Wetlands in Assam have become new conflict zones
Wetlands in Assam are repositories of diversity, ecology and livelihood support system of local people. However, many of these wetlands have increasingly become the centres of conflict among the neighbouring communities, over their uses and sharing the services. Conflicts of interest among the parties looking for profit out of it and neighbouring communities’ which are dependent on these for day to day survival needs have also turned these wetlands into conflict zones, thanks to the continuance of colonial fallacy of looking at these wetlands only as assets for revenue earning.
Reports of such conflicts occupy prominent space of newspapers in the state.
“A clash broke out between two groups of people over the Number 2 Tangiya beel (wetland) near Kaki, under Tangiya Gaon panchayat of newly created Hojai district on last August 21, 2016. The Number 2 Tangiya beel belongs to forest Department. The department called for quotations to hand over the wetland on lease to private party. It was opposed by the local people as they depend on this wetland for their livelihood. The clashes broke out when one of the applicants seeking to take the wetland on lease engaged labourers for releasing fish seeds in the wetland, which, the local people opposed. Several persons, including women, were injured. Police rushed there to control the situation, but people were so angry that they even attacked the police. The situation was brought under control around midnight. ( Niyomiya Barta, August 22,2016,page11).”
However, such clashes over wetlands are not new in Assam. The first most violent conflict over wetland took place place in 1970 over Dangdhora beel of Lakhimpur district and similar clashes are still reported from different parts of the state.
Dangdhora is an abandoned channel of Lakhimpur district, which was given on lease to a private party by fishery department in January, 1970. Local people protested against the decision, because it was a community fishing ground. On Jan 29, 1970, local people of neighbouring villages came out to register their protest against this decision. Over a thousand people started fishing in the beel as a mark of protest. Police resorted to lathi charge followed by firing. Around 200 women were arrested and 22 fishing boats were captured by police. Nineteen women were badly injured. Local MLA Nameswar Pegu was arrested. Curfew had to be imposed by district administration to control the situation. (Dainik Asom, February 5, 1970, p.3).
The newspaper reported (Feb.20, 1970, p.6) a similar incident near Dharapur Chariali in the city in which one person was seriously injured in clash between two groups of people over cultivation of Boro paddy on Borbeel near Dharapur Chariali. However, over the years such conflicts have increased in the state.
There are 7, 64,372 hectares of land area that is identified as wetlands in the state. The wetlands represent 9.74 per cent of the total geographical area, out of which rivers and streams cover 637164 hectares of area lake/ponds cover 51257 hectares, water logged areas cover 47141 hectares and 14173 hectares is occupied by 0x-bow lakes (National Wetland Atlas: Assam, MoEF, GOI, Space Applications Centre, ISRO, ARSAC, 2010). Moreover, the state has large number of water tanks and wetlands of heritage importance that are distributed throughout the state. There are large numbers of seasonally waterlogged areas considered as wetlands which play an important role in supporting the livelihood activities of the people and creating larger scope for development and conservation.
Such instances are the indicators of conflicting situation arising out of common property resources like wetland, where everyone wants to use it in their own interest. Even the government and policy making system apparently hardly understand the requirement. Such system commonly follows the colonial fallacy by looking it from revenue earning perspectives. In persuasion of that belief and perception, many wetlands were leased out to professional users before seventies and many of them in the name of co-operative society, started individual or limited people’s group business. Similar practice has been going in the current decade too when many abundant river channels and large wetland are handed over to different Self Help Group (SHG) for fisheries. It is an irony that a common property in such cases handed over to a SHG having only 10-11 members while depriving the interest of larger group of communities.
There are many incidences of conflicts between SHG and the community over wetlands. Conflict over Solmari beel of Solmari Mikir Gaon in central Assam’s Morigaon district is an instance of such conflicts. Solmari beel was the source of livelihood, irrigation and water of the village. In September 2006, the beel was allotted to a SHG by the district authority under Hariyali Scheme. Initially the SHG group started cleaning the wetland and removed water hyacinth almost from all the area and introduced different carp varieties of fish. It was not appreciated by the villagers and local Women Collective (Mahila Sangha) raised their voice against handing over the wetland to the SHG, and argued that the decision would deprive around 25 landless families of the village which survive solely on fishing and collection of grass from this wetland. The women’s group organised protest demonstration in front of Deputy Commissioner’s office and ultimately the district administration withdraw the decisions (Sarma J. K., Das K. C. , Research Initiatives in Sustainable Management of Natural Resources in the NE India- an effort to integrate policies, processes and outcomes, Project Report, ICCF,2006,p.48). Similarly, many abandoned river channels are nowadays given on lease to different SHG/groups, like abandoned cahanels of Kalong, viz. Morikalong, Pota Kolong were given on lease to SHG. The SHG started fishery activities and barricaded the portion allotted to them with earthen bund which snapped the hydrological linkages as well as flow linkages of these abandoned channels with the main streams which is one of the factors responsible for water logging in many places including urban areas.
Wetlands in the state are also facing threats of encroachment, pollution and other forms of degradation due to population pressure, expansion of agricultural area, chemicals use in agriculture, urbanization, industrialization, so called other developmental activities, like road and other construction works.
K.S. Jayachandran in his “Troubled waters of Assam- A Critical account of water pollution due to oil industries in Assam” mentioned that, “IUCN has rated oil pollution of Assam wetlands as a major threat to avifauna like white winged ducks. Oil coats the feathers of wintering birds, reducing their insulator properties and causing death due to hypothermia. On lake shores, oil coats plants preventing photosynthesis. It covers the gills of fishes interfering with feeding and respiration.”
Absence of wetland policy, management frameworks are the factors responsible for such anomalies and conflicts over wetlands in the state. The interactions of physical, biological and chemical components of a wetland, such as soils, water, plants and animals, enable the wetland to perform many vital functions, like, water storage, storm protection and flood mitigation; erosion control, groundwater recharge, groundwater discharge, water purification, retention of nutrients, retention of sediments, retention of pollutants, stabilization of local climate conditions, etc. But the national wetland rules 2010 of proposed national wetland policy did not focus on people-centric approaches and management of ecological services of the wetland. The priorities now are only to use wetland as economic assets, produce fishes and cater to the needs of the biospheric people while the needs of the ecosystem peoples are neglected everywhere.
Therefore, it is high time to formulate a separate state wetland policy, develop Wetland authority to remove the conflict of wetland management between the revenue, fishery and forest departments, along with agro-climatic zone wise guideline for wetland management. It is possible to develop some community based wetland restoration and sustainable development model, under collaborative efforts of government agency, academia and NGO so that similar model can be adopted in other places as well.
Jayanta Kumar Sarma
( Jayanta Kumar Sarma is a freelance consultant in the area of Environment and Development and he has been working with NGO, Educational Institutions, private entrepreneurial farm and government agencies of North-east region. He did his Post graduation in Geography from Gauhati University and Post Master in Natural Resource Management from IIFM. He can be reached at email@example.com )