The Conservation Discourse in Assam Must Consider a Sustainable Rehabilitation Plan for the Mising Tribe

The Misings in Upper Assam continue to lose most of their arable territory to constant floods, forcing the affected people to look for alternate living spaces. Often, they find themselves occupying land in protected forest areas, leading to conflict and opposition; both from conservation groups and the local population of the region.

On the morning of 19 July 2017, about 700 people belonging to Laika and Dodhia villages of Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, a protected area of Assam, entered the Tarani reserve forest, armed with bamboo, tarpaulin, axes, and bags intending to settle there. They were primarily from the Mising tribe displaced by perennial floods in the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park. Very soon, the people from the neighbouring villages gathered in the Tarani Reserve and resisted the attempts of the Misings. This led to arguments and the situation soon heated up. Police interventions were needed to defuse the tension, and the flood-affected people were sheltered in schools set up as temporary relief camps. This prompted the Assam state environment and forest minister Pramila Rani Brahma to visit these people. 

In November 2017, the Government of Assam, acting on a public interest litigation (PIL) by an NGO, Early Birds, carried out a massive eviction drive in Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary in the vicinity of the state capital, Dispur. Such was the brutality of the eviction that it became national news with all media houses giving extensive coverage to it. More than 283 houses were gutted and people were forced to live in open spaces in the cold, as they had nowhere else to go. There was a massive outrage against the eviction and organisations such as Coordination Committee of Tribal Organisations (CCTO), Assam, termed the eviction “illegal” (Bagchi 2017).  Following these protests, the Misings in the state announced that the members of ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would be barred from entering their villages. Even as the eviction was being carried out in Guwahati, the state government served notices of eviction to people who were believed to be inhabiting the forest boundary in Lakhimpur district of Upper Assam. Some of these people had been living there since prior to India’s independence, whereas some others had been displaced by recurrent floods and erosion. Many of the victims of eviction belonged to the Mising tribe. In recent decades, the Misings have been marginalised due to loss of traditional habitat and arable area eroded by rivers as well as by the aggressive conservation approach of the government.

The People and Their Crisis

The Misings, known for their resilient riverine lifestyle and adaptability to floods in Assam, have, of late, been on the brink of becoming climate refugees as their old habitats have become unsustainable due to repeated flooding and erosion. Smajda (2011) notes that the mobility of territorial boundaries is not recognised in government conservation practices and land use plans. Villages allocated to the Misings are regularly eroded by floods, and people are thereby compelled to find new lands to build new houses and to satisfy their daily needs. Some of the families resettle inland, while other families choose to stay on the river bank, but they have no land rights. Thus, they become “landless.” Recent studies conducted in the floodplain zone of Upper Assam suggest that environmental challenges have outdone the indigenous adaptation strategies as sand casting due to breaches in embankment has emerged as a major issue associated with riverine hazards in the region (Hazarika et al 2016). The sand casting has stripped the riverine communities of cultivable agricultural land which, in turn, has had exasperating effects on socio-economic conditions in the flood affected places.

The Indian government’s policy on protected areas has ignored the rights of tribes and forest dwellers. The Mising population in the Dibru-Saikhowa national park had been living there for 50 years before it was formally declared as a national park. The forest area inhabited by the Misings, which was once part of reserve forest in the British era, was declared as a protected area with the nomenclature Dibru-Saikhowa National Park in 1999 by the government. Since the declaration, the people have neither received rehabilitation rights and have, moreover, been denied state-sponsored benefits such as housing, hospitals, schools, electricity, and drinking water. The student organisation of the Misings, Takam Mising Porin Kébang (TMPK), works as an activist group demanding rehabilitation rights for the people.

These developments have raised questions regarding the political ecology of conservation in Assam. Have the tribal people in the protected areas become victims of conservation politics? What is the relationship between the inhabitants of the protected areas with the forest they inhabit and with the government agencies such as the forest department? 

Situation in Dibru-Saikhowa

The Dibru-Saikhowa area has been under forest cover for ages. Laika and Dodhia are two important places inside the park. Laika lies in Tinsukia district and Dodhia in Dibrugarh district and these two places together have a population of 12,000 persons, as per local estimates. The Misings were rehabilitated in Laika and Dodhia by the government after the Assam earthquake of 1950. Since then, the population has increased and villagers have established more residential areas.

