History of Land Ownership in Assam
With its rich history and complex land issues, Guwahati presents a fascinating tapestry of land ownership and conflicts. Throughout history, the Ahom Kings held dominion over all the land in Assam. They allocated substantial portions of land to temples, priests, and charitable institutions, while the majority was granted to paiks or corvée (a form of unpaid, forced labour) labourers as private property.
During the British era, land ownership shifted to the state, and occupants were granted lease rights, which were initially short-term but were extended later. Occupancy rights were considered permanent, heritable, and transferable as long as regular tax payments were made. However, the policy exempted religious institutions from paying taxes on their land. Impoverished peasants who received land through corvée labour but couldn’t afford the taxes resorted to selling their lands and settling in remote wastelands, setting the stage for future conflicts.
Under the Bengal Forest Act of 1865, the British government designated “reserve forests” for state use. These forests were subsequently allocated to individual landholders for tea plantations, railway development, and settlement of marginal and landless peasants for agriculture. Settlements established by the forest department to ensure a steady labour supply for forest-related activities came to be known as “forest villages.” Meanwhile, the original forest-dwelling tribal communities were treated as encroachers, leading to tensions between the two groups.
The post-independence period witnessed significant migration into Guwahati, resulting in further land disputes. Migrants from other states, such as Hindu Bengalis in bureaucracy and Muslim Bengalis in agriculture, caused the indigenous Assamese population to feel marginalised. This also led to the rise of militant groups who advocated for their respective communities’ rights, exacerbating violence in the region.
Tribal belts were established during the colonial period to protect the identity of tribal communities, but post-independence, some tribal lands were acquired through de-reservation, displacing tribal residents without providing alternative land. The influence of land mafias forced some tribals to sell their lands, and others resorted to occupying forestlands, later labelled as encroachers.
The presence of tea estates on the hills further complicated land issues. Leased to planters by the British, these estates were to be returned to the state if tea plantations ceased to exist. However, instances of illegal land purchases by local elites and the land mafia have been reported, highlighting discriminatory practices by the state regarding land rights.
Land rights movements have emerged throughout history, including uprisings of the peasant movements organised by the left political parties and indigenous collectives.
The intricate web of historical, social, and political factors surrounding land issues in Guwahati continues to shape the city’s landscape, posing ongoing challenges and the need for concerted efforts to address land rights and ensure justice for all stakeholders involved.
The Emergence of Informal Settlements
Guwahati witnessed the emergence of informal settlements, owing to processes tracing back to colonial Assam. As the town grew into an administrative hub, the need for a sanitation system became apparent. To address this need, the colonial authorities recruited workers from Dalit communities belonging to other regions of India. These workers, known as safai karamcharis, faced social stigma and were forced to live in small colonies with inadequate facilities. These colonies, often referred to as ‘Harijan colonies,’ became the city’s first informal settlements, housing municipal workers and their families. Over time, the population in these settlements grew through internal growth and migration, leading to deteriorating conditions within these confined areas.
When Guwahati became the capital of Assam in 1972, the city saw a large influx of people migrating to the city. However, formal sector housing, including rental options, proved unaffordable for the poor. The housing units constructed by the Assam State Housing Board were insufficient to meet the housing needs of the economically weaker sections and low-income groups. As a result, low-income residents turned to the informal land and housing sector, including the informal rental sector.
The location and growth of these informal settlements were influenced by economic activities and land availability. Research categorised the informal housing sector into different categories created through land and development processes. These categories included areas occupied through informal occupation (dakhal) on public and private lands such as railway lands, state government revenue lands, reserve forest lands, and private lands earmarked for acquisition. Additionally, land alienation led to informal settlements primarily on private agricultural lands on the city’s periphery.
It is worth noting that both the poor and the middle class engaged in dakhal to gain access to land in Guwahati. However, there were contrasting characteristics between informal settlements of the middle class, which could afford better housing and basic services, and the remaining majority of the informal settlements which were characterised by poor-quality housing and lack of basic services. The Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) officially identified some of these informal settlements as slums over the years to facilitate access to government schemes.
The Eviction Conundrum
In the case of Guwahati, the struggle for housing rights and the occurrence of evictions can be traced back to the informal habitations on wetlands and hills. These encroachments have created a contentious situation, particularly for those without legal land tenure, leading to a cycle of violence and counter-violence. The conflict between informal settlers and the state revolves around land rights and resistance against evictions carried out in the name of ecological protection. This conflict has transformed into a political movement and has laid the groundwork for ongoing conflicts in the city.
