GUWAHATI, Nov 5 – The rapid urbanisation of Guwahati and the consequent boom in population and construction activities since the last couple of decades has pushed the city's fragile eco-system comprising its forested hills to the brink.
Guwahati has 18 hills right within its municipal area. Apart from adding to the natural beauty of the city landscape, these hills are also crucial for the maintenance of a sound environment.
The haphazard and unplanned urbanisation and the phenomenal growth of population over the past few decades – beginning from the shifting of the State capital to Guwahati from Shillong in the early 1970s – have resulted in continuous and large-scale conversion of land from non-urban use to urban use, leading to rampant encroachment in the hills and shrinkage of forest cover.
Aggressive illegal occupation on government land has become a disturbing trend in the city, with its hills, forests and wetlands bearing the brunt of the illegalities. To complicate matters, every eviction drive conducted on the hills has been eliciting stiff opposition from the settlers – often backed by influential organizations and political parties – and invariably resulting in ugly law-and-order situations. The failure of the authorities to prevent encroachment or to evict them immediately after they settle is largely responsible for this.
A source in the district administration said that a vested interest circle is also profiting from the development, and it is often found to be misguiding and inciting the people against eviction drives. “We have to protect the city hills from encroachments, and any settler – if found to be illegal - has to be evicted. And not just from the hills, we need to evict illegal settlers from the wetlands as well,” he said.
Many of the city’s civic woes such as flash flood, water-logging, ineffective drainage, etc., are largely attributable to encroachment on hills and wetlands.
Satellite imagery of the city's land-use pattern shows 73 per cent of the land under residential use, followed by 12.3 per cent public and semi-public use, 4.2 per cent industrial use, 1.5 per cent commercial use, 0.2 per cent mixed build-up use, 0.1 per cent recreational use and 0.6 per cent transpiration use.
A comparative study also reveals that since 1967 there has been unabated conversion of land from non-urban use to urban use, resulting in gradual decrease of forest cover as well as increase of wasteland.
The total forest cover in the hills now is a meager 13.60 per cent. Of the 7,023 hectares of hill land, 2,642 hectares fall under reserve forests (RFs). But much of even the reserve forest lies destroyed and degraded due to encroachment and tree-felling.
The 18 hills in the city are now bursting with a population of 1.23 lakh (2001 census), which incidentally was the city's total population in 1971. There are as many as 75 villages in the hills, consisting of 26,985 households. Of these, 8,681 are permanent structures, while 7,510 and 10,794 are semi-permanent and temporary structures respectively. The figures are as per a study conducted by the State Soil Conservation Department.
Unplanned settlement and encroachment in the hills have led to inevitable fallouts like deforestation and severe degradation of the soil.
“Unrelenting deforestation, earth-cutting, haphazard construction of houses, innumerable roads and footpaths on the steep slopes have led to disastrous consequences – erosion, killer landslides, artificial floods and water-logging. Construction of temporary and permanent structures has left a permanent scar on the hill landscape,” an official of the Soil Conservation Department said.
Earth-cutting has been a serious problem with the hills. But the administration has failed miserably in curbing the menace. When there are landslide deaths, the administration is quick to impose a ban on earth-cutting, but the malpractice resurfaces after some time, as nothing is done to enforce the ban.
“The hill ecosystem has undergone a radical transformation due to earth cutting and filling up of low land along with heavy erosion by torrential rain on the hilly terrain,” the official said.
Urgent steps in the form of massive plantation and checking further encroachment are the need of the hour to restore at least a portion of the former pristine ecology of the hills.