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Indigenous communities living near Urpad Beel facing threat to livelihood

Roop Choudhury

GOALPARA, Jan 7 - The communities which have been traditionally occupying the banks of Urpad Beel, a large fresh water body and one of the biggest lakes in lower Assam just 9 kilometres away from Goalpara town and covering a massive area of 621.48 hectares, for agricultural purposes as the chief means of livelihood are now facing an uncertain future. The wetland which had nurtured the lives of around 10,000 people economically, culturally as well as socially covering Bhaiskhuli, Kurowa Basa, Garo Kuta, Gendera Para, Kalyanpur, Samaguri, (Jungle Block) Santi nagar, Chandamari, Paharkata, Kalpani, Chandamari, Khagrabari, Dhuptol, Khalisamari, Harimura, Maijonga, Raikhasni and Goraimari villages are facing eviction by government authorities. The people residing in these villages located in the proximity of the water body belong to Rabha, Rajbongshi, Garo, Muslim, Bengali, Adivasi and Assamese communities and they are engaged in primary activities like farming, livestock and fishing.

 

These indigenous people have been utilizing the wetland resources, their primary occupation being agriculture and fishing and this is done mostly for self consumption. They are also working as daily wage earners and as farm labourers for their secondary source of income.

 

Again rice cultivation is dominant on the banks of the wetland besides generations have been living on fishing, which is the second source of income and an important source of protein for the poor villagers. Nevertheless, one cannot deny the role of the wetland i.e., Urpad Beel as a natural spot for providing critical economic support for food production and for improving the livelihood of these indigenous people without altering the ecological character of the wetland.

 

Notably, these people who are now facing eviction from the banks of the wetland in the name of beautification of Urpad Beel for boosting tourism, have been using these stretches for agricultural activities during the winter season for generations. Now some beautification projects will be taken up on the land after the eviction is over, an official said.

 

Apparently, Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal who visited the district recently, instructed the district administration to evict encroachers around the water body and to take up development schemes for beautification after former Principal of JN Memorial High School, Agia Jay Chandra Nath highlighted the matter at a public meeting held in the presence of the Chief Minister during the inaugural ceremony of the newly-constructed Agia police station at Agia, Goalpara. This led to a flurry of activities by the district administration for acquiring the encroached land around the Urpad Beel.

 

This correspondent visited many places around the Urpad Beel and interacted with people in the Jungle block part 1, Santipur where notices have been served by the Forest department to vacate the encroached land within two days.

 

Talking to this correspondent, Ajay Kumar Nath (62), a local and a retired police official who has received an eviction notice, said that the Fishery department had found suitable spots near the banks of the wetland for a fishery project and had constructed a few ponds in the area in 2001. Training was imparted to the local people who were encouraged to take up fish farming as an income generating activity. While Nath became a progressive fish farmer with a yearly income of Rs 3 lakh he also improved the existing ponds by taking a loan of Rs 4 lakh from a bank. He expressed his astonishment as to why the government was trying to snatch away the livelihood from the people, who are dependent on the wetland.

 

Another resident of the locality Dhaneswar Das (72) started bamboo cultivation along with arecanut and coconut plantation on a stretch of around 2 hectares of government khas land (as claimed) near the banks of the wetland in 1974. Das subsequently started paddy cultivation on a plot of around 14 bighas on the banks with no standing water during the winter season. Further, he informed that elephants entered the area for the first time in 1999 and then became regular visitors and destroyed the bamboo grove and coconut plantation for which no government compensation was awarded to him. He also said that agricultural activities near the banks support the rich biodiversity of the wetland and attracts many species of birds during the harvesting season and once upon a time the bamboo grove was the nesting place of egrets.

 

Das lamented that after all these years, the personnel of Forest department without any warning recently came and destroyed his rubber plantation of around 100 trees which were ready for tapping in the name of eviction thus robbing his source of income.

 

Meanwhile, a memorandum addressed to the Chief Minister was submitted to the Deputy Commissioner, Goalpara recently following a meeting among the affected farmers of the surrounding villages wherein they mentioned that the former Principal of JN Memorial High School Joy Chandra Nath never had a discussion with the communities living in these villages surrounding the wetland prior to speaking at a public meeting in the presence of the Chief Minister.

 

They also claimed that all the affected are indigenous people living near the Beel for generations. They also mentioned that there was a huge pilferage of funds in the name of beautification projects which were earlier taken up by various government agencies and demanded that in the future any scheme for the preservation and beautification of the wetland should be taken up in participatory mode by involving the locals of the area.

 

The farmers have also demanded that the ponds, which were dug under the government fishery projects near the wetland, should not be destroyed in the name of reclaiming the land. The farmers also demanded land pattas to all those engaged in agricultural activities near the wetland.

 

Source: The Assam Tribune, Guwahati, Wednesday, January 8, 2020