The deep chasm dug up by Assam govts eviction drive

The deep chasm dug up by Assam govt's eviction drive

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On September 24, the villagers of Dhalpur 3 in Assam’s Darrang district gathered around a pile of broken tin roofs and wooden beams, and prayed hard between sobs. Until a day ago, a mosque stood at the spot. On September 23, police and district administration officials arrived in huge numbers along with JCBs (earthmovers) as part of an ongoing eviction drive to free 77,420...

On September 24, the villagers of Dhalpur 3 in Assam’s Darrang district gathered around a pile of broken tin roofs and wooden beams, and prayed hard between sobs. Until a day ago, a mosque stood at the spot. On September 23, police and district administration officials arrived in huge numbers along with JCBs (earthmovers) as part of an ongoing eviction drive to free 77,420 ‘bighas’ (25,595 acres) of government land of alleged encroachers. Soon, a clash broke out between the police and the protesting people who were being evicted.

Not too far away, a young mother was mourning the death of her 12-year-old son Shaikh Farid, who was caught in the violence and was one of two people felled by police bullets. Maynal Hoque, 28, was the other victim.

The areas near Sipajhar town, including Dhalpur 3 village, where the eviction drives are taking place are part of the Assam government’s Garukhuti Project, which aims to remove alleged encroachers — mostly Bengali-speaking Muslims — and start agricultural and other allied activities for indigenous youth.

Starting September 20, more than 1,200 houses and two religious structures, including a private institution, have been demolished.

The fateful day

The villages were teetering on the edge for months. “We were tense ever since we heard about the government project, but were hopeful that a solution will be reached soon and our homes will be spared,” says Rashid Ali, who along with his wife and three children, lost the roof above his head during last Thursday’s eviction.

Ali says even on the day of the eviction when their houses were bulldozed, they heard from some people that an understanding has been reached with the government. The villagers also heard from somewhere that the government was planning to provide them alternative land. “But we haven’t heard anything concrete on that,” he says.

Villagers say even while their houses were being bulldozed, they heard from someone that an understanding has been reached with the government.

According to activist and student leader Eddis Ali, those evicted have been staying there since the past 40-50 years and all their names figured in the NRC list.

“We held several rounds of meetings with the Assam government, including Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma and Padma Hazarika, who is the chairman of the proposed project,” says Ali, a member of the All Assam Minority Students Union (AAMSU).

In those meetings, the AAMSU placed a demand for alternative land as compensation which, he claims, the Assam government had agreed to give. “The government had agreed to give six bighas of land to each evicted family. This was something that was agreed upon much before the eviction drive started.”

After the villagers were served an eviction notice, Ali adds, he and others again met Padma Hazarika as well as the deputy commissioner. “They assured us that those evicted will be compensated with land.”

According to Ali, the Assam government had assured them land not too far away from their present settlement.

“But we have some reservations about the location we have been promised. It is a low-lying area and thus prone to flooding. Besides, we also raised demand for basic amenities like toilets, which the administration had agreed to provide.”

Many among the villages expressed reservations about the proposed site to resettle them. Most of the people, The Federal spoke to, feared river-bank erosion that would again make them landless.

Eroding dreams

According to Assam government data, Brahmaputra and its tributaries have eroded away more than 4.27 lakh hectares of land since 1950, which is 7.40 per cent of the area of the state. Data also shows that Assam has lost at least 8,000 sq km of land since 1951 due to floods every year.

“We had settled here as we don’t have any land and now we are scared to build our houses at a place prone to erosion. The government must look into this concern,” says Rashid Ali.

The ongoing eviction drive has changed the lives of scores of families forever. Now, without shelter and food, all of them are looking at a bleak future.

On Friday, an eerie silence engulfed the area. As mediapersons closed in on Maynal Hoque’s family — his widow, three children and parents — they were huddled inside a structure made of two tin sheets held together by wooden beams.

A devastated Maqbool Ali couldn’t believe his son was no more. “Initially when I heard that he was dead, I refused to believe. Only when I saw his body, I realised that I have lost him forever,” he says.

Maynal used to work as a daily wage labourer and was the sole breadwinner of the family. In his absence, Maqbool Ali doesn’t know how he would look after the family. “I’m too old to be able to go out and work now. We are doomed.”

It was the video clip of Maynal’s killing in police firing that spread like wildfire, exposing the Assam government to severe backlash from several quarters.

In the video, policemen in riot gear, armed with guns and sticks are seen chasing and attacking villagers. Soon, a villager (later identified as Maynal) armed with a stick is seen running after a photographer and eventually into a group of policemen who beat the man with batons. As he falls on the ground after being shot, policemen continue to hit him with their batons. Suddenly, the photographer, with a camera slung around his neck, comes running and begins to stomp the body repeatedly as Maynal lies on the ground. He then kicks and punches him before being gently taken away by the police. As another camera zooms in, Maynal can still be seen breathing. A splotch of blood on his vest shows the area where he has been shot.