The Misings are the second largest tribal ethnic group among the recognised scheduled tribes in Assam, and has a population of 6,80,424 (Census of India 2011). They are mostly riparian inhabitants, especially in flood plains of the Brahmaputra, Subansiri, Dibang, Disang, Dihing, Dikhow, Dikari, Dhansiri, Disoi, Dikrong rivers in upper Assam districts and parts of Arunachal Pradesh. They have led a prolonged non-violent democratic struggle for territorial autonomy under the 6th Schedule of the Indian Constitution. But today, the community finds itself in a struggle for survival within Assam. The Assamese press has also called them “udbastu” (refugee/evacuee), clearly reflecting the plight of these indigenous communities who are becoming refugees in their own land. Despite their longstanding marginality, there has been no formal process to designate them either as internally displaced persons (IDP) or as climate refugees. 

The protected area inhabitants have been rendered helpless as they are deprived of due state benefits such as basic amenities like schools, housing, hospitals, and electricity. For example, there are hospitals, but without health officials and there are schools without teachers. The people complain that the area was declared a national park without their knowledge. Villagers were allotted houses under government-sponsored programmes such as the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana-Gramin (PMAY-G), but this process was left incomplete because the forest department obstructed the construction of concrete structures. They assured the villagers of rehabilitation, but this is yet to materialise. In the 1980s, even the wiring for electricity supply was completed by cutting through 10 kilometres of forested area, but it was later abandoned. People in the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park are dependent on agriculture. Despite repeated assurances from the government, they are wary of tilling their land adequately because they are not sure whether they will live in the area till the season of the harvest. The temporal feeling in their present habitat has led villagers to live a traumatic life of insecurity and uncertainty. In the conservation approach prevalent in Assam, the relocation of tribal inhabitants has been given little attention.

Politics of Conservation and Tribal Identity 

The Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 states that there cannot be human settlement in the boundary of park. This has pushed marginalised tribes, in search of land resources, into a situation of conflict with other communities. For example, the Misings who were escaping the floods attempted to settle in the reserve forest, but were met with opposition from local communities. This led to police intervention in Doomdooma in Tinsukia district in July 2017. The policing nature of governance, instead of recognising the tribes as legal dwellers playing a key role in conserving the forests, has suddenly transformed them into “encroachers” and “exploiters” of the forests. The government’s approach to environmental policy has also ignored the historical sociocultural relationship that the communities had with nature. It largely saw forests as a habitat for wild life which needed protection. Forests were transformed into a commodity and resources like timber and forest produce were left to be exploited by corporations who could circumvent these laws. Misings living in the fringes of the Kaziranga National Park (KNP) have also been victims of these conservation practices. Suspected of being a poached, Horen Doley, a Mising youth, was killed in a village close to the KNP. The Misings have been caught in the aggressive middle-class campaign for conservation which is also linked to the question of Assamese pride and identity (Barbora 2017). This majoritarian conservation approach has infringed on the rights of tribal people.

The problem faced by the tribals in Dibru-Saikhowa and Kaziranga must be seen in the larger context of the crisis of the indigenous inhabitants of Assam. Tribal belts and blocks were created to safeguard the interest of the tribal population after independence through the adoption of the Assam Land and Revenue (Regulation) Act, 1886. This has met with failure due to non-implementation. Violent conflict has flared up in various parts of Assam due to competition for land resources over the last few decades. The people of Dibru-Saikhowa National Park who are trying to settle on a higher ground in forest areas close to other settled villages seems to have been pushed into even deeper marginality by local groups. This reflects the atmosphere of mistrust and the lack of a humanitarian outlook among the communities of Assam.

The All Assam Tribal Sangha (AATS), a body of tribal rights representatives in Assam, has been demanding a proper implementation of the 1886 act and the eviction of illegal land settlers. From time to time, it has also called for comprehensive review of the existing land policy and the new tribal land policy in Assam (Telegraph 2017a). It is important to note that the tribal communities in Assam mostly lack possession of land deeds issued by the government land revenue department. This becomes a stumbling block for claiming the rights and other state-sponsored benefits such as subsidies and loans for entrepreneurship.

In an agreement signed with the TMPK, it was highlighted that “the Government of Assam, Environment and Forest Minister will take all the necessary steps for the rehabilitation of the legal inhabitants of Dodhia Forest village in Dibru-Saikhowa National Park in the suitable land available in the RFs/PRFS under Dibrugarh-Tinsukia districts as per Laws/ Rules/Guidelines in force within 8 (eight) months from the date of this meeting.” The forest minister of Assam, Pramila Rani Brahma, also highlighted that “if the 12,000 odd people of Laika and Dodhia demand relocation inside the reserve forest, she would consider their demand and submit a proposal before the government of Assam” (Kalantri 2017). The surprising part of the written government assurance is that it spoke of rehabilitating only the villagers of Dodhia Forest village whereas it left out the Laika village which falls within the boundary of the protected area. The village, that is left out is bound to lead to another crisis in future. 

