| A resident returns home with his sons from school on a makeshift raft through flooded Guwahati on Friday. (Reuters) |
Guwahati, June 27: Unprecedented flash floods and landslides have again brought into focus the rampant encroachment and earth-cutting on hills in and around the city.
The government blames encroachment on hills for the woes but appears hesitant to evict illegal settlers, ostensibly because of pressure from groups like the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, which spearheads the agitation for land rights of hill dwellers.
An official said, “Haphazard, unplanned urbanisation and phenomenal growth of population in the city since the state capital was shifted here from Shillong in the early seventies has put enormous pressure on the city’s hills with rampant encroachment and shrinkage of green cover. A strong political will is required to evict illegal settlers.”
The KMSS said the blame couldn’t be laid at their door as they were against fresh encroachment on the hills. Its vice-president Amar Bezbaruah said the government cited their agitation only as an excuse for not taking any action against fresh settlers.
“We are fighting for land rights of only those who settled on the hills before June 22, 2011. It is the fresh encroachments and earth-cutting that are posing problems. We have nothing to say if the government takes action against these. In fact, we’ve pointed out fresh encroachments to police but they are reluctant to take action for reasons best known to them. We have given a list of people living in the hills for the past several years and see no reason why the government can’t take action against new encroachments,” he added.
An official of the soil conservation department said the city’s hills were made of fragile alluvial soil, which was unsuitable for human habitation without taking adequate protective measures.
“Despite this, people are living on the hills without taking conservation measures. This puts them at great risk. Unscientific hill-cutting and unplanned construction of houses are the root cause of landslides and silting of drains,” he said, adding that it was necessary to rejuvenate the hills by taking up conservation measures.
Assam revenue minister Prithibi Majhi said it was the government’s policy not to allot land on forestland, hills and waterbodies. “We will not allot land in vulnerable areas on hills even if its revenue land. But even those allotted land should take necessary precautions while constructing houses to avoid landslides. It doesn’t help to blame the government for everything. We need to work together to solve the problem,” he said.
Chief minister Tarun Gogoi said his government would go ahead with its commitment to give land pattas to the landless in the city, mostly settled on the hills, based on the report of the committee set up by Dispur but this would be a “once and for all exercise”.
He was reacting to a query by The Telegraph on whether the government would still allot land to those settled on the hills without valid papers, a cause most believe is hugely responsible for the regular flooding of the city.
“We had to allot land because there was public pressure. But it is once and for all. If the public demands we will not allot land in future. We will review our policy. At the same time, I admit we will have to do more to check encroachment in the hills and flash floods,” Gogoi said, reacting to widespread criticism that his government was not doing enough to check encroachment.
Though he did not mention names, he was referring to the KMSS movement for allotting land to the landless in the city. The government had allotted 500 land pattas before the Lok Sabha polls and is expected to give at least another 49,000 in phases.
A survey carried out by AC Neilson for the government in 2011 counted 65,894 households on the 16 hills within the Guwahati municipal area. Of these, 10,208 households were in reserve forestland and 40,121 on other government land. The figure has since gone up manifold. The survey says the maximum number of households are on Narakasur, Fatasil, Hengerabari and Noonmati hills.
Dhiren Baruah of Save Guwahati Build Guwahati said, “We have been raising this issue for the past 20 years but the government didn’t pay heed to us. As a result, the situation has aggravated. Settlement should be allowed only after developing the hills in a scientific way. Our problem is unplanned and haphazard settlement and unabated earth-cutting in the hills.”