GUWAHATI, July 2 � Developments in the wake of the recent violent protests by land right-seekers at Dispur Last Gate could have longterm adverse implications for conservation, fear forest officials and conservationists.
�A lot has now been said about the absence of a definitive land policy but as far as eviction of encroachers from forestland is concerned, there are clear laws and rules. The recent eviction drive in Guwahati was aimed at removing illegal settlers from reserve forest areas on the hills, and not hills per se,� a senior forest official, who wished anoymity, said.
According to the official, it was for the government to decide how best to grant settlement rights to the illegal occupants on hills or even those residing in reserve forests but the sudden halt to the eviction drive had clearly sent out wrong signals to encroachers.
�The issues of illegal settlement on hills and reserve forests should not be put in the same bracket. The government can perhaps afford to take a comparatively lenient view of encroachment on hills but to encourage encroachment on reserve forests (mostly located on the hills in the case of Guwahati) � not to speak of in sanctuaries and national parks � will have catastrophic and irreversible consequences,� he said, adding that encroachers on forestland should be removed at the earliest even if those were to be resettled elsewhere.
Conservation circles are also upset that the movement for land settlement rights was taking a blurred view of the implications of large-scale encroachment on forestland. �Those fighting for people�s land rights should distinguish forestland from other government lands and must not do anything that can trigger aggressive encroachment on forestland. Organized encroachment on forests is already a sinister phenomenon, and any aggravation in the situation will push this invaluable asset to the brink,� he said.
The 17 hills of Guwahati are a poignant reminder of what unabated conversion of land from non-urban use to urban use can cause, with their forest cover having been the biggest casualty in the face of unregulated anthropogenic pressures.
Of the 7,023 hectares of hill land in the city, 2,642 hectares fall under reserve forests (RFs). But much of even the reserve forests lie either destroyed or degraded due to encroachment, earth-cutting and logging.
Conservationists also want the government to be firm in checking any fresh encroachment on forestland and protected wetlands. �Once illegal settlements come up, it is always tough to evict. Therefore, encroachment has to be resisted at the very beginning,� a city-based conservationist said.
Since 2002, the few eviction drives conducted in Guwahati had to be aborted midway in the face of aggressive opposition with political parties and other organizations lending their weight behind the illegal settlers. With the number of illegal residents in the hills mounting every passing year, this bequest from nature stands the risk of irreversible degradation in the days to come, feel conservationists.