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest rights) Act was passed in 2006. The act is aimed at protecting the rights of tribal and other forest dwellers and extends even to protected areas. However, it has not been implemented properly by the government. Under Section 3 (1) of the 2006 act, the tribal and forest dwelling communities are supposed to get land rights for living up to a particular time frame irrespective of protected nature of forest areas. 

Given the helpless situation in Tarani, some families moved to the Namphai reserve forest on the Assam-Arunachal border, but the forest officials evicted 150 families and cleared 25 hectares of “illegally occupied land” (Dutta 2017). The huts built by the tribal people were demolished by the forest department as they were “encroachers” in the eyes of the law. Besides the demolition of temporary refugees, indigenous women were arrested and put into jail in Tinsukia district as the men fled on seeing the officials from the forest department. The problems of illegal occupation of forest land by indigenous communities have been persistent due to absence of a proper rehabilitation policy for the landless and disaster-affected people. Student organisations are questioning the will and conviction of the government to free encroached land, because in various places “protected areas” have been captured for tea cultivation (Assam Tribune 2017).

In August 2017, the state government in collaboration with the forest department took a drastic step to evict the residents in the vicinity of the state capital, Guwahati. Police and paramilitary forces along with elephants and excavators came to these residential areas to dismantle the houses that belonged to poor urban migrants (mostly Misings) from rural areas of Assam (Sarma 2017). The eviction led to protests by the Mising student body in Guwahati as well as other districts.

A press release issued by the indigenous people’s organisations such as the TMPK and the affected villagers said that they “condemned the merciless eviction drive on the indigenous tribal people in Guwahati without looking at the humanitarian angle who settled for two decades from flood and erosion affected places of various districts of Assam.” After the series of protests in Assam and political intervention from indigenous Mising legislators against the eviction drive in the contentious wildlife, the government suspended the forceful eviction (Telegraph 2017b).

Systematic Negligence 

The Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary and its fringe areas have been declared eco sensitive zones (ESZ) by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change in order to the protect fragile ecology. This has been done without the consultation with the inhabitants. ESZ are meant to create buffer zones where industrial and commercial activities such as mining, saw mills, hydroelectric projects, resorts, hotels, and electric cables are regulated.[1] The lack of consultations is a poor approach to conservation and protection of ecology since it ignores the stakeholders’ rights.

The Assam state government that came to power in the 2016 assembly elections promised to protect the interests of the “khilonjiya” (an Assamese term for indigenous) with the slogan “jati, mati and bheti” (nationality, land, and homestead). This promise seems to mired in uncertainty with every passing day. Former chief election commissioner Hari Shankar Brahma said that “in all of Assam, 63 lakh bigha of government land, including forest land, grazing ground and others, are under illegal occupation, while at least 7 to 8 lakh native families do not have an inch of land. Ninety per cent of the native people do not have myadi patta (permanent land settlement), they have either eksonia patta (annual land settlement) or are occupying government land” (Kalita 2017). The committee also found that many natives of Tinsukia, Dibrugarh and Majuli districts, whose forefathers lost their land in the earthquake of 1950, own neither land nor documents. The committee has also been mandated to review the British-era Assam Land and Revenue Regulation Act, 1886 and suggest measures for its modification. It will be a difficult task ahead for the government to implement a powerful land agenda aimed at securing the indigenous peoples of Assam, given the emerging power equation in state politics. 

Conclusions

There is a need for coordinated intervention from the forest department, conservation advocates, water resources, and environment public policymakers to strike a balance between conservation practices and rehabilitation of distressed tribal communities. In the long run, conservation policy must be sensitive to the interests of tribal communities in order to be sustainable. A formal acknowledgement from the government would be a step towards attracting more humanitarian responses from civil rights bodies and state policy agencies.

 

Press Statement Guwahati TMPK by EPW Digital on Scribd

TMPK Agreement by EPW Digital on Scribd

The authors would like to thank Minturaj Morang of Takam Mising Porin Kébang, President, Tinsukia District Committee, and Reedeepjack Doley, Education Secretary, TMPK, Central Committee, for sharing valuable information relating to Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary respectively.

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