Eviction drive has been continuing for sometime in protected forest areas of Manipur, causing hue and cry among the affected people. But why are the people evicted from their homes and land they called theirs?
It may be mentioned that protected forest is an area or mass of land which is a reserve forest, and over which the government has property rights, declared to be so by a state government under the provisions of section 29 of the Indian Forest Act 1927.
In protected areas, rights to activities like hunting and grazing are sometimes given to communities living on the fringes of the forest, who sustain their livelihood partially or wholly from forest resources or products.
Interestingly, the tribes inhabiting the forest have no knowledge of the said statute which was formulated before Manipur attained its statehood and before the Hill Area Committee came into existence.
All land belongs to the state?
The forest and tree cover of Manipur is 77.20 per cent of the state’s total geographical area. Around 8.42 per cent of the total forest area is under Reserve Forests, including Wildlife Protected Area Network. An area of 23.95 per cent is Protected Forests and the rest belong to the category of Unclassed Forests.
Why are the people evicted from protected areas?
Tribal peoples’ survival depends on the land they have lived in harmony with for generations, yet they are being evicted from protected areas in the name of conservation.
Conservationists must protect tribal peoples’ rights to their lands, ask them what help they need, listen to them, and then support them. There is a mass of evidence to show that this change is vital.
The demarcation or eviction drives being carried out by the government in reserve and protected forest areas are not targeting any specific community but are aimed at securing the people’s future.
The abnormal growth of population led to encroachment in the protected as well as reserve forest areas. The growth rate of the population of Manipur is abnormally high compared to that of India as per the census data available. This cannot be a natural growth rate. For example, the population growth rate of Manipur for the decade 1971-81 is 32.46 per cent compared to 24.66 per cent for all India. So the factors leading to this high growth rate need to be analysed.
On further analysis of growth rates of various subdivisions in various districts of Manipur, abnormal population growth rates are recorded in the subdivisions of hill districts of Senapati, Ukhrul, Chandel and Tamenglong.
As an example, the population growth rate of Purul subdivision of Senapati during 1971-81 was 80.25 per cent, Tamenglong North of Tamenglong district during 1981-91 was 70.24 per cent, Chakpikarong of Chandel district during 1991-2001 was 100.18 per cent. This is quite surprising amid the increasing migration of population from hill districts to valley districts of Imphal East, Imphal west, Thoubal and Bishnupur.
The factors for the abnormal growth rates in the hill districts are:
1. Practice of enrolment of excess population in connivance with the officials and enumerators to get a bigger share of fund/grant.
2. Illegal immigration from Chin Hills of Myanmar and Bangladesh
The increase of population in hill districts due to Illegal immigration is due to migration from Chin Hills. This has already caused an ethnic clash between Kukis and Nagas in hill districts in 1992.
As a response to the large increase in population in Chandel district, there has been over enrolment in Mao-Maram and Purul divisions of Senapati district in 2001 census, which is still controversial.
There is a political factor at play behind the increase in population in real terms or through manipulation of census operation as it is done with an aim to have a bigger share of Assembly seats during delimitation exercise.
As such, the delimitation exercise taken up at present can increase the ethnic tension in Manipur sucking in Meiteis of the valley areas also in the process as valley districts are expected to lose the seats if delimitation is taken up based on 2001 census.
Another issue that has come to light is to start a Zou unification movement among the Kuki Chin groups in the same pattern as ‘Nagalim’ comprising Chin Hills of Myanmar and southern districts of Manipur. This will have a long-term security implication for India even though these groups seem to be supporting the efforts to contain the valley insurgents of Manipur at present.
Already the process of expansion of villages in hill districts with population transferred from Myanmar is taken up in a big way though armed groups.
Another factor contributing to the increase in population in pockets of Valley districts is due to Muslim Illegal migration from Bangladesh and Rohingya in recent times. They are being absorbed in Muslim population in various valley districts with the result that they will become majority in seven assembly segments and in 10 more assembly segments in another ten years.
The eviction drives are being carried out as per the Indian Forest Act and the Supreme Court’s ruling and in the interest of future generations.
The geographical area of Manipur is 22,327 sq km and the total forest cover is 74.7 per cent. As per the records of 1989, the total forest area is 17,418 sq km but it is diminishing every year.
Even though many people do not have a clear understanding of reserve forests, protected forests and classified forest, the state government has been working hard to protect forests in accordance with relevant statutes of the government so as to mitigate the impacts of climate change and in the interest of future generations.
All the activities of the state government aimed at protecting forests strictly comply with the Indian Forest Act. The protected area network comprising wildlife sanctuaries and National parks covers 1132.015 sq km and they constitute only 5.07 per cent of the total geographical area. The total area of unclassified forests is 11,130.725 sq km.
There are 36 reserve forests and 22 protected forests in Manipur.
Categorically asserting that there is no question of the state government violating the rights of tribal people in forest areas, the government has been working hard to save the protected forests of Churachandpur-Khoupum region.
Earlier some huts and other structures built by encroachers inside Heingang Reserve Forest were evicted by the Central Forest Division and there was no complaint from any quarter. All the activities taken up by the state government under the Indian Forest Act are obviously lawful.
Dampi area was declared a reserve forest under Churachandpur Forest Division and a notification was issued to this end in 1951.
Nongmaiching Reserve Forest was declared as such by a notification issued in 1980.
The State Durbar declared Cheklaphai as a reserve forest in 1945.
Kangchup Chiru was also declared as a reserve forest in 1948.
Churachandpur-Khoupum Protected Forest is not something created by the incumbent government. It was created way back in 1966 after due notification was issued. The state government does not work in a sectarian or discriminatory manner.
No one was able to make any legitimate complaint when 69 houses built by encroachers in Waithou Protected Forest along Imphal-Moreh National Highway were demolished.
Likewise, 19 houses built in Langol Reserve Forest, 26 houses built in Iroisemba-Langol Reserve Forest, 86 houses built in Heingang Reserve Forest and 76 houses built in Nongmaiching Reserve Forest by encroachers were demolished.
The state government had issued a notification stating that all houses and other structures built after violating the Indian Forest Act 1927, Forest Conservation Act 1980 and Manipur Forest Rules 2021 are illegal.
Further a judgment passed by the Supreme Court in 1995 says that any settlement by an individual or a group of individuals within reserve forests or protected forests will be treated as encroachment and which need to be evicted.
Therefore, it is high time for every citizen of the state to value protected and reserve forest to sustain the rich biodiversity and to maintain our ecosystem intact for better livelihood.
(The views expressed are personal)