In Assam, once a forest, now a settlement

On November 5, land deeds were ceremonially handed over to 1,301 Bodo families in the Charduar Reserve Forest in Assam’s Sonitpur district. Rahul Karmakar reports on the new developments and the older ethnic, communal and conservationist fault-lines being deepened 

December 24, 2022 03:00 am | Updated 12:59 pm IST

Villagers talking about their struggle in Dadajulie village in Sonitpur district of Assam.

Villagers talking about their struggle in Dadajulie village in Sonitpur district of Assam. | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

More than 25 years after he erected a thatched shelter, Dinesh Kerketary’s dream of building a house is taking a concrete shape. The wooden support frames around the plinth beams of his 20-by-30 ft house-to-be were taken off a fortnight after he received a document granting him possession of a patch of “forest land under occupation” in north-central Assam’s Sonitpur district. 

With the Sopai river flowing behind his 13-bigha plot, 54-year-old Kerketary worked out a safe elevation of his concrete abode in Gadajuli, one of about 270 villages in what used to be a part of the Charduar Reserve Forest. The phagla (mad) river had inundated his plot thrice since 2009 when it changed course to flow between the southern edge of his plot and Batashipur, a settlement around a railway station that serves Dhekiajuli town 13 km south. 

Kerketary was not among the people who first began occupying land in the mid-1990s by clearing the reserve forest. He moved in from nearby Sarsobari. “I was a landless farmer. I sniffed an opportunity to own my plot, but the fear of eviction never really let me sleep in peace until I received the patta (land deed),” he said. He is relieved that the document will enable his son Paniram to get a permanent residence certificate to seek admission to higher education institutes. 

Prabhat Brahma of the adjoining Dhimapur village, who is also constructing a concrete house, has 13 bighas scattered in four places. The largest of his plots, where he grows paddy, is in Gwjwnpur village. The patta granted to him does not have this 5-bigha plot. “When the government surveyors came to map the plots, my name was registered wrongly,” he explained. “But I am told that possessing that plot is a matter of time.”

Gadajuli and Dhimapur villages are under the Gadajuli Forest Rights Committee (FRC), one of 154 in Sonitpur district, mostly along the border with Arunachal Pradesh’s West Kameng district. All the FRCs are inhabited by the Bodos, the largest plains tribe in the Northeast.

Brahma’s paddy field, about 3 km north of Dhimapur, lies on the west bank of the Kengkra stream. A few metres beyond the east bank is Abwi Centre, a market established in 2000 and named after an unnamed abwi (‘old woman’ in the Bodo language) who set up the first shop there. A major rural market today, Abwi Centre is one of four villages — along with No. 5 Kwdwmguri, No. 6 Sonajuli and Thaiswguri — comprising the Abwi Kouseti FRC. “Abwi Centre has some 70 families whose hopes of becoming landowners have soared after many villagers in Batashipur got their land settlement done. After government officials came here during July-September to map the plots with GPS (global positioning system) devices, we think it is a matter of time,” Biswajit Basumatary, the vice-president of the Abwi Centre Bazaar Committee, said.

‘No option left’ 

On November 5, the land deeds were ceremonially handed over to the heads of 1,301 Bodo families across 15 of more than 70 FRCs in four occupied zones of the Charduar Reserve Forest. The certificates were distributed by two prominent Bodo leaders — Assam Textiles Minister Urkhao Gwra Brahma and Bodoland Territorial Council chief Pramod Boro, both former student union presidents and leaders of the United People’s Party Liberal, a constituent of the alliance government in Assam headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Also at the programme was Ashok Singhal, the State’s Irrigation Minister and the MLA representing Dhekiajuli, the Assembly constituency that encompasses the forest settlement area. 

“The granting of the pattas has ended the struggle of the indigenous people to secure their land rights,” Boro claimed, while Brahma cautioned the beneficiaries to ensure that their parcels of land are not transferred to “wrong persons” in the future. The term usually refers to Bengali-speaking or Bengal-origin Muslims, some of whom were evicted from 1,410 hectares of the 22,403-hectare Lumding Reserve Forest in central Assam’s Hojai district in November 2021.

