North Lakhimpur (Assam):
Around 70 bulldozers, excavators and tractors have been pressed into action.
The drive to evict encroachers from forest land in Assam's Lakhimpur district continued for the second day on Wednesday, with 299 families residing on a 250-hectare tract left in the lurch.
The evictees, most of them Bengali-speaking Muslims, said that they could not collect all of their belongings, and their crops were destroyed in the drive.
The exercise that began on Tuesday was being undertaken by the state to free up around 450 hectares in Pava Reserve Forest. Officials on the first day cleared 200 hectares in Mohghuli village, which was home to 201 families.
"The eviction drive resumed today at 7.30 am. It has been peaceful so far. We have not faced any resistance," a senior official of the district administration told PTI.
The administration has plans to clear the remaining 250 acres during the daylong exercise on Wednesday.
Around 70 bulldozers, excavators and tractors have been pressed into action in Adhasona village, while 600 police and CRPF personnel stood guard along with 200 civil officials, the official stated.
With some belongings in tow, Hasmat Alam (name changed on request), who witnessed his house being razed to the ground, claimed that he had been a resident of that area for the past 28 years.
"This year, the harvest was good. I grew brinjal, cabbage and cauliflower and sold some of the produce in the market. Around 70 per cent of the crop, however, got destroyed in the drive," he said.
Authorities were seen using tractors and bulldozers to flatten the crops.
Excavators also filled the ponds and fisheries with the earth.
The All Assam Minority Students' Union (AAMSU) termed the eviction drive as "inhuman and one-sided" and staged a brief protest at the Sonapur area of the Lakhimpur district.
According to the senior official, several notices for vacating the land were issued to the "illegal settlers" since November 2021.
"On September 7 last year, we served the final notice and asked them not to grow crops, but they did not pay heed. The evicted land remains under flood waters in the summers and the encroachers grow crops only in the winter season," he pointed out.
Last year, the circle officer of Naoboicha had personally approached the "encroachers" and asked them to leave voluntarily, the official explained.
Rahima Khatun, one of those affected in the drive, said agriculture was their only means of survival.
"There is no school or mosque in the part where the drive was being conducted; these tracts were used primarily for agriculture purposes. Our livelihood is now at stake," she added.
Lakhimpur Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Ashok Kumar Dev Choudhury noted that out of the 46 sq km Pava Reserve Forest, only 0.32 sq km were free and the rest were all occupied.
Altogether 701 families have encroached upon the Pava Reserve Forest land over the last three decades, he said.
These settlers had in 2006 applied for declaring their place of stay as a 'Forest Village', but the government rejected that proposal then.
In July last year, 84 families had submitted documents claiming land ownership but those were found to be fake upon scrutiny.
"If a person comes to the forest, he will not find any sign of it. It has been transformed into a village, where people are engaged in farming. Once known for wild buffaloes, all animals have vanished from Pava due to this encroachment over the past three decades," he added.
Notably, several state and central schemes like Pradhan Mantri Gramin Awas Yojana, MGNREGA, Anganwadi centres, water supply and rural electrification have been implemented in this area over the years.
Choudhary said the state government has approved a proposal for afforestation in 200 hectares of land.
"We had sent a proposal for afforestation in the remaining 250 hectares, too. We hope that the government will give its nod in the coming days," he added.
The affected villagers, meanwhile, alleged that the demarcation pillars of Pava Reserve Forest have been moved several times, especially since 2017, and claimed that "arbitrary marking" was done to delimit the boundary ahead of the eviction drive.
Some of the victims also claimed that the drive did not affect around 500 Hindu families, who resided on the land.
The "government must evict them too" if it is really concerned about encroachment, one of them said.
According to the senior official, the Hindu families, most of them belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribe communities, had in 2016 approached the court in seeking rehabilitation.
This is the third major eviction drive in Assam within a month. The exercise in Nagoan's Batadrava on December 19 has been billed as one of the largest in the region as it uprooted more than 5,000 alleged encroachers. It was followed by another exercise on December 26 to clear 400 bighas in Barpeta.
The Himanta Biswa Sarma-led dispensation has been carrying out eviction drives in different parts of the state since it assumed power in May 2021.
Setting aside opposition criticism, Sarma had on December 21 told the Assembly that eviction drives to clear government and forest lands in Assam would continue as long as the BJP is in power.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)