For more than a week now, the entire populations of two Upper Assam villages – around 3,000 men, women, children, most of them belonging to the state’s Mising tribe – have been camping in Tinsukia town, next to the deputy collector’s office. They have vowed not to move till their demands are met: of being given new lives in a new place.

“It is biting cold and we have been living and eating like pigs, but we are not going anywhere because we don’t have anywhere to go,” said 65-year old Rajaram Pait, a resident of Dodhia, one of two villages. The other is Laika. “Maybe this is where our cursed existence will come to an end.”

Disease and sickness are already starting to invade the makeshift shelters. A woman fell sick on Tuesday; was rushed back home, but died soon after. Another woman has reportedly become critically ill.

People in temporary shelters in Tinsukia (Credit: Special arrangement)

Two ‘forest villages’

Laika and Dodhia are “forest villages” – they are located inside the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park. But India’s Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 expressly prohibits any kind of human settlement within a national park. This means that the government does not carry out any developmental works in Laika and Dodhia. If it did, it would be violating the law. The villages plunge into darkness at night, there are no roads, no medical centres – nothing that would indicate the presence of the state.

Why have these villages not been evicted or resettled then? The marginalisation of forest-dwelling communities because of rigid wildlife-only-zones-centric protection regimes is well-documented. Yet, the story of Laika and Dodhia stands out in how they were so blatantly invisibilised by the forest bureaucracy in the name of wildlife protection, leaving thousands of people in a lurch.

An earthquake and a rampaging river

Laika and Dodhia came into being in the 1950s. A massive earthquake, measuring 8.5 on the Richter scale, jolted Assam in 1950, drastically changing the fluvial landscape of the state. The Brahmaputra and its tributaries started swallowing village after village, leaving thousands homeless.

With land already scarce, the government started looking towards forests to rehabilitate the displaced people. A few hundred families from some of the worst affected areas from Dibrugarh and Dhemaji were bundled off to the Dibru and Saikhowa forest reserves – and thus began Laika and Dodhia.

Pait remembers being a young boy when his family moved to the area in 1958. Their new life, he recalled, was not bad at all. There was abundant fish, cattle and wood. “It was all fine till 1999 when they made it a national park,” said Pait.

Protesters squatting near the deputy collector's office in Tinsukia (Credit: Special arrangement)

The making of a national park

The Dibru and Saikhowa forest reserves were clubbed in 1986 to give birth to the Dibru-Saikhowa Wildlife Sanctuary. In 1999, it was upgraded to a national park.

Given that Indian laws mandate that there can be no human inhabitation inside national parks, once an area is notified as such, people already living inside the boundaries of the declared area can make claims for compensation.

The process of settlement of these claims is invariably always a messy process and marred by disputes, often leading to forceful evictions.

A curious omission of facts

But none of this happened when Dibru-Saikhowa became a national park. Nobody ever made a claim, no one received compensation. There was no forceful eviction, either.

This is because the Assam forest department did not even acknowledge the existence of Laika and Dodhia when Dibru-Saikhowa was accorded national park status. This meant that the residents of Laika and Dodhia never got to take part in the compensation or rehabilitation claim-making process, even if they were likely to be skewed against them. They simply did not exist, according to the forest department.

As a National Board for Wildlife report from 2013 acknowledges: “These villages were included as forest villages when Dibru-Saikhowa was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1986 but not when notified as a National Park in 1999. This serious historical oversight on the part of the Assam Forest Department today renders management efforts, including negotiations into the possibility of voluntary relocations, very challenging.”

More than an ‘oversight’?

Many of Dodhia and Laika’s residents and local wildlife activists, however, believe it was more than a case of “oversight” on the part of the forest department. “They pushed through with the national park notification without revealing the facts because a national park means more international funding,” said Minturaj Morang, a resident of Laika and a Mising students’ union activist, who heads a joint rehabilitation demand committee of the two villages. “In their greed, they hid the fact that we even existed.”

Soumyadeep Datta, an environmental activist who has spent several years working in the landscape, called it a case of “corruption” at the most senior levels. “The Assam forest department kept the environment ministry in the dark and concealed information about the existence of these two forest villages,” he said. “Those officers responsible have retired, but the problem they created persists.”

A long limbo

He said the decision to ignore the existence of these two villages at the time had hurt conservation efforts in the area. “The villages have expanded and so have their livestock,” he said. “Where will the government find land to rehabilitate all of them now? Partial rehabilitation is not going to work – it has to be done at one go.”

The National Board for Wildlife report mirrored these concerns: the villages, with all their people and livestock, were “exerting tremendous pressure on the park”.

The residents of Laika and Dodhiya are willing to move. In fact, they are desperate. Relentless floods and erosion have made their existence even more perilous over the years. “They don’t let us fish, they don’t let us graze our cattle – and on top of that, the river comes and takes everything away year after year, our land, our animals,” rued Nijom Dang of Laika. “What kind of an existence is this?”

A protest site near the deputy collector's office in Tinsukia (Credit: Special arrangement)

In search of land

But finding suitable land for nearly 1,500 families is no mean task in land-starved Assam. After it became impossible to ignore their existence, the Congress which administered Assam from 2001 to 2016, tried to resettle them, but struggled to find appropriate alternatives. “The options they showed were even worse – remote areas in the middle of nowhere,” said Morang.

After the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power, fresh efforts were made. A sum of Rs 10 crore was even set aside for the rehabilitation of the two villages in the government’s first-ever budget.

A site was also chosen: the Tarani reserve forest in Tinsukia’s Doomdooma. But the plan failed as local communities opposed it. Hundreds of residents of Laika and Dodhia, who had gone with bag and baggage in search of new homes, were forced to return. “The situation had become very tense, so we had to get our people back,” recalled Morang.

Disappointed, the residents of Laika and Dodhia boycotted the 2018 Panchayat elections – despite a personal appeal to refrain from doing so by Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, who grew up only a couple of kilometres away (according to Pait, he and Sonowal attended the same school in Bindhakata, the chief minister’s native village).

The forest department then floated another rehabilitation plan, this time in the degraded parts of the Upper Dehing reserve forest. But yet again, the plan ran into trouble with Moran residents of the area, said Morang.

Tinsukia district officials said a fresh proposal had been sent and it was “awaiting approval” from the state government, but refused to share more details citing the “sensitivity of the matter”. The district’s deputy collector did not respond to multiple calls and messages seeking comment.

MK Yadava, Assam’s Chief Wildlife Warden, said the forest department has been looking for suitable alternatives. “It is a forest diversionary matter, so it takes time,” said Yadava.

CM intervenes but resolution still afar

On Wednesday, Chief Minister Sonowal met a delegation of the residents and formed a ten-member committee comprising to look into the matter and find alternative land where the two villages could be resettled. Sonowal has asked for the rehabilitation process to be completed by January 31.

But again, it may be easier said than done. “The sites that cropped up during the discussion are scattered all over,” said Pait. “We have told them keep our unity intact and to do this properly once and for all because we know they are not going to do it again.”

Morang said the people would like to stay in Tinsukia. “We have the right to remain in Tinsukia,” he said.

People of Dodhia and Laika are running out of patience. “The floods destroyed everything this year,” said Pait. “All our ducks and chickens are dead; all the land is gone. We barely survived by building one chang-ghar] after another.” A chang-ghar is a traditional Mising house built on raised stilts, tailor made for the riverine community’s needs in low-lying areas.

“The river will come at us again in a few months,” Pait continued. “The government must give us land before that – civil or forest that is for the government to decide. But we need land.”