The eviction drive near Kaziranga to clear an animal corridor has become so politicized that the State government will have a hard time removing encroachments from additions made to the tiol park. Illegal settlements have also come up in other tiol parks and wildlife sanctuaries in the State. Then there are many tribal belts and xatras that have long fallen prey to land grab — which Chief Minister Sarbanda Sonowal has vowed to address. But the manner in which agent provocateurs of some political parties are milking the Kaziranga episode does not augur well. A section of professiol agitationists too first muddied the waters and then fished in it gleefully. Their purpose was served once a conflict was ignited and lives lost in police action. These quarters are now alleging that the BJP-led government is targeting a particular community in its eviction policy. State Fince minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has hit right back — alleging that the earlier Congress regime had its own settlement policy to systematically change the demography in Upper Assam and create large permanent vote-banks. All these allegations and counter-allegations are beside the point — which is that land-grabbers need to be dealt with sternly under the law. Their religion, caste or ethnicity has nothing to do with law-breaking.
There have been concerted attempts to show that the evicted settlers from the three villages adjacent to Kaziranga had broken no law. The KMSS has even argued that the Gauhati High Court erred in ordering eviction from additions to Kaziranga tiol park against the objections raised by the State Forest and Revenue departments. Its contention is that there is no such word ‘addition’ under Forest law, that these lands never belonged to the tiol park in the first place, so there is no question of encroachment there. The obvious question any right thinking person would ask is whether the high court went into these arguments that the settlers facing eviction would have certainly raised. While the Gauhati High Court on its own had registered a PIL in 2012 over media reports on rhino poaching in KNP, it also admitted a PIL praying for removal of human habitation and encroachment in the animal corridors in and around the park. In its ruling handed down on September 9 last year, the high court refused to entertain the claim put forth by the settlers as well as the Assam government that Deocharchang and Bandardubi are revenue villages within the territory of KNP. Deocharchang had been notified as a reserve forest in 1916, while the Assam government in 1986 earmarked the lands in Bandardubi for social forestry. But no social forestry materialized there; rather, a village came up by illegal encroachment. So, the Assam government took the stand that since social forestry did not develop, the lands of Bandardubi were de-reserved and shown as revenue village.
Throwing out this argument, the high court quoted Supreme Court precedent that under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 — once a state government gives land for social forestry, it cannot later de-reserve and make it a revenue village without consent of the Central government. Besides the said area is a tiger reserve and animal corridor, the high court ruling noted. It also referred to constitutiol obligations specifically enshrined in the Directive Principles [Articles 48-A and 51-A(g)], which mandate that the State and citizens should strive to protect and improve the environment as well as safeguard forests and wildlife. Pointing to persistent reports of poaching, the high court reasoned that KNP inhabitants would become suspect as they would be ‘well-acquainted with the areas and animal movements, therefore they would alone be in a position to do poaching successfully or abet poaching by others’. Thus it is that the concept of ‘tiol park’ in the Wildlife Act contemplates that there should be no human habitation, the ruling explained. Distinguishing between individual claims of a handful of persons in conflict with the public and tiol interest, the high court noted that the government can expand the area of KNP, which happens to be a World Heritage Site. Even if the State government did not issue fil notification of some additions to the park, that would be just a technicality which cannot justify the settlers’ claim, the ruling made clear. What can be reasobly understood from this case is that a tural park or wildlife sanctuary is not like a zoo that exists only within its four walls. A government can take steps to protect the wildlife within as well as their routes, including notification of nearby areas as additions or buffer zones and protecting animal corridors. It can ask residents to vacate their land, the right to which is a legal (not fundamental) right. Much depends on how the residents are informed beforehand and how well they are compensated. This is where a government needs to be sensitive while firmly but fairly acting in larger public interest. This is what the Assam government has to take care about in clearing encroachments from four additions to KNP next.