Assam: Hundreds rendered homeless during eviction drive in Lakhimpur

Policemen watch as bulldozer razes crops in Lakhimpur, Assam. | TCN Photo

The drive to evict encroachers from a forest land in Assam’s Lakhimpur district has left with 299 families in the lurch.

Afnan Habib | 

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NEW DELHI — Around 300 people living on a 250-hectare area in Assam’s Lakhimpur district were left homeless on Wednesday as the effort to expel encroachers from the forest area continued for the second day.

The evicted, most of whom were Bengali-speaking Muslims, lamented that they were unable to gather all of their possessions and that their crops had been ruined in the drive.

The government started the activity on Tuesday to clear around 450 hectares of Pava Reserve Forest. In Mohghuli village, which had 201 families, 200 hectares were cleaned by officials on the first day. 

“The drive resumed today at 7.30 am. It was completed peacefully. We did not face any resistance,” a senior district administration official told PTI.

According to the official, over 70 bulldozers, excavators, and tractors were dispatched to the village of Adhasona as 600 police officers and members of the CRPF maintained watch.

Around 500 Hindu households are living in the forest, according to some of the victims, and the “government must evict them too” if it is genuinely concerned about encroachment.

The senior official claimed that the Hindu families—most of whom belonged to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes—had petitioned the Gauhati High Court in 2016 to request rehabilitation. The official argued that the court had ordered the eviction to be postponed until another agreement was established. 

Additionally, a cooperative society run by BJP MLA Amiya Kumar Bhuyan called Bir Lachit Bahumukhi Samabai Samiti is located in the forest area. It was growing mustard on 450 bighas (over 60 hectares)

The All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU) denounced the eviction drive as “inhuman and one-sided” and held a small demonstration in the Lakhimpur district’s Sonapur neighborhood. 

The senior official said that since November 2021, the “illegal settlers” had received repeated reminders to leave the area. 

“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 clarified.

One of those impacted by the campaign, Rahima Khatun, claimed that agriculture was their sole source of subsistence.

“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 said. 

Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Ashok Kumar Dev Choudhury of Lakhimpur stated that just 0.32 sq km of the 46 sq km Pava Reserve Forest, designated in 1941, was free, and the rest was entirely occupied. Over the past three decades, he said that 701 households have taken over the property in the Pava Reserve Forest.

These residents requested to have their settlement designated as a “Forest Village” in 2006, but the government denied their request at the time. Eighty-four families filed paperwork in July of last year claiming to own land, but closer examination revealed that they were fraudulent.

Notably, throughout the years, several central and state programs, including the Pradhan Mantri Gramin Awas Yojana, MGNREGA, Anganwadi centers, water supply, and rural electrification, have been implemented in this territory. 

The DFO said that the state administration had given the go-ahead for a request to plant trees on 200 hectares of property.

“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,” the DFO added.

This is Assam’s third major eviction drive in a month. One of the major operations in the area was conducted on December 19 in Nagoan’s Batadrava, uprooting more than 5,000 alleged encroachers. On December 26, another operation was performed to clear 400 bighas in Barpeta.

Since assuming power in May 2021 under the leadership of Himanta Biswa Sarma, the government has conducted eviction drives in several regions of the state. 

Sarma had informed the Assembly on December 21 that eviction campaigns to remove government and forest areas in Assam would continue so long as the BJP remained in power, despite opposition criticism.

Afnan Habib is a freelance journalist based in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir. He tweets @afnanhabib_