In India's flood-prone Assam, hill settlers hold out hope for land titles

by Rina Chandran | @rinachandran | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 3 September 2020 00:00 GMT

A house in an an informal hill settlement in Guwahati, Assam in India. January 28, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rina Chandran

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As floods and erosion uproot more families in Assam, about 300,000 people in the Guwahati hills have no proof of land ownership

By Rina Chandran

GUWAHATI, India, Sept 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Bankim Chakma wanted to build a home for his growing family in Guwahati in the eastern Indian state of Assam, he had few options. Land was expensive for poor migrants like himself, so he moved to the hills where it was cheaper and safe from floods.

But, like the tens of thousands of migrants who have settled in Guwahati's hills over the last few decades, Chakma, 72, does not have a legal title and constantly fears being evicted from the home he built 20 years ago after moving west from Sonitpur.

More than 300,000 people are affected by conflict in the hill areas of Guwahati, according to data from research firm Land Conflict Watch.

Most do not have titles, so residents - who are mostly migrants - have few facilities and face the threat of losing their homes.

"I bought the land, built my house and have lived here for many years, but it is still illegal in the eyes of the state," Chakma told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as he held out a copy of a handwritten sale note.

"The authorities said they will survey the land, check proof of residence and issue pattas (titles) to those who are eligible. But that has not happened, and without a patta we can be evicted any time," said the retired farmer.

Over the past 50 years, Assam, regarded as the commercial hub of India's northeast, has seen violent clashes over land as the state's ethnic populations fight between themselves and with immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

Guwahati, located along the banks of the Brahmaputra river, has long lured migrants from the state and the wider region looking for jobs even as the crowded city suffers worsening floods during the annual monsoon rains that displace thousands.

The state has enacted laws to recognise the land rights of indigenous people and small tea growers, issued temporary land-use certificates for farming, and promised titles for those who have lived on state land for more than 15 years.

Yet hundreds of thousands remain without titles.

Bankim Chakma points to his handwritten sale deed for the land that he built a house on and has lived in for 20 years, but has no legal title for in an informal hill settlement in Guwahati, Assam in India. January 28, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rina Chandran

"Nearly every issue and conflict in the state is about land because it is scarce - and becoming more scarce," said Kishore Kalita, a member of the Brihattar Guwahati Mati Patta Dabi Samiti, a land rights campaign group.

"There is a lot of anger against migrants and immigrants because of the crowding, and the flooding and riverine erosion have gotten worse. That has driven people to higher ground - to the hills and forests, where they cannot get titles," he said.

Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal has publicly vowed to step up the process of providing titles to landless indigenous people this year, although it is not clear if hill settlers will benefit.

CITIZENSHIP CLASH

Land experts estimate about a third of Assam's land is titled, largely under the so-called eksonia patta, a lease to cultivate the land for one year.

These titles can be converted into a 30-year miyadi patta for a payment that Kalita said few can afford.

Without land titles, landowners can find it difficult to obtain bank loans or access government incentive schemes.

Under a 1989 law, those who have lived on state land for 15 years can apply for a miyadi title. But authorities have been slow to issue them, according to land rights campaigners.

Nearly 2 million people in Assam were left off a national list of citizens released last year for lack of adequate documentation, after a years-long exercise to check illegal immigration from Bangladesh.

Assam has seen rolling protests since the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) passed last year, granting Indian nationality to Hindus, Christians and other non-Muslims who fled the Muslim-majority countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh before 2015.

"The concern is about protecting their land from immigrants. Assamese speakers, who are slightly over 50% of the population, fear they will be reduced to a minority," said Walter Fernandes, director of the North Eastern Social Research Centre think tank.

"They fear that the CAA will encourage more landless immigrants to come under the guise of being persecuted minorities," he said over the phone.

To quell these concerns, the state's 2019 land policy seeks to allocate land to landless indigenous Assamese people. But it does not specify who is indigenous, raising concerns that millions of citizens may be denied land.

"We have framed a new land policy and taken steps to provide land deeds to nearly 100,000 landless people," Sonowal, the chief minister, announced last month, without specifying who will be eligible.

A man carrying supplies makes his way up the path of an informal hill settlement in Guwahati, Assam in India. January 28, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rina Chandran

NO DIGNITY

Each year the Brahmaputra river, one of India's longest, bursts its banks during the rainy season, inundating hundreds of villages and also creating chars, islands formed by silt deposits which are farmed until the next monsoon.

This year's floods have killed at least 110 people in Assam and uprooted nearly 6 million since May, according to officials.

Nearly 40% of Assam is flood-prone, and the Brahmaputra has eroded more than 7% of the state's land area over the past few decades, government data shows.

The state loses 8,000 hectares (30,000 square miles) of land each year, rendering thousands of people landless, according to the latest annual report by the government's Brahmaputra Board, which focuses on flood management and erosion control.

Authorities have stepped up measures to prevent flooding and slow erosion, such as constructing embankments, but note in the report that their efficacy is "debatable."

Deforestation, destruction of wetlands, damming, floodplain encroachments and worsening climate change impacts exacerbate the issue, said Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, a non-profit group.

"Though a consequence of the very nature of the Himalayan landscape and seismic activity, the impacts have been accentuated, leading to land conflicts," he said.

"There is a lot we can do to reduce it, though we cannot totally stop or eradicate it," he added.

In the Katabari area of Guwahati where Chakma lives, scores of homes teeter precariously on the hillside, some built with brick and stone, others made of tin and tarpaulin.

There are no roads, no piped water or sanitation, and electricity is irregular. Landslides are common.

The two dozen hill settlements in the city have faced repeated evictions that uprooted thousands, with protests against the evictions turning violent in 2011 and 2014.

For Chakma, the new land policy is his only hope.

"If I get a patta, I can take loans and I can leave this house to my children, so they do not have to struggle," he said.

"Without a patta, there is no security. We have no rights, no dignity."

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(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Jumana Farouky. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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