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Forest dwellers deprived of livelihood and facing forcible eviction in Assam

Summary of fact-finding report into the Patharia land-grabbing case

The Barak Human Rights Protection Committee (BHRPC) has learnt that around 300 families of traditional forest dwellers in and around forest reserve in Karimganj district of the North Eastern state of Assam have forcibly been deprived of their sources of livelihood and now living under severe threat of imminent eviction from their dwelling houses by some businessmen allegedly in connivance with the local politician Minister of state for co-operation and border areas development in the government of Assam Mr Siddeque Ahmed. The accused persons grabbed the land measuring approximately 130 hectares (330 acres) reportedly for rubber plantation in a village where the families of the forest dwellers have been living for generations depending on the forest produces for livelihood. The forest dwellers were asked to leave the areas soon and threatened with murders, rape and jail. The BHRPC is deeply concerned over the situation of the poor forest dwellers.

The BHRPC first learnt about the situation from newspaper reports (See 14 March, 2012 issue of the Dainik Prantojyoti, a Bengali daily newspaper published from , ) on 14 March, 2012 and formed a fact-finding group of 1. Mr. , 2. Mr. , 3. Mr. Nirmal Kumar Das and 4. Mr. Sams Uddin Laskar to study the situation and prepare a report. The team visited the Patharia area on 17 March and met with the forest dwellers and other local people. This preliminary report is based on the findings of the team during the visit.

The area where the situation has developed is known as Satkoragul, Mokkergul and Bhitorgul and falls in the village of Pecharpar under the Patharkandi Police Stattion in the district of Karimganj that has about 100 kilometres long international border with Bangladesh. The village is situated along the border. A part of the village land comes under the Bilbari forest beat of the Patharia reserve forest. It is at a distance of about 30km towards south west from Karimganj town, the administrative headquarters of the district.

The BHRPC team, even though accompanied by a resident of nearby Patharkandi (name withheld), have been greeted with an eerie silence. Fear and disbelief were visibly writ large in the faces of the people. When the team met a person after entering the village and asked about the situation, another person came out running from a house and told that nothing happened there. With fear and terror-stricken face he told that there was no land grab and threat of eviction. Then the team met a woman resident (name withheld) who took them to her house. The team were aware that many people gathered around her house and were whispering trying to remain unseen and unheard. They suddenly came out looking agitated. They asked if the BHRPC team were ‘people of the minister’. After the team introduced themselves as defenders and explained the purpose of the visit they calmed down and told their story one by one.

The team met around 30 persons of 18 families of the forest dwellers (names withheld). It is learnt from the villagers that they have been living in the area for generations and at the least for more than 75 years using approximately 130 hectares (330 acres) land for both dwelling and livelihood purposes. Almost all of the residents are Bengalis; either Hindus or Muslims by religion. It is very heartening to see that both the communities have been leading a simple and idyllic life in perfect harmony with each other on the one hand and with the nature on the other. Religion does not come in their sense of communitarianism.

According to them, a part of the land held by them for generations comes under the Patharia reserve forest, another part is government khas land (un-allotted government land) and the remaining part is farag land (land once held by the (Zamindars) feudal lords but later given to the tenants under contract). The villagers primarily live on forest produces, farming of cultivable land and cattle rearing. Among the forest produces, they usually only collect dried up and felled branches of trees and sell them as fire woods, which does not affect the forest in any way. In arable land they grow paddy, ginger, turmeric, taro along with growing bamboo and betel nut tress in high land. They also rear hen, duck, goat, cow and buffalo etc. in the forest land for livelihood support.

According to the villagers, some people started to fell trees in the forest land falling under Pecharpar village in November, 2011. When the villagers inquired why they were felling the trees, they were told that the tree cutters were ‘people of minister’ Siddeque Ahmed and he bought the land from the forest department for rubber plantation. This piece of news shocked and terrified the villagers so much that they could not decide the course of actions for months. The labourers employed for felling the trees were supervised by one Mr Mahibur Rahman (also known as Bolu Mia) of Choudhury Tilla, a person known to be close to the minister and dreaded by the local people, according to the villagers. The villagers also did not have any idea how much land would be grabbed in this way. They kept mum as they were asked.

Meanwhile, the tree cutters continued their work and almost all of the land held by the villagers were cleared within about a month. They felled almost all the big trees and burnt down small trees, vegetables, bushes and grass. This clearing of the land destroyed everything which the villagers live on. They had nothing to eat and feed their cattle. In this situation, some villagers met the minister at his residence in Nilambazar (Karimganj district). He told them that he had already procured title deeds of the land and now he owned it. He also told that if they still had any grievances he would provide them with some relief in terms of money. The villagers returned with empty hand.

