Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Hill of Contentions: Guwahati's Story

Snehashish Mitra (biltu0717@gmail.com) works as a research assistant at Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group. 

Guwahati, in the state of Assam is the largest city of Northeast India, which provides gateway to other part of the region. In the last decade, the urbanization pattern of Guwahati has challenged the dominant notion of northeast India being a peripheral and marginal region. The city is growing in every possible direction, with real estate being the major engine. The possibility of opening up of trade with the other Southeast Asian countries has made Guwahati an attractive destination for investments. Along with capital, there is also an influx of labour, which in turn has led to a struggle over the environmental resources of Guwahati.  Guwahati is ecologically gifted as it is situated on the banks of river Brahmaputra and has 18 hills within the city limits. Despite so, Guwahati faces several environmental issues annually like that of artificial flood, landslide, human animal conflict etc. which takes toll on an average of 10 human lives per year.
The blame for such issues is mainly pelted on the hill settlements inhabited by migrants from different parts of Assam.  The high living cost in the plain areas inhabited by the gentrified class and lack of planning for the migrant population, has made the settlements on the hills inevitable. Such spaces in the urban sphere have become a bone of contention between the settlers and the state as some of the hills fall under the reserve forest category. Several grass root level organizations has come forward in support of the land ownership of the settlers.  In contrast with this scenario, realtors are developing the hills in other part of the city which are being offered at a high market price for the gentry. Intrusion of environmental spaces by human activities has led to frequent leopard attacks in the human inhabited areas. While the state authorities had taken up eviction initiative with marginal success, it certainly doesn’t offer a long term solution keeping in the mind the livelihood of poor migrants and the fragile environment of Guwahati. The resistance of the settlers on the hills perhaps emancipates from the fact that they have been forced to leave the rural hinterland of Assam or neighbouring states due to the redundancy of the traditional livelihood opportunities along with impacts of socio-environmental issues in the militarised frontier of northeast India. The mismanagement of natural resources like forests, water bodies by the state and adverse effects of climate change (erratic rainfall patters for example) have left occupations like dairy farming (mainly practiced, rather were practiced by the Nepali community) and fishing on rivers/ water bodies (mainstay of the scheduled caste communities, locally known as namasudras) redundant due to  decreasing yields. Natural calamities like annual floods displace a considerable number of people. Developmental projects like Lower Subansiri Dam have also displaced people from Mising community (Mising is an ethnic tribal community residing in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh).  Alongside such factors, northeast India has been a region intermittently in the grasp of militancy and conflict which has also caused major displacements and people have been spending considerable amount of time in refugee camps. Such factors or combination of them stems the need to migrate to a place which offers a comparatively peaceful atmosphere and provides with livelihood opportunities with somewhat assured remuneration. As Guwahati is by far the largest city of the region, it turns out to be the first choice of such rural to urban migration.

Most of the labours among the migrants settled on the hill areas are involved in the informal economy, rendering them unable to afford housing in the plain areas of Guwahati.  The contention mainly arises from the fact that some of the settlements lie on 2642 hectares of reserve forests out of the 7,023 hectares of hill land in Guwahati. Environmental groups and a large section of the media have blamed the settlements for the land degradation, hill cuttings, landslides, leopard intrusion in human settlements. The government authorities had attempted several eviction drives with partial success. Organizations like KrishakMuktiSangramSamiti (KMSS) led by social activist AkhilGogoi have organised the hill settlers and resisted the eviction drives. In 2011, 3 people died in police firing during a demonstration against eviction and in demand of land ownership rights in front of the state secretariat in Dispur (capital of Assam). In February 2014, PranabBoro, a hill dweller on Garchuk hills belonging to the Bodo community self-immolated during a demonstration in demand of land ownership. Such acts of desperation are probably engendered by the fact that the settlers don’t have anything to fall back on in their native places. The provisions of Forest Rights Act (2005) are also upheld in the demands of land ownerships.
While the subaltern class is in constant conflict over spaces in Guwahati, the hills of Kharghuli in the northern part of the city is showcasing a tremendous growth in the real estate and luxury sector. Properties of several noted celebrities and influential peoples have come up in this area. Religious institutions have also been given land plots in this area. Perhaps the fact that Kharghuli doesn’t falls under the reserve forest category would explain such bias in management of homogenous environment resources, but it isn’t enough to answer the questions of claim by the marginalized section in Guwahati. The state seems to be conceding partial citizenship to the hill settlers by providing them with voter cards, electricity supply and some basic provisions of health and education; these gestures however serves as no guarantee of permanency as shown by earlier incidents of eviction. As the assembly election of Assam is approaching the situation seems to be calm at the moment. However, unless a reasonable plan is made to rehabilitate the so called ‘encroachers’, the possibility of creating a sustainable Guwahati seems to be bleak. It is also important to look into the conflict economy persistent in the region and their scheme of thing behind the whole issue of resource conflict in Guwahati. The city resource and amenities can be considered as objects of ‘collective consumption’ on which urban sociologist Manuel Castells had written extensively in his work ‘The Urban Question’; he prescribed that since collective consumption reproduces labour power it should be urban sociologists’ object of investigation. Castells pointed out that collective consumption is often the source of considerable tension and protest. He argued that if these struggles over collective consumption were linked to working class movement/politics they could be the impetus for social revolution and the overthrow of capitalism. It wouldn’t be out of line to sense and locate the practice of traditional primitive accumulation, often an object of criticism in Marxian perspective, at play in Guwahati’s recent development trajectory. If the movement and resistance are linked to working class politics by the protestors supported by KMSS(adheres to Marxist ideology) and like-minded organizations, Castell’s prediction might see daylight in Guwahati, given the political traditionof northeast India of making attempts  to repeatedly break the shackles of overarching Indian state. Fixating on the legal, political environmental premise of the issue, Guwahati offers a challenge of urban and environmental management which is vital to understand in the context of Northeast India and Urban South. 

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