The photographer, later identified as Bijoy Baniya, was attached with the district administration. Following massive outcry over the video, Baniya was arrested while a judicial inquiry has been ordered by the state government into the incident.

The other victim,  Farid, had reportedly gone to get his Aadhaar card and was caught up in the ensuing clashes. However, the 12-year-old used to live with his family 2 km away from Dholpur 3 village.

According to his father, Khaleque Ali, his son had gone to the post office to get his Aadhaar card. He was returning home, unaware of the clashes.

“When I was initially told, I simply refused to believe that something so cruel could ever happen to us. But I was wrong. It happened,” says the father. He breaks down asking what was his son’s fault. “He was just a child.”

On September 20, after the first leg of the eviction drive, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had complimented the district administration and Assam Police for having cleared about 4,500 bigha by evicting 800 families, demolishing four religious structures and a private institution.

However, finding himself on the backfoot after the September 23 violence, the chief minister has ordered judicial inquiry into the whole issue. He also announced that all the landless who have been evicted will be compensated with six bighas of land each (family).

In his defence, Sarma claims that close to 27,000 acres of land is under encroachment and the Assam government plans to put it to productive use.

“This was not anything sudden, we have talked and discussed this with the representatives of local organisations since I took over as CM several times, and they agreed to it.”

Speaking to reporters after the violence, Sarma said in the past few months some dubious elements collected about Rs 28 lakh from Dhalpur residents with the promise to stop the eviction. “But when they failed to stop the eviction, they mobilised local residents.”

Sarma also claimed that there was evidence to suggest the involvement of the Popular Front of India (PFI) in the unrest.

Assam PFI general secretary Robiul Hussain has, however, dismissed the charges and welcomed any probe ordered by the government into the incident.

Meanwhile, the two influential student bodies in the state — All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and the All Assam Minority Students Union (AAMSU) are at loggerheads with their own sets of demands and both have staged protests.

While the AAMSU is demanding a complete halt to the drive till the affected families are not resettled, the AASU supports the eviction “without any violence” to clear government and forest land from encroachments. According to AASU illegal encroachment is a huge problem in Assam. Chief minister Sarma on Saturday also said that land twice the size of Goa (India’s smallest state by area) is under encroachment in Assam.

Encroachment twice India’s smallest state

According to the Assam government, a total of 49 lakh bighas (or 6,652 sq km) of government and forest land is under encroachment. While seeking a second straight term in Assam, the BJP had repeatedly promised that it will remove all such encroachments.

In a recent Cabinet decision, the government decided to free 77,420 bighas of encroached land and start a multipurpose cooperative agriculture project employing local youths.

“We will start work on the project as soon as the area is cleared from encroachment and we will engage indigenous youths,” says Padma Hazarika.

The belongings of Dholpur 3 villagers after they were evicted from their houses.

On being asked if people who have been evicted from there will be given employment in the project, Hazarika said they are most welcome to be part of the project and claimed some have already approached him for work there.

“We plan to give employment to at least 5,000 people in this project and the number could even go up.”

But not everyone is convinced. Concerns have been raised over the cooperative project when such ventures have failed miserably in the past.

“Honesty, dedication to service is missing in cooperative departments in the state. More than 90 per cent cooperative officials and secretaries of Gaon Panchayat Level Co-operative Society (GPCS) are involved in corrupt practices. Misappropriation of society’s funds is a common feature of the GPCS,” according to research scholar Chandra Baruah of Dibrugarh University,

In a paper published recently, Baruah writes that excessive government control is another factor responsible for the sluggish growth of the cooperative sector in the state. “The NABARD (National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development), set up in 1981 on the recommendation of the Sivaraman Committee, found sagacity in supporting a state-partnered and state-governed cooperative credit structure. Instead of tackling the root cause of their weakness, the state started to behave like patrons rather than a provider of financial services. In many cases, the co-operative department is found responsible for the unhealthy and deteriorating condition of credit societies.”

Besides, there are not many buyers of the government’s promise of evicting “illegal settlers” and giving that land to indigenous people to eke out a living. Many among the indegenous tribal groups themselves are living in the fear of losing their own houses.

One such man is 52-year-old Pradip Basumatary of Dungar Guri village in the Morigaon district. Basumatary has been living on government land close to an embankment for years. “We lost our land and house to the Brahmaputra river years back,” he tells The Federal.  Even since, the man and his family of three have been living on government land. But with the government’s eviction drive at Dhalpur across the river from Dungar Guri, Basumatary fears the same fate. “I don’t want to end up like Maynal.”




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