The eviction drive at Furhatoli village under Sipajhar revenue circle on Wednesday is another step by the BJP-led government in Assam in the right direction, though it does not go far enough. Since the Nineties, Sipajhar in Darrang district has been witnessing systematic encroachment on a wide scale. Without political patroge from successive governments, the illegal settlement of over 77,000 bighas of government land, including 4,000 bighas of PGR, would not have come about. The Congress has termed Wednesday’s drive as ‘inhuman’, AIUDF has lambasted it as ‘undemocratic’, while the AAMSU has termed it another instance of the Sarbanda Sonowal government’s ‘anti-minority’ policy. So the political posturing and rhetoric has already begun to stay the government’s hand. The AIUDF has pointed out that LP schools, anganwadi centres, a hospital and three primary health centres have been set up in Furhatoli, that schools have been provicialized there and thousands of people got houses under Indira Awaas Yoja (IAY) scheme. So if the people who settled there are of doubtful citizenship, why have the State government made such facilities available there, ask AIUDF leaders. But leaving aside the question whether the settlers are Indian or Bangladeshi, we should first ask whether they settled in illegal manner on government land. If yes, then there is no way such law-breaking can be legitimized merely because earlier governments winked at it. And the reason past governments condoned if not actively colluded in such illegal settlements, particularly the three successive regimes headed by Tarun Gogoi — was to build up vote-banks, pure and simple. The patroge politics was further carried out with welfare schemes under which illegal settlers got homes, schools and hospitals built, water and electricity supply, and even polling booths so they could repay such political largesse by voting en-bloc with ease. This has been seen in villages adjoining Kaziranga as well as the chars in Mayong- Hiloikhunda of Morigaon district where the present State government has already carried out drives to evict illegal settlers.
Whenever the issue of dealing with illegal settlers as per law comes up, the excuse put forward is that the settlers are flood or erosion affected people who have lost their origil land. Now this is where successive governments in Assam have added negligence to further compound the problem of vote-bank politics. It is a fact that land records in this State are badly kept, that governments here have not bothered to set up an accurate land database. The State is estimated to lose over 8,000 hectare cultivable land every year due to erosion; a staggering 4,000 sq kms or 7.4 percent of the area of Brahmaputra valley has been lost over the past decades. It is almost after a century that the Assam government has begun conducting a land survey, as a part of which all vacant government land will be accounted for. Chief Minister Sarbanda Sonowal has spoken of creating a ‘land bank’, so that plots of government land can be used in planned manner for the State’s future growth. But the sooner this survey is completed, the better for the State government to come to grips with how much land has been lost due to river action, how much government land has been grabbed by encroachers, and what is the extent of correlation between the two phenome. Once the State government devises a just policy to resettle people rendered homeless by floods and erosion, it can realistically do something about clearing settlements on embankments, grazing lands, reserved forests, roadsides and chars. However, the State government must clearly distinguish between illegal settlements out of compulsion like erosion and floods, and those encouraged as part of political strategy to infiltrate into areas inhabited by indigenous people and create vote banks. Earlier, Chief Minister Sonowal has rightly spoken about clearing xatras and tribal belts and blocks from encroachers. His government needs to have a land database and appropriate land policy in place soon, but it must also implement the law strictly against strategic encroachment being used to uproot sons of the soil.