Assam: How hundreds were rendered homeless in Amchang
Human Rights Law Network recently prepared a representation filed before the Deputy Commissioner of Kamrup(M), Assam, on behalf of 162 households of Yusuf Nagar who were recently evicted on a whimsical assumption/allegation that they were illegally residing within the Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary in Guwahati. Over the past few decades a number of villages have mushroomed in the disputed periphery of the Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary, which prior to 2004, were three non-contiguous reserved forests, viz. the Khanapara Reserve Forest, South Amsing Reserve Forest and the Amchang Reserve Forest. Almost all the residents of Yusuf Nagar are Muslims with a few handful families belonging to other communities such as Hindu Bengalis, tribals and Nepalis. The Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary was notified in 2004 by the State Government. Although a demarcation of the sanctuary was stated on paper, on the ground the perimeter of the sanctuary was not clarified properly.
In 2013, a two-page representation was written to the Chief Justice of Gauhati High Court by an NGO called ‘Early Birds’ wherein there was allegation that rampant encroachment in the Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary was destroying its environment. On the basis of the representation, a PIL was registered by the Court. It came to light then that the proper demarcation of the sanctuary had not been done, and the Government pledged to take up a survey operation to do the same. The court monitored the survey and pressed for eviction of encroachers, but never passing any order in much detail, least of all empathizing with the ‘encroacher’ or trying to hear their cause.
The survey of the sanctuary commenced from September, 2014, after meetings amongst the officials of the Forest Department, Survey Department and Revenue Department. It would be pertinent to mention here that the Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary is divided into two non-contiguous blocks, Block-I and Block-II. The survey of Block-II was taken up first and as per the minutes of the meetings of the survey team, the task was completed without much problem though slow in pace. However, a major problem arose when the demarcation of Block-I was to be done. It was found that due to the widening of the nearby road, the reference furlong post had disappeared and therefore the point from which survey should commence could not be identified. To resolve this problem, the forest department pulled out a map dating back to 1967-68 and on the basis of it and the demarcation of the sanctuary on paper, identified a point which should be the reference furlong post. But when the distance between the reidentified furlong post and another already exisiting pillar was measured, it was found to be 360 metres although it should have been 160 metres. Nevertheless, on the basis of the reidentified furlong post, the demarcation of Block-I was completed.
During the entire survey, the public of the interested villages were all kept in the dark. They knew nothing about the PIL or what the survey was about. These villages had by then existed for decades. Some were tribal villages, some had Muslims, some housed the Assamese speaking and some consisted of all. Yusuf Nagar was one such village. It is also known as Botahghuli and Bojora N.C. Many of these villagers had settled there after migrating from flood and erosion affected regions and being rendered landless. In due course of time, they had come to be identified as the residents of these villages and had been provided electricity connections, voter cards, passports, etc. Interestingly, many of them were also in possession of land rights and were paying land revenue. Permanent land settlement had also been granted in favour of a mausoleum in Yusuf Nagar, which is one of the structures razed to the ground. So until recently, there wasn’t any question of the villagers encroaching on any forest land.
In 2016, another notification of the Government of Assam was issued which demarcated the boundary of the eco-sensitive zone of the Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary. This notification also acknowledged that there are 37 revenue villages in the said eco-sensitive zone. Amongst these were also the villages of Botaghuli (aka Yusuf Nagar), Kangkan Nagar and Janashimalu.
Without any proper notice and to the shock of everyone, an eviction drive was carried out in Yusuf Nagar on the 25th of August, 2017. Soon an array of interlocutory applications were filed in the original PIL by multiple stakeholders. Despite claims of being resident on revenue land, the court remained adamant and the second round of eviction took place from 27th -29th November, 2017. The second round was more brutal than the first. The public were still in the dark about what the actual demarcation of the sanctuary was and whether they had transgressed it. In the name of notice, pamphlets containing a vague direction to the encroachers to vacate were strewn in the streets of some villages located in the periphery of the sanctuary.
When the eviction took place, few got time to salvage even their necessary belongings. Anganwadis and schools were demolished heartlessly. The demolition included that of electricity post, wells and trees. The eviction was poorly planned. And importantly, there was no plan about where the evicted would go after the eviction.
When one goes through the documents in possession of the evicted, it is hard to believe that the court without consideration of their claims passed orders of eviction. One such document is a written communication between the Deputy Commissioner of Kamrup(M) and the circle officer of Sonapur revenue circle dating back to May, 2007. Here the circle officer informs the Deputy Commissioner that as per records there is a little more than 162 bigha of revenue land in Bojora N.C. village. The officer also states that there is a requirement of a joint survey by the revenue and forests departments of the Government of Assam as a demarcation has not been made between the land of revenue department and forest department. Mind you, this was three years after the notification declaring the wildlife sanctuary. A survey was indeed carried out sometime in 2007 by the Assam Survey Department. They laid down pillars demarcating revenue land. As far as these pillars indicate, all residents of Yusuf Nagar were residing within revenue land. Similar was the situation in Jamashimalu, another village where eviction was carried out. Now, when the survey in 2014 and 2015 were done, these pillars fell inside the perimeter of the Wildlife Sanctuary. So, although the villagers weren’t informed, but until yesterday there were residing on revenue land but a subsequent survey carried out silently turned them into encroachers of forest land.
After the mess, the Government has decided to add fuel to fire. On the 1st of December, 2017, the High Court on the basis of a submission of the Government suspended the eviction for two months to give time to the Government to work out a rehabilitation plan on ‘humanitarian grounds’ for the flood and erosion affected landless persons. Subsequently, on the 2nd of January, 2017, the Government issued a notification constituting a committee and in the notification, it is clearly mentioned that the purpose of the committee is to assess the ‘rehabilitation and relief measures admissible to the indigenous families of Assam recently evicted from Amchang’ and a report is to be submitted within 15 days. Indigenous families? Who are these indigenous families? It is unclear and unlikely that any official document clarifies who the indigenous families of Assam are. And what about those who are not indigenous but are simply citizens of the country? The people of Yusuf Nagar are under the apprehension that it is a death knell to their basic human rights. They fear the committee will not even glance at their claimed rights. Is such a notification tenable in law? Ascertaining indigenousness in the context of Amchang will mean people are going to be discriminated on the basis of their place of birth, and covertly, their religion. Such discrimination is clearly prohibited by Article 14 and 15 of the Constitution of India. In the case of Amchang there appears no reasonability to justify such a discrimination. Moreover, Article 19(e) grants all citizens a fundamental right to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India. The residents of Yusuf Nagar informed with sad smiles on their face that most of their names have appeared in the first draft of the National Register of Citizens released on the midnight of 31st December, 2017. Well, are these people indigenous too then?
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