The illegal occupation of reserve forests and grazing reserves in Assam has a definite pattern, where brokers or ‘matabbars’ play a key role in settling the encroachers.
While their role in these activities had been known earlier, detailed information was unveiled after the government began the eviction almost five years ago.
An interesting episode unfolded when the eviction operation was carried out at Lumding reserve forest at Hojai, located around 180 kilometres east of Guwahati.
A section of evicted encroachers, who had occupied 1,410 hectares in the forest, pointed their fingers at one Nazrul Islam, who ‘sold’ plots of land saying that he had been authorised by the government to engage in the deals. Some evictees told local TV news channels that he charged Rs 1 lakh from each family for plots of 10 bighas.
Nazrul continued to duck for cover for six days till the police apprehended him in Nagaon. He revealed the name of another person, Anowar Hussain, who had assisted him in clinching the land deals. Hussain was also arrested, and Nazrul was shot in the leg by the police after he allegedly made an attempt to escape from custody.
Wide Network of ‘Matabbars’
Hojai Superintendent of Police, Varun Purkayastha, said, “Ten persons have been arrested along with Nazrul and Anowar. An investigation is on to unearth the entire network that facilitated the illegal settlement.”
The arrested duo reveals a phenomenon discernible across several districts in Assam that have been adversely impacted by encroachment of reserve forests and grazing reserves. The brokers have a wide network, which ensures a steady flow of information on the availability of government land where people could be settled.
An official said the ‘matabbars’ make a detailed survey of the land to be encroached before settling families. “Sometimes, they have the blessings of local political leaders, which happened in many districts in the past. In such cases, they [Matabbars] are also able to strike a deal with government officials in return for a share of the money extorted from the settled families.”
Incidentally, two government officials also figure in the list of the ten persons arrested by police on the encroachment in Lumding reserve forest.
The names of a few politicians and former Ministers are commonly heard in the central districts of Assam, who had allegedly settled families for electoral gains.
No Dearth of Settlers
There is no dearth of families in Assam in search of land for settlement. They belong to various communities, but a majority of them, evicted recently, are Bengal-origin Muslims, many of whom have also been displaced by riverbank erosion. On certain occasions, families prefer to shift from cramped villages to spacious locations that offer prospects of cultivation.
At Amchang Reserve Forest, located on the eastern fringe of Guwahati, vast tracts of pristine forests have been cleared and occupied by encroachers who belong to indigenous and non-Muslim communities. Here as well, brokers rampantly sold land allegedly in collusion with a section of government officials.
The eviction drive at Amchang in 2017 had to be halted after the encroachers moved the Gauhati High Court for a stay order. The situation was so alarming that the state Forest Department urged the government to resume eviction in order to prevent an ‘invasion’ of Guwahati by elephants, as a large chunk of their habitat had been destroyed.
The Assam government has firmed up plans to continue the eviction from reserve forests across the state. Another hotspot is the Pabho reserve forest on the north bank of the Brahmaputra river in Lakhimpur, where a clash was averted between encroachers and indigenous communities only two months ago by some CRPF personnel, which was flashed on local TV news channels.
An investigative report published in Asomiya Pratidin on 23 November identified as many as eight ‘Matabbars’ who facilitated the encroachment of thousands of hectares in the forest, which was once famous for wild water buffaloes.
The report not only mentioned the names of all the brokers but also claimed that they owned huge plots, which were sold to several families.
The forest department has served a 14-day notice to all the families in the reserve forest. Subsequently, the report added, many families were observed evacuating their homes and shifting to other locations.
(Rajeev Bhattacharyya is a senior journalist in Guwahati. Views expressed are personal.)