The underlying causes of these evictions are deeply rooted in the history of the state’s land policy, ethnic conflicts, and a long-standing political movement against immigrants, especially those from Bangladesh, who are often stigmatised. Additionally, conflicts over land rights involving indigenous tribes further contribute to the volatile situation. The political geography of Guwahati, characterised by limited land supply and high land values, has led to a continuous process of encroachments as a means for accessing land for housing. The state government’s selective approach to ecological conservation has resulted in the uprooting of informal settlements and the denial of their land rights.
The urban poor and migrant workers in Guwahati face numerous challenges in proving their citizenship through legal documents.
Factors such as frequent changes of residence, lack of awareness, and illiteracy, which leads to dependence on others for administrative tasks, have resulted in residents’ names being excluded from official lists. As a result, they struggle to find affordable rental housing and are compelled to settle in existing informal settlements, hills, wetlands, and other undeveloped government lands. Settling in these areas makes them vulnerable to forced evictions by the administration. The constant threat of eviction forces them to frequently change their residences, leading to a lack of proper legal documents and difficulties in accessing essential services. Disruptions caused by factors like floods, erosion, and regional conflicts further contribute to the loss or misplacement of personal belongings and documents.
The urban poor are often compelled by the dynamics of the urban land market to occupy the most marginal lands, including riverbanks, marshes, railway tracks, and hill slopes. These informal settlements are not regularised due to their hazardous or ecologically sensitive locations. Consequently, slum dwellers are deprived of basic services, further increasing their vulnerability. When the poor manage to transform these hazardous sites into habitable places through significant efforts, private developers see profit-making opportunities in these locations and exert pressure on local government authorities to carry out evictions under the guise of ecological concerns. This often results in broken promises of land rights for slum dwellers, and post-elections, local or state governments frequently initiate a series of slum demolitions.
The history of land rights struggles in Guwahati adds to the complexity of the eviction issue. Previous evictions, occurring between 1992 and 1996, at a frequency of two or three times per month, were conducted by the forest department. However, following a Supreme Court order on February 18, 2002, mandating states, including Assam, to provide information on clearing reserve forests from encroachments, the state government launched a severe eviction drive in forest areas across the state, including the hills in Guwahati. The oppressive nature of these eviction drives and the media coverage they received generated outrage within the state.
These factors collectively contribute to the issue of evictions in Guwahati’s informal settlements, emphasising the urgent need for inclusive urban development strategies, equitable land policies, and the protection of the rights of marginalised communities.
A Beacon of Hope
The All Guwahati Slum Coordination Committee was formed in the year 2021 as an attempt to tackle the issues surrounding land, housing and eviction of residents from informal settlements. Since their causes aligned, YUVA and the Indo-Global Social Service Society (IGSSS) collaborated to form a coordination committee. Both organisations realised the need for an independent platform in order to solve the issues faced by the residents of informal settlements. With the participation of community members, the All Guwahati Slum Coordination Committee functions with around 20 core committee members and more than 1000 general members.
Even before the official establishment of the committee, people were grouped together to work for the causes of the informal settlements. These groups worked as anti-eviction committees across various informal settlements. During the 2021 Assam Legislative Assembly election, the committee was formed in collaboration with IGSSS to strategise and put forth collective demands of the residents of informal settlements. A core committee was created in order to ensure the committee’s smooth functioning. The demands put forth by the committee were picked up by political parties in their manifestos.
Battling for Recognition
According to the Guwahati Municipal Corporation, there are 217 non-notified informal settlements across the city. These informal settlements are usually situated near railway lines, wetlands or hill areas. The settlements on the hills and wetlands come under the purview of the state government, while those situated near the railway lines come under the purview of the Union government. The Census of 2011 revealed that the slum population in the city was over 25,000, although various other sources estimate the population to be more than 50,000.
After studying the population of these non-notified settlements, we got to know that the residents are mostly dependent on informal work. The females take up domestic work while the males are either construction workers, street vendors, rickshaw pullers or drivers.Pinky Kumari Nath, the committee’s secretary
YUVA intervenes to solve the issues faced by non-notified settlements, especially those that are situated close to the railway lines.
The All Guwahati Slum Coordination Committee creates awareness and prepares residents for what they can do in case the government demands them to leave their homes.Bhaskar Kalita, a member of the committee
In the area of Bhutnath, residents of informal settlements continuously face the threat of eviction.
When the electrification and expansion of railway lines began, the railway department began conducting surveys. This means that the threat of eviction always looms over the residents who live in informal settlements.Tahera Begum, the president of the committee
With 80 to 100 permanent residents, Bhutnath is one of the first areas that was supported by YUVA.
“We collected all documents that could prove the people’s residence and analysed the demographics of the area. This will enable us to easily furnish proof and seek legal support when faced with the threat of eviction,” she added.
