Anupam Chakravartty, Mongabay | November 25, 2020
The Assam government approved the Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve’s expansion, earlier this year, adding 30 square kilometres to the largest habitat of the one-horned rhinoceros in the world situated in northeastern India. While park authorities and conservationists have said that new areas will improve the life expectancy of the animals that bear the brunt of the annual floods and poaching, for local people, the expansion is a threat to their homesteads.
Every year around monsoon, wild animals and people on the periphery of the park attempt to flee the floods. Even this year, 95 percent of the park was inundated and 151 animals, including 12 rhinos, perished. In the last decade, at least 50 villages and homesteads around the park have been washed away as well.
On September 4, the Assam government approved an addition of 3053 hectares (30.53 square kilometres) to the Kaziranga National Park. A government release stated that the additions were lands from where “encroachments” have been removed and suitable wildlife habitat in riverine islands also known as chaporis of Brahmaputra. From around 885 square kilometres, the park’s area has now increased to 915 square kilometres with these new additions.
The present expansion is a part of seventh, eighth and ninth ‘additions’ to the area of the park. According to the Park Director, P. Sivakumar, the new territories acquired in these additions will connect the park with three other tiger habitats in Assam.
Incidentally, the park authorities are yet to acquire 37,000 hectares (370 square kilometres) under the earlier additions to the sanctuary, as stated by the Judicial Register of Gauhati High Court, which is overseeing the process of acquisitions. The park authorities will have to respond by November with the action taken report, even as communities are against any further expansion.
With a 115-year old conservation history, several additions to the park’s area have been made since 1977. Land acquisition has been controversial here right from the time the reserve was declared a national park in 1974.
Even after 46 years, park expansion remains controversial. Riri, a village on the banks of Brahmaputra comprising the Mising, Nepali and Bihari communities, has been protesting against the new expansion. Bojiringa Pawo, a village elder, said he fears that his village might get subsumed by the park. “There was no consultation with the residents of Riri and other villages. We recently discovered that several villages would fall inside the range. With the ongoing expansion of the park, our lands getting eroded by the river, we fear that we will soon lose our homesteads,” Pawo said.
Pranab Doley, a local activist and advisor to Jeepal Krishak Sramik Sangha (JKSS), a local organisation dedicated to the cause of peasants and marginalised communities living around the park, filed the RTI application on Bokakhat range. “It’s not just these villages but also Bokakhat town, which is a hub for all the farming and fishing communities to sell their produce, now falls inside the Bokakhat range,” Doley added.
Divisional Forest Officer of the Kaziranga Range, R. Gogoi said that the new range is just an upgrade. “Earlier Bokakhat was a forest beat under Kaziranga range but Bokakhat range was created for better administration of the areas in 2018,” Gogoi added.
The park officials have fenced five chaporis on which communities depend for their livelihood. “If the authorities do not want our land, why have they fenced Pahumora and Bhokte chaporis next to our village?” asked an agitated Sobiti Kutum from Riri. Farmers cross the river during the dry season to sow lentils and mustard while pastoralists use these islands as dairy farms.
Between 1977 and 1999, the park had undergone six extensions doubling its original surface area 434 to 884 square kilometres according to Joëlle Smadja, a research fellow at CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research) Centre for Himalayan Studies, who has been working on Kaziranga since 2006. Smadja illustrates the rift between communities and Park officials in her essay published in South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal (SAMAJ). “So far only the first and fourth additions have actually been made; the other four are sources of conflict,” states Smadja. When park authorities announced the acquisition of pastoral land for the sixth addition to the sanctuary in 1986, farmers knocked the doors of Gauhati High Court.
Encroachers Who Pay Revenue
In November 2002, Ranjan Gogoi, who was the Chief Justice of Gauhati High Court, put the land acquisition on hold asking the state government to determine the rights of the communities dependent on these lands.
In 2012, as a response to the ongoing cases, two new petitions deemed the people opposing park expansion as encroachers and cited their involvement in the rising numbers of rhino poaching cases. The first petition was filed by a local Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA), Mrinal Saikia from Golaghat, seeking to evict “illegal Bangladeshis” from the periphery of the park. The second petition was a suo moto cognizance of the unabated rhino poaching by the Gauhati High Court.
On January 9, 2013, the Gauhati High Court held that “no illegality has been committed in proposing to evict the encroachers of forest land”.
The Kaziranga communities challenged the Gauhati High Court’s order. They argued that the very idea of ‘addition’ violates Wildlife Protection Act (WLPA), 1972. The petitioners cited section 35 of the WLPA which says that boundary changes in a national park needs mandatory approvals from National Board of Wildlife (NBWL). The petition stated that ‘additions’ or expansion of Kaziranga National Park were never discussed at NBWL.
In October 2015, the Gauhati High Court ordered eviction of all the existing and the proposed ‘addition’ lands. On September 19, 2016, two villages, Banderdubi and Deosur were evicted in which two persons including a teenaged girl were killed during a police firing. After clearing 331 houses, the park authorities secured the possession of 483 hectares from Deosur and Banderdubi villages under the eighth addition.
Hamid Ali, who lost about three hectares of land in Banderdubi maintained that eviction notices were only issued to the people living on government land. “My house was in the revenue land. I did not expect that they would evict me,” said Ali.
Despite the evictions, poaching continued, killing 16 rhinos in the last three years.
Park authorities have counted 2400 rhinos and 121 tigers inside the park. Smadja cites in her study 50,000 farms are around the park. The population density around the park is 500 persons per square kilometre. “The National Park’s growing number of wild animals … comes with a downside since these animals venture outside the park perimeter, instilling fear, causing injury to farmers and damaging crops and cattle,” Smadja observed.