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Pratibha Brahma
Date of Publish: 2017-03-02

TIME TO UNDO HISTORICAL INJUSTICE

Tribal people in India are amongst the poorest and the most vulnerable section of people in society. They have persistently been facing problems of land alienation, indebtedness, government monopoly of resources over which they have been living since generations, involuntary displacement due to development projects and lack of proper rehabilitation after being displaced and the like.

When India attained independence in 1947,immediate attention paid by the government then were the issues of food security for the millions of starving and hungry Indian’s, industrialization and establishment of infrastructure for projects like irrigation, large hydroelectric power projects etc. In between these policies, the main objective of forest management taken up was to serve the purpose of industry and agriculture. Marginalized section of population who were mainly dependent on forest resources and their livelihood needs took backseat on the minds of people who framed policies on forest management which became discernable in Government of India’s National Forest Policy Resolution of 1952 which stated:

“Village communities in the neighbourhood of a forest will naturally make greater use of its products for the satisfaction of their domestic and agricultural needs. Such use, however, should in no event be permitted at the cost of national interests. The accident of a village being situated close to a forest does not prejudice the right of the country as a whole to receive the benefits of a national asset.” And: “Restrictions should be imposed in the interests not only of the existing generation, but also of posterity.” (Kumar, 1992, page 63)

In Assam state, tribal leaders from the plains demanded for safeguard of tribal lands fearing of the recurrence of crisis they faced during the colonial period from huge outpouring of land grabber migrants from outside not indigenous to the land. Hence, Chapter X was specially added in the Assam Land & Revenue Regulation, 1886 and with it the state government constituted Tribal Belts and Blocks with provision to provide welfare & protection of certain backward classes so far as land settlement and related matters were concerned. But the enactment of this special provision in the land law of Assam proved to be the most farcical one and after seven decades of independence there is still high-pitched cry demanding for protection of tribal belts & blocks due to illegal encroachments and breach of land administration in protected belts and blocks of Assam.

Extreme sense of betrayal was felt by District Tribal Sangha of erstwhile Goalpara when it came to their knowledge that in May 1952 the Government alienated an area of 4037 bighas of cultivable land from Bijni Tribal Block constituted in 1947 and included it in the Panbari Reserved Forests.In 1950, the government of India requested Assam government to increase state’s total area under forest reserves to increase the generation of revenue as mentioned above. Tragically, the state government responded by taking a slice from tribal block area.

Again, in 1962 the state government excluded an area of 11,253 bighas,2 kathas,7 lessas of land from the Bijni Tribal Block for the purpose of rehabilitation of 1368 refugee families who migrated from the erstwhile East Pakistan and created Bishunupur Colony for the refugees. The land snatched away by the state government to accommodate refugees were all cultivable land of tribal people who were basically agriculturists and ground problems & complexities due to land alienation of tribals were created by the state government themselves. The central government had then put pressure on Assam government for arranging land where refugees could be settled with the promise of cash fund for acquisition of land for the refugees which would be sanctioned individually in the name of recipients as loans. This prospect of handling financial aid in the form of loan was found to be too tempting and alluring for state government and it was reflected in what the then Finance Minister of Assam Motiram Bora said in his statement when he was enquired about the settlement of refugees in Assam:

“We do not allot any money (for refugees).All the expenditures is borne by the Government of India.They provide all money.In matter of acquisition of land, we acquire the land but the money is paid by the Government of India for the acquisition of land etc. through loans. As a matter of fact we have no complaint.The Government of India is providing us with necessary funds.”

This is how Assam government indirectly started operating like the real estate business by selling both lands belonging to tribal belts & blocks to refugees with central government fund. It is ironical that Assam gave away the protected lands of tribal belts & blocks though Assam at that time had about 19 million acres of cultivable fallow wasteland on its hand as government land! Thus, Assam government manipulated on land laws and gave away large chunks of lands from protected tribal belts and blocks for all purposes like establishment of big projects, urbanization, extension of forests or settlement of refugees.

A delegation of the Assam Tribal Sangha sought an appointment to meet the Chief Minister B.P.Chaliha on March 28 and 29, 1966 to apprise him of the serious issue of concern of the tribal people. They demanded the government of Assam for restoring the encroached lands of tribal belts and blocks but the state government with influential officials backstabbed the tribal population by initiating a move to include some other categories of list in the bonafide classes that deserved to be settled in the tribal blocks.

Today, unfortunate scenario of tribal villages getting evicted by forest departments does not evoke any response or create much impact in anybody’s mind in the state be it from intellectuals to debate in sitting rooms of private channels in Guwahati, active social organizations, political organizations, media, writers and even tribal leaders for fear of causing displeasure to sections which might prove to be disastrous during election! Recently, a massive eviction drive took place at Saliagaon near Boro Bazaar under Bhuyapara forest range in Manas National Park by forest department. There are number of tribal villages which have been sent notice for eviction drive soon. I am not against conservation and am very much concerned for mass deforestation and degradation of our forest resources in the state especially BTAD region. But if minute observation is made, it is revealed that the major beneficiaries of the nexus in the modus operandi of destroying vast forest resources have gone to big shots leaving meager tidbits to tribal people staying in fringe areas who have been used only as manuals in the process. This write-up does not want to put up an argument on the issue of demanding back the de-notified land of Bijni Tribal Block to Manas National Park for the welfare of tribal people but to co-ordinate for the betterment of both the tribal people who is traditionally forest dwellers and conservation of our environment like the World Heritage Site, the Manas National Park.

Time has come for the government of Assam to change its attitude of apathy towards tribals and implement the historical Scheduled Tribes & Other Traditional Forest Dwellers( Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 which is first of its kind in the attempt to undo the “historical injustice. It is better late than never in implementing the act for bringing back trust and faith of poor tribal people in system of governance. In the process, of course, major part lies on the concerned departments to make the tribes aware that Forest Rights Act, 2006 envisages recognition of customary rights of forest dependent Scheduled Tribes after legislation for protection and conservation of wildlife and ecosystem.

Pratibha Brahma

( Pratibha Brahma is the Editor-in-chief of Bibungthi-the opinion, a quarterly English magazine published from Kokrajhar. She can be contacted at pratibha.brahma@rediffmail.com. The views expressed are the author's own. )

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