Assam: Gauhati HC Orders Eviction of “Encroachers” From Protected Reserved Forests
On October 17, 2022, the Goalpara Lawyers Association, on behalf of the Goalpara district residents, presented a memorandum to the Commissioner, Secretary of the Environment and Forests Department in the Assam Government against the order of eviction issued by the Gauhati High Court on September 5, 2022. In the said order, the Gauhati High Court has ordered the Development Commissioner of Goalpara district and Divisional Forest Officer, Goalpara to conduct a survey of “encroachment” made in the forest area within a period of three months and immediately initiate steps for eviction of such illegal encroachment in accordance with law. The said order was issued in the PIL filed for the protection of wild elephants in the Goalpara Forest Division.
It has been alleged in the PIL that the miscreants/encroachers living in the Goalpara Forest Area killed wild elephants brutally and barbarously and snapping off their valuable tusks and flesh. It was also alleged that such miscreants killed deer and other animals. It is further alleged that in Goalpara Forest Division, miscreants had been using dangerous tactics to drive out elephants from forest areas by soaking Jute bags into liquid bitumen and applying fire, and then thereon throwing the same on the roaming elephants, which would cause injuries to such elephants. It is further stated that in order to kill wild elephants, tactics like high voltage electric wire and poison were being used. The PIL also indicated that wild elephant casualties were found on railway tracks, and as many as 200 tuskers have been killed in such cases in Assam alone.
The court then ordered the State Government in Environment & Forest Department to adhere to the steps already initiated by them in curbing any mischief or loss of live of both of wild elephants and human beings. Additionally, they ordered for the eviction of “encroachers” living in the area. It is pertinent to highlight that while hearing both the parties of this case, the court did not go into investigating the reason due to which these communities have formed their settlements in the said Goalpara area. Additionally, there have been no clarification given by the court on who all does the term “encroachers” include. Even the Forest Rights Act, 2006 has no specific provisions on who can or not be deemed as encroachers. The court, while pronouncing this said judgment, also has not gone into the aspect that there are more than 1000 forests in the Goalpara District alone, and all the settlements there have been given just three months before they are forcefully evicted.
Pursuant to this order, a memorandum was submitted before the Environment and Forest Department of Assam by the Goalpara Lawyers Association on behalf of the people of Goalpara District. Through the memorandum, what has been highlighted is, that almost one quarter, or 25.67%, of the forest land in the Goalpara District is under “encroachment”. Within the encroached forest land, rubber is cultivated in most of the areas. In addition to rubber cultivation, the settlements are also involved in agriculture in the form of tea cultivation (tea gardens) and coconut plantations.
Through the memorandum, emphasis has been made on recognising the vulnerable forest areas through which the elephants pass as well as those lands that are revenue lands of individual land-owners or revenue villages scattered within the Goalpara forest district. The memorandum also highlights the requirement of meticulously enquiring and determining any rights or claims that might be alleged or exist in favor of any person, living within the limits described in the schedule of the Proposed Reserve Forest or the limits of Jhum Cultivation, and then considering the same under the Chapter II of the Assam Forest Regulation. Thus, through this memorandum, the government has been urged to ensure that, while eviction surveys are conducted, any legal complicacies that arise should be taken into consideration.
The main issue with the High Court judgment, says the memorandum, is that the court has overlooked the history of these settlements living in the Goalpara District. Post the 1950 earthquake, about half of the land in the Goalpara city area was destroyed and eroded by the Brahmaputra River. These flood victims then started living on these forest lands as “encroachers”, due to unavailability of official documents and patta land for acquisition. It was the Goalpara District Civil Administration itself that had “relocated” these food victims to Proposed Reserve Forests (PRF) land in and around the Goalpara District.
Therefore, for the last forty years, 472 villages in the Goalpara Distircit have been flooded by the Brahmaputra River, which has resulted in thousands of people becoming landless and homeless. The only way for their survival was to opt for living in the PRF land. Many communities, especially the Agia and Ganabina communities, are living in this forest area.
The September judgment of the High Court of Gauhati has left the people and inhabitants of the Goalpara district confused, helpless and desperate.
This memorandum, submitted by the Goalpara Lawyers Association, through the District Commissioner Government of Assam Environment and Forests, has been signed by the secretaries of the Association, Jiten Das and Wajed Ali. the delegation of the Lawyers Association has also met the Commissioner and handed over the memorandum to the Commissioner Secretary of Environment and Forests.
Significantly, It is also pertinent to note that many government, semi-government and other private sector institutions have been established on these bighas of land, such as the Goalpara District Court Complex, District Chief Post Office Complex, Goalpara Sadar Police Station Complex, Kendriya Vidyalaya Complex, Additional Awar Bhawan premises, Pratima Pandey Children's Park premises, Agia Village Indoor Stadium premises etc. while these have been allocated by the government, why are these homeless and landless people being targeted here? Instead of finding a solution wherein both the parties can stay amicably, these “encroachers” are being evicted.
Many of those who lost their property in the Brahmaputra erosion have no other choice but to live on forest land. They are trying to survive. As a welfare state, our Constitution ensures that every citizen to a dignified life. Based on this, through the memorandum filed, the lawyers have demanded that in order to facilitate a smooth eviction, the people living on the forest lands should be provided with alternative housing spaces for relocation. In addition to this, while every citizen of india has the right to shelter, they also have the right to food and water. Thus, the Goalpara Lawyers Association has also demanded employment arrangements in the said memorandum.
Evacuation without resettlement will surely result in millions of people becoming environmental refugees, paralleling the humanitarian crisis. Serious damage will be caused. Therefore, while the eviction order of the court might have been given in the larger interest, it is also important to consider the individual interest of people whose lives are getting affected. The people of Goalpara are demanding a judicial approach that takes into consideration ground realities to ensure humane resettlement arrangements are planned instead of an eviction procedure where there is arbitrary and discriminatory treatment.
This issue has been neglected by large sections of the media, too. CJP urges all the concerned citizens of India to encourage all the relent parties to take humane action on this issue. Copies of the memorandum should also be sent to the Chief Conservator of Forests, District Commissioner and Goalpara Forest Divisional Authority.
The memorandum can be read here.
The Gauhati HC order can be read here.
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