Eviction drive: Over 201 families affected as 200 hectares of forest land in Assam gets cleared
The Himanta Sarma-led dispensation has been carrying out eviction drives in different parts of the state since it assumed power in May 2021, with two such major exercises undertaken last month.
NORTH LAKHIMPUR: Nearly 70 bulldozers and excavators cleared 200 hectares of forest land in Assam's Lakhimpur district on Tuesday, affecting over 201 families, most of whom are Bengali-speaking Muslims.
Altogether 43 excavators and 25 tractors were pressed into action, while 600 police and CRPF personnel were deployed along with 200 civil officials for the drive in Mohghuli village, officials said.
They said of 2,560.25 hectares of the Pava Reserve Forest, only 29 hectares are currently free of any encroachment.
Almost all the people have already vacated their houses following several rounds of notifications from the administration, they said.
"We had a good crop of mustard and seasonal vegetables this time. The government did not even give us time to harvest our crops. It seems they deliberately targeted us on the economic front," Samsul Haque (name changed on request) told PTI.
Most of those affected in the drive are Bengali-speaking Muslims.
The farmer claimed that the local circle office has been collecting taxes from them for allowing agriculture on the land.
"The administration very cruelly filled our ponds, where we were cultivating fishes, with earth. We were not allowed to collect the fishes, which have now been buried," the farmer said.
A 55-year-old woman claimed they are erosion-hit families and came to settle in the area around 25 years ago.
"We were allowed to settle here by earlier governments. Now, they are asking us to leave. Where will we go overnight?" Amina Begum (name changed) said sobbingly.
Like the duo, the "illegal settlers" claimed they include people from different parts of the state as well as locals displaced due to flood and erosion.
They claimed they were earlier given land ownership documents, but those were rejected by the present BJP-led government.
Though the government claimed the area was encroached upon, schemes such as Pradhan Mantri Gramin Awas Yojana, MGNREGA, Anganwadi centres, water supply and rural electrification were implemented over the years.
On Monday, some families loaded their goods on trucks, while others trudged out with their luggage on their bicycles.
Children carried bundles on their heads and walked beside their parents.
The eviction drive was launched to clear 450 hectares of forest land, of which 200 hectares were cleared during the day, while the remaining 250 hectares of land, where 299 families had been living, will be cleared the next day.
"The drive has been underway peacefully since 7. 30 am and we have not faced any resistance so far. We are expecting a smooth exercise," Lakhimpur Additional Superintendent of Police Runa Neog said.
She said security forces had been conducting area domination for the last few days and the "illegal settlers" were asked to vacate their houses.
This is the third major eviction drive in Assam within a month.
The drive in Nagoan's Batadrava on December 19 was billed as one of the largest in the region as it uprooted more than 5,000 alleged encroachers, followed by another exercise on December 26 to clear 53.5 hectares of land in Barpeta district.
Some of the affected people claimed there are around 500 more families, who are Hindus, living in the forest and the "government must evict them too" if it is really concerned about encroachment.
According to a senior official, the Hindu families belong to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribe communities, mostly coming to the area after becoming landless due to flood and erosion in other places of Lakhimpur district.
"The local DFO in 2016 carried out a survey to find out illegal settlers. Then these SC and ST people approached the Gauhati High Court demanding rehabilitation with land rights. The HC had then stayed their eviction till an alternate arrangement was made," he added.
Lakhimpur Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Ashok Kumar Dev Choudhury claimed that altogether 701 families have encroached upon the Pava Reserve Forest land over the last three decades.
He said the government has approved a proposal for afforestation in 200 hectares of land out of the 450 hectares earmarked for eviction.
"We had sent a proposal of afforestation in the remaining 250 hectares of land too. We hope that the government will approve it in the coming days," he added.
The affected villagers also alleged that the demarcation pillars of Pava Reserve Forest have changed several times, especially since 2017, and claimed that "arbitrary marking" was being done to demarcate the boundary ahead of the eviction drive.
Lakhimpur Deputy Commissioner Sumit Sattawan had said the people living in the encroached areas were notified by the forest department and local administration two years ago to vacate the area.
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, with two such major exercises undertaken last month.