However, the BHRPC failed to get a confirmation or denial from the minister of the claim made by the villagers about his direct involvement in the land grab as several efforts to contact him over his mobile number that is available with the BHRPC failed. Though most of the time the phone was found switched off he received one of the calls but did not talk about the matter. Later it was learnt that he told the local news reporters that the land in question was not bought by him. It is a non-government village organization named Asalkandi Gramin Bikash Kendra that took the land from the forest department on lease for rubber plantation and he has nothing to do with the organization, he added. But the organization is yet to confirm or deny the claim of the minister. The name of the organization suggests that it is based in Asalkandi, a village adjacent to Pecharpar.

After failure at the door of the minister, when the villagers tried to organize themselves to protest against the illegal land grab and illegal felling of trees, some people who identified themselves as persons working for the minister including Mr Bolu Mia, Mr. Abdul Hannan of Raghurtuk and Mr Manik told the villagers that it would not serve anything to try to fight against the minister. According to them, the minister is a powerful person and in case of opposition to him the villagers would have to face dire consequences including facing serious police cases, serving jail terms for long period and other dangers. They further asked the villagers to stop construction of any houses and leave the place as soon as possible, the BHRPC team was informed by the villagers.

One villager (name withheld) stated that he was residing in Pecharpar since he was born and his father told that he had also been born there. He had approximately 1.60 acres of land including his house. He used to grow betel nut, fruit trees and vegetables including taro and ginger etc. in the land, which were all cut down and taken away and which could not be taken away were burnt down. He was left with no source of livelihood and he was worried how to feed his family of 12 members (6 children, 3 adult female and 3 adult male). More worryingly, he has no place to live with the family if he is forced to leave the village.

When the BHRPC team met a woman resident of the village (name withheld) she broke down with emotion and wiping her tears told that she was worried about the personal security of her daughter (name and other details withheld) and female member of her family. She told that when the people who were cutting the trees and clearing the land did not respond to her protest as she was old she sent her daughter. They abused her daughter and threatened that they would abduct, rape and kill her and other female members of her family. The woman also told that she had about 2 hectares of land including her house. The trees and vegetables that she had grown in the land were cut down and burnt down. She had now nothing to support her family of 7 persons.

Another resident of Satkoragul (name withheld) told that he held nearly 4 hectares of land under farag contract. This land was also cleared out. He used to grow bamboos in high land and paddy in low land and vegetables and fruit trees in other parts. According to him, he and his family of 12 persons were leading a happy and very contented life. But, now he even lost words to express his anxiety and worries. He had nothing to provide for the family and nowhere to go in case of forcible eviction.

All other residents talked with by the BHRPC team told more less the same story. They held land ranging from half a hectare to 3 hectares per family, which has now been grabbed by the minister and his people. The villagers have nothing to eat and nowhere to go in case of eviction. If the situation continues they may have to live under conditions of starvation and may also be subjected to forcible displacement.

Some villagers (names withheld) accompanied the BHRPC team and showed the land, logs and roots of felled trees and ashes of the burnt out vegetables, bushes and grass. He uttered some chilling words as an aside. He said that he did not accompany any politicians from the opposition who came to inspect the area for fear of life, but he was accompanying the BHRPC team as they were human rights defenders. He did not know what would happen to him after the BHRPC team leaves.

On the other hand, it is reported that after one opposition politician issued a statement demanding resignation of the minister inquiries were initiated by the forest department. However, it is said that the forest department officials who visited the village were some times accompanied by ‘the people of the minister’. Therefore, the villagers have questioned the impartiality and objectivity of the officials. It is also learnt that a case was filed at the Patahrkandi police station against some unknown persons by ranger of Patharkandi forest range for illegal felling of trees in the land of forest reserve. According to the villagers, this is a move by the department to subvert the process of law as the accused have not been named and there is none who would dare to name them. It is further learnt that the District Magistrate (Deputy Commissioner) of Karimganj has also ordered a magisterial inquiry into the felling of trees and land grabbing. But the villagers are of the opinion that an executive magistrate who works under the minister can not conduct an impartial and objective inquiry against the minister and his people.

In the meantime, destruction of forest and other land produces continue as well as the ominous threat of displacement keeps coming nearer to an infernal reality. And it is clearly written in the wrinkles that are getting deeper in the faces of the hapless villagers.

20 March, 2012

Guwahati, Assam

Note: The identity of the victims and witnesses is not disclosed in view of the threat they are facing. Disclosure may endanger their life. Concerned readers are requested to contact the BHRPC for names and addresses of the victims and other relevant information if they are required for taking actions on their behalf. The details may be provided under an assurance of confidentiality.

See Photographs here

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