Press statement 5 April 2012
For Immediate release Guwahati
The government of Assam has sent a 160 member-strong task force of forest officers to forcibly evict both the ‘encroachers’ and ‘other traditional forest dwellers’ living in the reserve forests of Karimganj district. A huge police force from both the state police and the central reserve police force (CRPF) have been placed at their disposal. The BHRPC is deeply concerned about the danger of forcible eviction of an estimated 300 families of forest dwellers living in Patharia reserve forest for generations.
In the course of a fact-finding study conducted by the BHRPC in Patharia reserve forest that has approximately 7647.300 hectares of land it was revealed that some businessmen grabbed lands measuring approximately 130 hectares (330 acres) falling in and around Patharia reserve forest for rubber cultivation allegedly in connivance with the local politician Minister of state for co-operative and border areas development Mr Siddeque Ahmed. The lands provided the residents of Satkoragul, Mokkergul and Bhitorgul villages in Nilambazar with the only means of livelihoods and dwelling places. As the rubber planters grabbed their lands the villagers lost their livelihoods and now living half-starved for months. Although the Minister later denied his involved he maintained that the lands belonged to the land and revenue department and the department has leased the land to a non-government organization called Asalkandi Grameen Bikash Kendra, while the forest department claimed that the lands belong to it. The villagers claim that although the largest part of their land falls in the reserve forest, one part is farag (Zamindari) land and another small part is government khas (unalotted) land.
After the villagers staged several protest demonstrations and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) registered a case (NHRC Case No. 99/3/10/2012) in the matter on a complaint filed by the BHRPC and the matter was brought to the notice of other authorities including the Prime Minister, the government of Assam made some moves, most of which are in not in right intent and directions. Two deputy rangers, one assistant ranger and one beat officer in the forest department were suspended for dereliction in duties. On the other hand, two officials of the revenue department posted at the Nilambazar circle office were also suspended for fabricating false lease documents showing forest land as land under the revenue department as found by an inquiry conducted by Karimganj sub-divisional magistrate N Shanti Singh. Despite a writ petition is pending before the Gauhati High Court in the matter of claim of the forest department that farag title has no validity and the entire plot of land is forest land, the government has started forcible eviction even from these disputed parts of land. The task force has been deployed apparently to recapture the forest land from rubber planters as well as other ‘encroachers’. The operation has been going on since 3 April in Dohalia reserve forest and at any moment they can use force against the inhabitants of Patharia.
When contacted by the BHRPC (on 4 April) the conservator of forest, southern range, Mr. Abdus Shahid Laskar has confirmed that the government does not recognize the forest rights of the traditional and other traditional forest dwellers under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. He warned that the land-grabbers and the forest dwellers would be dealt with similarly. By launching a misinterpretation of law he categorically asserted that anything that has happened after declaring the area as reserve forest in 1920 has no validity implying that any human settlement made after that year can not be considered under the Forest Rights Act in flagrant contradiction to the express provisions of clause (o) of section 2 of Act that defines "other traditional forest dweller" as 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 bona fide livelihood needs. He also falsely claimed that there was a public hearing held by the British colonialists in 1920s and they did not find any human habitation within the area. Nonetheless, the dwellers claim that they have been living there for generations spanning more than 75 years.
Moreover, the forcible eviction involves violations of a host of fundamental rights guaranteed under the constitution of India as well as basic human rights enshrined in the international human rights instruments such as right to life with dignity, right to livelihood, right to adequate housing, right to freedom of residence etc. Especially for people who settled in reserve forests and eke out a livelihood in connection with their habitat and environment by cultivation or other professional activities are now facing a grave threat to their livelihood, as their access to their forest habitat will predictably be denied to them, in case of the effectuation of the eviction drive.
The BHRPC thinks there are strong reasons to suspect the bona fide of this drive of forced eviction since there are many a cases when forest land has been reclaimed from forest dwellers only to be utilized in the interest of a class of rich businessmen, local mafia and other vested interests. Needless to say, such a powerful lobby of interests is also acting behind this move by the forest department to evict and reclaim the forest land so that they can take over slowly the land recovered. There is no guarantee that the land that is reclaimed by way of eviction today will remain as forest land tomorrow, once there are no forest dwellers. Such a land could be easily utilized by vested interests for their own purposes even while keeping the land under the ownership of the forest department. Reserve forest without dwellers in every part of Assam is getting denuded in the absence of any accountability of the concerned government and its agencies. Two categories of land could be identified in cases of reclamation: land with unspoilt forest and land with denuded forest. Patahria forest, being of the first category constitutes an easy allurement for vested interests to work through abuse of legal power of forest department and police to deny rights of settlers as per Forest Rights Act. The disused rights of forest settlers of Patahria wields this cruel promise of reclamation, a programme that only marks use of brute force against helpless victim-residents in Pataharia forest.
The BHRPC has filed a supplementary submission at the NHRC in the case that was registered in this regard urging the commission to pass an interim recommendation calling upon the authorities to halt the eviction drive immediately and stop the destruction of vegetables and other crops grown by the villagers; to take urgent actions to restore immediately possession of the land to the villagers and reiterated its earlier demands that the villagers should be provided with adequate monetary compensation for loss of property and mental agony caused by destruction of forest and vegetables and corps grown by them, dispossession of land and threat of imminent danger to life and limb; the victims and witnesses should be provided with adequate security; a prompt, fair and objective inquiry should be conducted by the Central Bureau of Investigation particularly into the alleged crimes and involvement of the minister therein; the rights of the other traditional forest dwellers under the FRA, 2006 of the villagers who have been living there for generations should be recognized; the khas lands that are possessed by the villagers uninterruptedly for generations and who are otherwise landless should be settled in their names as per government policy; and all other actions and measures necessary to ensure full enjoyment of the rights to life with dignity under adequate standard of living by the villagers should also be taken.
For more information please contact
Waliullah Ahmed Laskar