Singhal said the beneficiaries were selected by the FRCs constituted by the Assam government, which scrutinised all relevant documents during the process that began with a review meeting on the implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. The review meeting on October 5, 2021, at the Sonitpur Deputy Commissioner’s office, was chaired by Ranoj Pegu, the Minister for the Welfare of Plains Tribes and Backward Classes. Underlining the government’s duty to facilitate land rights liberally to the “deprived ST forest dwellers”, Pegu said the cases of land settlement rejected previously for various reasons need to be revisited and reviewed following due procedure and the eligibility criteria. 

“There were a total of 3,600 applicants, but not all could submit proper documents. By December, we intend to increase the number of patta holders from 1,301 to at least 2,000 families and the process will continue for the remaining eligible families,” Deba Kumar Mishra, Sonitpur’s Deputy Commissioner, said. “Some people say they are not original inhabitants, but there is no way you can evict them even though the area used to be a forest. They are tribal people, sons of the soil. Moreover, the forest in the occupied patches is no longer in existence.” 

Netra Jyoti Gayan, a forester in the Assam Forest Department’s Dhekiajuli Range, said his team was told to carry out a joint survey of the occupied forest land with officials of the Revenue Department. “We carried out the exercise for two months from mid-July and plotted the parcels of land with GPS devices. This was based on a list of FRCs and constituent villages provided by the district administration,” he said. 

Explained | The debate around the Forest Conservation Rules

An FRC, comprising 10-15 people with a third required to be women, is formed to facilitate the process of settling a claim to land by a forest dweller after it passes through three levels of checks — a committee of the villages involved, the sub-divisional-level committee and the district-level committee. The Forest Rights Act Amendment Rules, 2012 give a list of 14 proofs a claimant can provide to prove occupancy of forest land before December 13, 2005. The evidence includes public documents such as census, maps, satellite imagery and government-authorised documents such as voter identity and ration cards. A statement of a village elder, other than the claimant, can also be submitted as proof. 

Identifying a forest dweller 

Sarat Basumatary, the spokesperson of the Sonitpur district unit of the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU) that was formed in 2008, said his family took refuge in Gadajuli from Dhemaji district further east 26 years ago. His landless father used to work on the farm of an Adi tribal in Arunachal Pradesh across the interstate boundary. 

“I was forced to stay away as there wasn’t any educational institution in this area. Today, the Batashipur, Belsri, Hugrajuli and Missamari areas we were accused of encroaching upon have 42 government-run schools, Anganwadi centres, a 14 km gravel road from Dhekiajuli railway station to the Arunachal Pradesh border, and an electricity connection,” he recounted. “We were provided ration cards and the adults, about 25,000 at that time, were enrolled as voters in 2004. If we are illegal settlers, why did the government provide all these facilities?”

“We have created a forest village and thus, the land allotment to the indigenous families is not illegal,” Singhal, the local MLA, said, crediting Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma for fast-tracking the permanent settlement of landless indigenous communities. 

There’s a difference between forest dwellers and encroachers, countered Dilip Nath, a Dhekiajuli local waging a lone battle as a member of the green group Aranya Suraksha Samity. He has often taken the local authorities to court over large-scale deforestation, encroachment in protected areas and efforts to regularise the settlers on forest lands.  

“There are only 14 recognised forest villages in Sonitpur district and we had no issues when 20-odd Bodo families were given settlement within the Balipara Reserve Forest yonder in 2016. But the people of Batashipur, Belsri and adjoining areas are not original or traditional forest dwellers. How can the government create a forest village?” he asked. 

He showed records of the Forest Department undertaking 131 eviction drives from 1996 to 2005. The Forest personnel demolished six huts on August 28, 1996, in the Batashipur area only to find the number of settlers increase rapidly. On November 28, 1996, they destroyed 365 huts. This led to frequent conflicts between the settlers and the eviction teams, and in one such “battle” in 1997, a farmer named Hari Basumatary was shot. The residents of the villages under the Lakhijuli FRC regard him as a “martyr”. 

A couple talking about their struggle in Dhimapur village in Sonitpur district of Assam.

