districts like Morigaon, Darrang, Nagaon, Dibrugarh, etc. face massive erosion every year.

Due to such erosion, Abdul Salam lost his home at Kashikuri village in Morigaon district when he was a child. The 53-year-old person was forced to cross the river to find shelter as well as livelihood in the Darrang district. 

“For the last 35 years, I have been living in this place and cultivating the land to sustain my family”, Salam said.

Salam has eight members in his family and was cultivating around 20 bighas of land where he was growing perishable vegetables before he had to leave his house. Being one of the elders in the area, he said that most of the people settled in the chars are displaced by erosion over the years.

Corroborating Salam, Faij Uddin, who is in his early sixties, from Nabur Char shared that he had to move to the area around 30 years ago from Dhunkura village in Morigaon district.

“Now that I had to leave behind all the I used to cultivate to sustain the family of 24 members, I am putting my faith in Allah to find us a way”, Faij said adding, “I get Rs 1000 from the government for (old age) pension, to support the family for now. But that money is not enough to feed everyone. My son has to migrate to another state and find work there so that we can have something to eat.”

In the char areas where the eviction drive is being carried out, most of the people are actually displaced by erosion. Johur Uddin, who also settled at Nabur Char said the displacement due to the addition to Orang National Park has robbed him of his farmland.

Muslim peasants ferrying their belongings from char areas as the authorities have ordered to remove their shanties in Darrang district. Photo: Mahibul Hoque/Maktoob

“After my father moved to this char from Morigaon district following erosion about 30 years ago, we settled here and grew up here. But now I don’t know what will I be doing, where will I be putting up my house again”, Johur said while sitting under the shade of one of the jute-stem-made walls of his shanty, indicating that he was not sure where to move from the confluence near his place, which he once called his home.

Though people were removing their shanties without resistance due to fear of losing their lives, the discontent was vivid. The Muslim peasants resented that erosion was the reason to settle at the riverine sandbars, known as chars in Assam, but the government’s move to displace them added to their owes further.

However, Darrang DFO Pradipta Baruah said that the landless people should submit an appeal to their respective deputy commissioner seeking land to settle down as per the state laws. 

Since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) assumed power in Assam in 2016 for the first time and in 2021 again, the successive Sarbananda Sonowal and Himanta Biswa Sarma governments have extensively carried out evictions displacing thousands of people of whom Muslim peasants make up the lion’s share.

Mahibul Hoque is a freelance journalist from Assam. He is a recipient of Maktoob Human Rights Fellowship 2023

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