The front-page lead news-item in this newspaper on Monday has focused something very important and dangerous no just for Assam as a state, but also for global environment and climate change as a whole. The said news-item is about the Gauhati High Court dismissing a PIL through which a group of seven persons belonging to a particular Scheduled Tribe community of the state, had pleaded that they have been residing in forest villages inside the Chariduar Reserved Forest for the last “35-40 years” from the early 1980s, and as such were eligible for rights of permanent forest-dwellers under provisions of the Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. They also referred to their names being included in the electoral rolls of 2005 – one year prior to enactment of this Act, in order to assert their claims under this Act. The petitioners had filed the PIL way back in 2017. The High Court has found from the affidavits filed by the Sonitpur Deputy Commissioner and other officials that the villages which these persons have claimed to be forest villagers under provisions of the said Act were in reality nothing but encroachment made much after the year/period defined in the Act for consideration as forest-dwellers. While this group of seven persons had claimed that they were bonafide forest-dwellers as defined by the law, the reality is that the provisions of the Act of 2006, and particular sub-Section (c), (f) and (o) of Section 2 of the Act clearly prove that they are not what they claimed to be. Section 2(c) of the Act says that "‘forest dwelling Scheduled Tribal’ means the members or community of the Scheduled Tribes who primarily reside in and who depend on the forests or forest lands for bonafide livelihood needs and includes the Scheduled Tribe pastoralist communities.” Likewise, Section 2(f) of the Act says that "‘forest villages’ means the settlements which have been established inside the forests by the forest department of any State Government for forestry operations or which were converted into forest villages through the forest reservation process and includes forest settlement villages, fixed demand holdings, all types of settlements, by whatever name called, for such villages and includes lands for cultivation and other uses permitted by the Government.” And finally, Section 2 (o) of the Act says that “ ‘other traditional forest dweller’ means any member or community who has for at least three generations prior to the 13th day of December, 2005 primarily resided in and who depend on the forest or forests land for bonafide livelihood needs.” The submission of the Deputy Commissioner of Sonitpur on the other hand clearly states that though there are a few ‘forest villages’ inside the Chariduar Reserved Forest, the names cited by the seven petitioners were not in that list, and that these are nothing but villages purportedly established by encroachers. While the Gauhati High Court has dismissed the claims of those seven persons that they were ‘forest-dwellers’ under provisions of the Forest-dwellers Act of 2006, it has also directed the authorities to ensure that the encroachers were removed from the Chariduar Reserved Forest. The instant case is however only one incident of encroachment of reserved forests across Assam by a section of indigenous people. A thorough investigation – if ordered by the Gauhati High Court – in all reserved forests across Assam, including those in and around Guwahati city, will reveal that thousands of such encroachers have not only occupied huge tracts of land inside the valuable reserved forests, but have also indiscriminately plundered and destroyed them. Going by the High Court’s order, it can be seen that these seven applicants were not the only people who have encroached Chariduar RF. Approximately 400 hectares of land inside Chariduar RF have been found to have been encroached. According to the Deputy Commissioner’s statement, as mentioned in the High Court order, 90 per cent of the reserved forest is under encroachment as per records, causing large-scale destruction of the forest cover in less than a decade. Bonafide residents of Batasipur, Hagrajuli, Dhekiajuli, Missamari and other adjoining places in Sonitpur district would also probably be able to recall exactly when these encroachers had entered Chariduar RF, under whose patronage, and how the virgin forest was raped. The High Court has also placed on record the fact that mass encroachment in the Chariduar RF over the period had led to massive destruction of forest cover. The process of degradation in Chariduar RF in fact started after 1995, the High Court order recorded, pointing out that massive loss of forest cover took place within five years from 1995 and that it was so rampant that it came into national limelight and was a matter of discussion in print and electronic media across the country. Interestingly, the present DGP of Assam was then Superintendent of Police in Sonitpur, and though he had earnestly carried out a major drive to evict the encroachers, they went back after he was transferred.
The Charduar encroachers