In Uzan Bazar’s old railway colony, YUVA has mobilised domestic workers since the year 2016. The residents of one section of the area received a show cause notice in 2018 wherein the railway department began looking into proof of residence.
“Through group meetings, capacity building sessions and the timely intervention of lawyers, we facilitated the documentation process for the residents,” said Anita Devi, the committee’s secretary. “We assisted residents who were directly notified, instead of receiving a show cause notice, in filing a case in court. The case is still going on.”
This year, officials from the railway department came to the locality with the intention of evicting the residents. With legal assistance, the All Guwahati Slum Coordination Committee managed to tackle the issue.
The All Guwahati Slum Coordination Committee also found out that governmental schemes were not implemented effectively in the non-notified settlements. For instance, the Swachh Bharat Mission came with the promise of individual household toilets. However, no efforts were made to implement the same in informal settlements.
“When we approach the concerned authorities about these issues, they say that the non-notification of informal settlements is the reason for not implementing government schemes,” said Pinky Kumari Nath.
Further, the absence of a nodal agency and grievance redressal cell makes it difficult to put forth the issues of the residents in informal settlements.
The committee holds at least one meeting a month to discuss the issues pertaining to informal settlements. During one of the meetings, an advocate from the High Court of Guwahati was invited to share information on land rights. The committee members were educated on the legal aspects pertaining to eviction and how they could go about it. Further, the committee organised a session on the Right To Information Act (RTI).
From Exclusion to Inclusion
The AGSCC also works on issues of basic services, such as lack of water, electricity and challenges surrounding legal documentation.
“The non-issue of the Aadhar Card posed a slew of challenges for the residents of informal settlements. They were unable to access basic amenities and services without the document,” said Atika Sultana. The committee’s vice president. “This hampered activities like enrollment to educational institutions.”
The issues pertaining to documentation did not end there. Governmental restrictions on the distribution of ration cards made the residents of informal settlements dependent on relief measures in order to procure basic food supplies during the nationwide lockdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, it is important to note that these measures were only temporary in nature.
After gathering data from the informal settlements, the All Guwahati Slum Coordination Committee filed a Public Interest Litigation demanding the resumption of the process of distribution of ration cards. This brought in a positive response, wherein the concerned department agreed to look into the issue.
Campaigning for Change
In the run-up to the Guwahati Municipal Elections in April 2022, the All Guwahati Slum Coordination Committee launched a dynamic campaign to assert the rights of its members and amplify their voices. Harnessing the strength of community leaders and mobilising the residents, the committee embarked on a grassroots movement that empowered the people to demand change.
Campaigning tirelessly, it ventured into every community, instilling confidence and equipping the residents with the tools to question the candidates vying for office. Banners adorned each community’s entrances, displaying the people’s collective demands. Leaflets were distributed far and wide, spreading awareness and garnering support for its cause.
The committee ensured that its demands reached the candidates directly by presenting a comprehensive memorandum to each ward’s aspirants. Its appeal extended beyond the political sphere, rallying the support of civil society organisations who recognised the significance of their demands.
Central to its campaign were the pressing issues that plagued the communities. The members called for the official recognition of informal settlements, putting an end to the cycle of forced evictions that had marred their lives. A rehabilitation and resettlement policy became a rallying cry, aiming to provide stability and security to those displaced by eviction. Access to basic services such as water, electricity, and road connectivity was demanded, along with the urgent need for effective drainage systems to mitigate the destructive impact of flash floods in these vulnerable communities.
Through its pre-election campaign, the All Guwahati Slum Coordination Committee harnessed the power of collective action, mobilising the community and demanding a better future. The resilience and determination of its members set the stage for meaningful change, amplifying the voices of the marginalised and ensuring their demands were heard loud and clear.
Further, in the month of September, the All Guwahati Slum Coordination Committee announced a campaign called हमारा अधिकार, हमारा सवाल (Our Rights, Our Questions) under the leadership of collectives through various programmes in the upcoming months before the Budget Session of the Assembly in February 2023.
The Way Forward
In 2023, questions were raised in the Assembly Budget Session regarding the data on the notification of informal settlements and the status of housing schemes implementation in the state. However, these questions were met with unsatisfactory responses. Hence, it has been decided that the campaign will be strengthened and carried out effectively in the near future.
“Our aim is to reach every informal settlement in the city of Guwahati. We try to encourage people to put up a fair fight against eviction through civil societies and other means,” said Bhaskar.
In order to strengthen its platform, the committee seeks to reach people with knowledge of the legal framework and those who work towards the issues of human rights. It focuses on its demand for the notification of informal settlements through collective action, with the long term vision of creating adequate habitats in Guwahati.