A couple talking about their struggle in Dhimapur village in Sonitpur district of Assam. | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

By May 2002, the conflict expanded eastward to the 175 sq. km Sonai-Rupai area that was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1998. The conflict petered out with two cases of removal of huts of encroachers in the wildlife sanctuary, once a safe home for the rare pygmy hog, in January 2005. 

“The Forest Department did not need to carry out the eviction drives if they are really forest dwellers,” Nath argued, emphasising the need to correctly identify original forest dwellers and limit land rights under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006 to them. He added, for instance, that more than 40,000 people have been living inside the wildlife sanctuary for two-and-a-half decades because of political patronage. 

“In 2010, the State government approved the construction of 38 schools under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan by violating the Wildlife Protection Act. All these schools are now polling centres, each with at least 1,200 voters,” Nath claimed. 

Bibhuti Mazumdar, a Sonai-Rupai range officer, admitted that about 85 sq. km of the 220 sq. km wildlife sanctuary has been under encroachment. “But the squatters have not been regularised here unlike in the more flexible reserve forests. Issuing land deeds in the sanctuary will need the approval of the National Board of Wildlife,” he said. 

The settlers of Batashipur received a shot in the arm when the FRA was passed in December 2006, with Bodo leaders realising that with the eviction drives having been stopped recently they could claim rights under the Act. A coordination committee of farmers staying in the reserve forests began communicating with the government. “We applied for land rights in 2008 and the FRCs were formed in 2009. Things began falling in place but no government until recently showed any seriousness in removing the uncertainty from our lives,” Rupnath Basumatary, the secretary of the Gadajuli FRC, said. 

Political dividends 

Sonitpur is believed to have borne the brunt of extremism in the 1980s and 1990s linked to the Bodoland statehood movement. Non-Bodos claim the Bodo leadership encouraged Bodos to shift from other parts of Assam to the proposed Bodoland areas to enable a Bodo majority. Many moved to the reserve forests of Sonitpur district. Extremist activities often prevented forest guards from patrolling critical areas. 

According to data provided in the Assam Assembly in March, more than 70% of the 92,405 hectares of land across 12 reserve forests under Sonitpur East and Sonitpur West Forest Divisions are under encroachment. 

Bodo community leaders in the Dhekiajuli subdivision of Sonitpur district, however, argue that rumours were spun to dehumanise the tribal people displaced by floods, economic hardship and ethnic clashes until the creation of the Bodoland Autonomous Council in 2003. This was upgraded to the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR) in 2020. 

“Are we in the BTR today? Some activists are targeting us because we are Bodos who had, at one point in time, demanded Assam be divided 50-50 between us and the others,” Adim Swargiary, the president of the Batashipur unit of ABSU, said. (Sonitpur district borders the eastern edge of the BTR.) 

Officials said Sonitpur was among a few districts where land allotment in forest areas was on hold for more than a decade. Other tribal communities such as the Mishing will be granted patta in the Gohpur area of the adjoining Biswanath district, which was carved out of Sonitpur in 2015. 

The patta distribution in Batashipur preceded the launch of Assam’s Mission Basundhara 2.0, a scheme for providing land rights through self-certification to indigenous people who have been residing in particular plots for long but do not have any official records. Launching the mission, Chief Minister Sarma asked the circle officers to distinguish the indigenous settlers from “organised encroachers”, citing Gorukhuti as an example of the latter. 

Midway between Guwahati and Batashipur, Gorukhuti is a government-backed agricultural project on the Brahmaputra riverbank. The land for this project used to be inhabited and cultivated by migrant Muslims who were evicted amid violence in September 2021. Two inhabitants, including a minor, died in police firing during the eviction. 

The opposition parties, chiefly the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), see in the process of granting patta in occupied government land, including forests, a pattern for polarising voters. “The Chief Minister is communalising the land settlement issue by drawing a line between who he thinks is indigenous and who is not. He is indirectly targeting a minority community in order to please Nagpur (headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and the anti-Muslim forces,” senior AIUDF leader and MLA Aminul Islam said.

Conservationists feel it may be too late to reverse the encroachment across Assam’s protected areas due to vote-bank politics. “But we can definitely save the green patches that still remain,” said Bibhab Kumar Talukdar of conservation and wildlife organisation Aaranyak. 

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