GUWAHATI, Aug 23 - More than four years after the Gauhati High Court took up a suo moto PIL over the large-scale encroachments inside the Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary, the Assam government is readying to conduct a massive eviction drive – perhaps the biggest such operation so far – to clear the pristine habitat which has been providing the much needed oxygen to the people of the capital city.
The forest department today issued a public notice directing the encroachers to leave the sanctuary. “Or else, as per the directions of the High Court, the government will be forced to carry out an eviction,” the notice said.
A bench of the High Court comprising Chief Justice Ajit Singh and Justice Manojit Bhuyan had on August 2 last granted a month’s time to the government to evict encroachers.
Yesterday, a high level meeting was held by the government in presence of senior officers of the forest department, police, paramilitary and others to prepare the plan for the eviction. “We will review the preparation tomorrow again and depending on that we will take a call when to launch the operation,” a senior forest official told The Assam Tribune, indicating that the drive may be launched from Friday.
Sources said the operation is likely to be launched using bulldozers and other equipment from multiple directions and for the logistics, barracks will be set up at strategic locations. The finance department has sanctioned Rs 90.14 lakh for the eviction drive.
The government is also likely to disconnect the illegal power connections being availed by the encroachers and make announcements through loud speakers hours before the eviction is carried out.
Before Amchang was declared a wildlife sanctuary in June 2004, there were just six villages in the reserved forest areas – Ekarabari, Sowali, Lukuwa Sal, Shyam Pathar, Hatisila and Kilinghop. However, only two villages – Ekarabari and Sowali – were created prior to enactment of the Forest Land Conservation Act, 1980, hence all the other villages are illegal, according to official records.
According to a ‘rapid survey’ conducted by a government department, there were 1,114 households spread across an area of 228.36 hectares of land in 24 locations. The number of encroachers could be over 6,000. However, a joint survey carried out recently stated that the area under encroachment could be around 500 hectares. The number of households would be over 1,414 in 34 locations.
Many encroachers were allegedly settled at the behest of two former MLAs, one of whom had even provided tin sheets to them, documents assessed by The Assam Tribune stated. There are even quarries operating illegally from inside the forest land and some of the settlers are also suspected to be illegal migrants.
The High Court had taken up the suo moto PIL in 2013 following a letter written by NGO Early Birds to the Chief Justice detailing how the area of the sanctuary was shrinking rapidly due to the encroachments.
Early Birds president Moloy Baruah said the sanctuary had an area of 78.64 sq km.
“In response to our RTI, the forest department in 2008 had stated that the area under encroachment is 9 sq km. In 2013, the department said in another RTI reply that the encroached area is 4.50 sq km. We then decided to write to the High Court. There have been sixteen hearings in the court till date,” Baruah said.
Earlier in 1993, Bibhav Talukdar of Aaranyak had also filed a petition in the High Court. The court had in 2000 directed the government to clear all encroachments from the forest areas in and around Guwahati. Baruah said that nothing had happened even after the court directive in the year 2000.
Baruah said this time the court is proceeding in phases and first the boundary was demarcated, followed by consolidation of the boundary pillars.
The Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary has three reserved forests (RF). Amchang RF comprises Block I of the sanctuary and has an area of 53.18 sq km. The Khanapara RF and South Amchang RF comprise Block II of the sanctuary with an area of 25.46 sq km.
The sanctuary is shelter to about 44 species of mammals and 250 avian species, besides varied numbers of reptiles and amphibians.