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EDITORIAL

Evicting the encroachers

Assamese

Sunday’s edition of this newspaper, on the front page has a very important news story which says that over 5,46,000 hectares of State government land across Assam have remained under encroachment, and that the authorities – the deputy commissioners of different districts – have failed to take any effective step to free these government land. According to data cited in the news story, Tinsukia district alone has over 92,000 hectares of government land under encroachment, followed by Lakhimpur, Udalguri, Dibrugarh, Dhemaji, Goalpara, Biswanath, Nagaon and Barpeta. The list does not include other districts like Kamrup, Kamrup (Metro), Karbi Anglong, West Karbi Anglong, Morigaon, Darrang, Barpeta, Nalbari, Sivasagar, Jorhat, Hojai, Cachar, Karimganj, Hailakandi, and Dhubri etc.

That, however, does not mean there is no encroachment on State government land in these districts. Any law-abiding citizen in these districts can not only confirm that there has been encroachment on State government land in his or her district, but can also probably point out those land which are under encroachment. In many cases, law-abiding citizens probably will also be able to tell who these encroachers are. One does not have to acquire the knowledge of rocket science to find out the encroachers. They range from powerful political leaders and elected representatives of various levels to influential persons, businessmen, government officers – especially police officers, people of various indigenous communities who were rendered homeless because of bank erosion caused by the Brahmaputra and other rivers, and above all illegal migrants.

In most cases where encroachers belong to various indigenous communities as well as illegal migrants, there are powerful people either directly into politics or having strong political connections who encourage such encroachment apart from protecting them whenever the government tries to evict them. The people had clearly noticed how a section of self-styled rights activists had stood for the encroachers – majority of them suspected illegal migrants – when the authorities had carried out an eviction drive inside Kaziranga National Park three years ago. What is disgusting is that successive governments in the State have miserably failed to clear encroachers from the land that belongs to the State government. Taking a close look at official reports, one finds that over 20 per cent of the total land belonging to the reserved forests, national parks and wildlife sanctuaries are currently under the grip of encroachers. With the forest authorities not picking up courage to evict the encroachers because of political interference from Dispur, the area under encroachment is only increasing every passing day.

That the BJP-led State government has little interest in clearing the forests from encroachers became evident when it had retreated after having launched an operation in the Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary in the heart of Guwahati. It was only on Sunday that newspaper reports said that a group of students on an excursion to Sonai-Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary could not find any trace of it. According to government reports submitted in the State Legislative Assembly, Assam has 312 reserved forests with a little over 13.54 lakh hectares area, out of which more than 3.73 lakh hectares are illegally occupied. Similarly, of the 1.98 lakh hectares that constitute the five national parks in Assam, over 3,971 hectares are currently under encroachment. Leaving aside land belonging to the Government of Assam, there are also vast stretches of land belonging to various Central government agencies and organizations and various public sector undertakings that have remained under occupation of encroachers across the state.

While several hundred hectares of land belonging to Northeast Frontier Railway have remained under encroachment right from Ledo-Lekhapani in the east to Gossaigaon in the west, efforts to clear such land has remained a distant dream, allegedly because of lack of proper support from the district authorities. Encroachment on railway land, especially in stations and railway residential areas has emerged as a major impediment for the smooth working of the railways in Assam. Major projects like development of Agiathori as a world-class station and other amenities in Amingaon area, work on the new pit-line and sick line at New Guwahati, expansion and upgrade of the circulating areas of railway stations at Silchar, Hojai, Diphu, Tangla, Jorhat, Haibargaon, Lumding, Chaparmukh, Karimganj, Badarpur, Tinsukia etc have been seriously hampered due to encroachment on railway land.

While the development of an alternative entry road to the Kamakhya Railway Station to ease out congestion has suffered due to occupation of railway land by encroachers, connecting Kamakhya Station to the Pandu port of the Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) has remained stuck for decades just because of encroachment. A proper survey would probably also reveal that sizeable portion of land belonging to public sector undertakings like Oil India, ONGCL, Indian Oil Corporation, Brahmaputra Valley Fertilizer Corporation, the erstwhile ASEB, Assam State Transport Corporation, etc are also under encroachment. These apart, most Professional Grazing Reserves (PGR) and Village Grazing Reserves (VGR), apart from roadside reserves and riverside reserves across Assam are also under encroachment. Most important, members of some political parties quite often ask the government statistics of various categories of government land in different districts. Do these members seek the statistics for protecting them or encouraging encroachment? A thorough enquiry will reveal a lot of conspiracies.