The drive to evict "encroachers" from nearly 1,900 hectares of forest and revenue land in Assam’s Sonitpur district continued for the second day on Wednesday, with 12,000-odd people, who were allegedly staying there illegally for decades, left in the lurch, a senior official said.
Since morning, the administration started the eviction in five places of Burachapori Wildlife Sanctuary and nearby government land, he said.
"Today, we are carrying out the eviction exercise at Lathimari, Ganesh Tapu, Baghe Tapu, Gulirpar and Siali. So far it has been peaceful, and no untoward incident has been reported," the official said.
With a huge posse of armed security personnel, the Sonitpur district administration had on Tuesday started the exercise to clear “encroached” land in the wildlife sanctuary and nearby revenue villages on the southern bank of the Brahmaputra river in central Assam.
While most of the occupants, predominantly Bengali-speaking Muslims, had left their houses after receiving notices in the last few weeks, some were in the process to vacate their premises when the eviction drive started, some of the affected families said.
"Illegal settlers" were seen loading their belongings in tractor trolleys at various places since morning even as bulldozers were deployed to demolish their houses.
While collecting her belongings from the demolished house, Firoza Begum alleged that the administration had mentioned it would start eviction from February 20 but suddenly “started eviction from today without any intimation”.
The opposition Congress slammed the BJP-led government for the eviction drive and said many of the affected families are entitled to have land rights according to the Forest Rights Act, 2006.
Sonitpur Deputy Commissioner Deba Kumar Mishra told PTI on Tuesday that thousands of people "illegally occupied" the forest and nearby areas for decades and the administration has decided to clear "encroachment" on 1,892 hectares of land during the ongoing exercise till Thursday.
"Of this, 1,401 hectares of land falls under the sanctuary and the remaining is government land. In the forest, 1,758 families were living, comprising 6,965 people," he said.
On the government land, 755 families were residing, comprising 4,645 people according to the latest survey, the official said.
Mishra said, "We discovered that this area was never surveyed and people were in confusion if their villages fall under Nagaon or Sonitpur district. That is why government schools, Anganwadi centres, mosques and other structures were built by people who thought it is Nagaon district."
The schools and other government institutions will be attached to nearby such centres in non-encroached land in the coming days so that education and welfare measures are not affected, he said.
Over 1,700 personnel from the Assam Police and CRPF along with staffers from civil administration and the forest department are engaged in the exercise. Around 100 bulldozers, excavators and tractors were pressed into action since the morning to demolish the structures and clear the land, the DC said.
After the eviction exercise is over, the forest department will start an afforestation drive and plant thousands of saplings, a forest official said.
Burachapori Wildlife Sanctuary is spread across 44.06 sq km on the southern bank of the Brahmaputra river and is located around 180 km east of Guwahati and 40 km south of Tezpur town.
The protected forest forms an integral part of the Laokhowa-Burachapori ecosystem and is a notified buffer zone of the Kaziranga National Park & Tiger Reserve. It is home to one-horned rhinoceros, tiger, leopard, wild buffalo, hog deer, wild pig and elephants.
Burachapori's bird list on the other hand includes the highly endangered Bengal Florican, Black-necked Stork, Mallard, Open billed Stork, Teal and Whistling Duck among others.
It has been a reserve forest since 1974 under the Sonitpur district forest department and it was declared a wildlife sanctuary in July 1995.
In November 2013, the forest was shifted to Nagaon Wildlife Division, but the entire area is under the Tezpur sub-division of Sonitpur district and also falls under the Tezpur Lok Sabha constituency.
The drive in Burachapori is the fourth major eviction exercise in Assam within just two months. The exercise in Nagoan's Batadrava on December 19 last year has been considered one of the largest in the region as it uprooted more than 5,000 alleged encroachers. It was followed by another drive on December 26 to clear 400 bighas in Barpeta.
In Pava Reserve Forest under the Lakhimpur district, the administration had undertaken an eviction drive to clear 450 hectares of encroached land on January 10, which continued for several days, displacing around 500 "illegally settled” families. Also, a large area of forest-turned-agricultural land was also cleared.
The Himanta Biswa Sarma-led dispensation has been carrying out eviction drives in different parts of the state since it assumed power in May 2021.
Setting aside opposition criticism, Sarma had on December 21 last year told the Assembly that eviction drives to clear government and forest lands in Assam would continue as long as the BJP is in power.