The Himanta Biswa Sarma-led government in Assam continues to carry out eviction drives in different parts of the state since it assumed power in May 2021. Despite opposition criticism, Sarma had on December 21 told the Assembly that eviction drives to clear government and forest lands in Assam would continue as long as the BJP is in power.
Residing on 250 hectares of forest land, the drive to evict encroachers from Pava Reserve forest land in Assam's Lakhimpur district continued for a second day on Wednesday, as 299 families were forced to move. The evictees, mostly Bengali-speaking Muslims grieved that they could not collect all of their belongings, and the administration also destroyed their crops. The administration has planned to clear 250 acres during the daylong exercise on Wednesday.
The exercise began on Tuesday is being undertaken by the state to clear around 450 hectares in Pava Reserve Forest. On the first day, officials cleared 200 hectares in Mohghuli village, which was home to 201 families. "The eviction drive resumed today at 7.30 am. It has been peaceful so far. We have not faced any resistance," a senior district administration official told PTI.
Around 70 bulldozers, excavators and tractors are pressed into action in Adhasona village, alongwith 600 police, CRPF personnel and 200 civil officials guarding the eviction as the 'illegal encroachers' stand witness to the demolitions of their homes.
With some belongings in tow, Hasmat Alam (name changed on request), who witnessed his house being razed to the ground, claimed that he had been a resident of that area for the past 28 years. "This year, the harvest was good. I grew brinjal, cabbage and cauliflower and sold some of the produce in the market. Around 70 per cent of the crop, however, got destroyed in the drive," he said.
Authorities used tractors and bulldozers to flatten the crops while excavators also filled the ponds and fisheries with earth. The All Assam Minority Students' Union (AAMSU) termed the eviction drive as "inhuman and one-sided" and staged a brief protest at Sonapur area of Lakhimpur district.
As per the senior official, several notices for vacating the land were issued to the "illegal settlers" since November 2021. "On September 7 last year, we served the final notice and asked them not to grow crops, but they did not pay heed. The evicted land remains under flood waters in the summers and the encroachers grow crops only in the winter season," he added. The Naoboicha circle officer of Naoboicha had personally approached the "encroachers" last year asking them to leave voluntarily, the official explained.
Rahima Khatun, one of those affected in the drive, said agriculture was their only means of survival. "There is no school or mosque in the part where the drive was being conducted; these tracts were used primarily for agriculture purposes. Our livelihood is now at stake," she added.
Lakhimpur Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Ashok Kumar Dev Choudhury noted that out of the 46 sq km Pava Reserve Forest, only 0.32 sq km were free and the rest all occupied. Altogether 701 families have encroached upon the Pava Reserve Forest land over the last three decades, he said.
In 2006, the settlers had applied to the government requesting to declare their place of stay as 'Forest Village', but the government had rejected that proposal then. In July last year, 84 families submitted documents claiming land ownership but were found to be fake upon scrutiny by the authorities.
"If a person comes to the forest, he will not find any sign of it. It has been transformed into a village, where people are engaged in farming. Once known for wild buffaloes, all animals have vanished from Pava due to this encroachment over the past three decades," Choudhury added.
However, several state and central schemes like Pradhan Mantri Gramin Awas Yojana, MGNREGA, Anganwadi centres, water supply and rural electrification have been implemented in the area over the years.
Choudhary said the state government has approved a proposal for afforestation in 200 hectares of land. "We had sent a proposal for afforestation in the remaining 250 hectares, too. We hope that the government will give its nod in the coming days," he added.
The affected villagers, meanwhile, alleged that the demarcation pillars of Pava Reserve Forest have been moved several times, especially since 2017, and claimed that "arbitrary marking" was done to delimit the boundary ahead of the eviction drive. Victims have also claimed that the drive did not affect 500 hindu families, also residing on the land. The "government must evict them too" if it is really concerned about encroachment, one of the victims said.
According to the senior official, the Hindu families, mostly belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribe communities, had in 2016 approached the court seeking rehabilitation. The Lakhimpur eviction drive is the third major eviction drive in Assam within a month. The Nagoan's Batadrava evictions on December 19 have been one of the largest exercises in the region uprooting more than 5,000 alleged encroachers. This was followed by another eviction drive on December 26 to clear 400 bighas in Barpeta.
(With PTI inputs)