The struggle for land rights is itself a history – in both rural and urban areas. Among the three basic rights of human beings that are food, clothing and shelter, land also finds its own space, as without a piece of land, a shelter cannot be built upon. Hence, land rights are a prior to human beings rather than livelihood to maintain a standard of living.
When it comes to urban areas, we see various informal settlements grow in hills, railway land, and wetlands and the question arises, who are these settlers or where have they come from? But the truth is these people are the indigenous people of the state or a country who either for employment or education have migrated to the cities or towns and have settled themselves in those areas. Hence these informal settlements are termed as slums and the slum dwellers are also termed as encroachers.
Generally, every slum is around 50 to 60 years old and in spite of knowing the fact that people are encroachers to these government lands, they have settled there for shelter and livelihood as they are the economically backward people who have to think for twice a meal daily.
In the context of Assam, Guwahati, being the gateway and urban hub of the state, is also home to many urban slum dwellers settled in railway land, hills and wetlands. Here, these encroachers have either migrated from rural areas or different states in order to maintain their living, basically people migrate due to the pull factor which is employment in the city.
During the colonial period, to protect the identity of tribal communities, tribal belts were formed in Guwahati as well as in the rest of Assam. For example, the current Greater Guwahati area was under the South Kamrup Tribal Belt prior to shifting of the state capital to Dispur. Post independence, the tribal lands of South Kamrup were acquired through de-reservation, leading to evictions of the resident tribals without giving them any alternative. The Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) area registered a population growth rate of 8.1% per annum during the 1971–91 period following the setting up of the capital at Dispur in 1972.
The slum-dwellers are deprived of basic services thus increasing their vulnerability. When the poor turn some of these hazardous sites into habitable places after herculean efforts, the private developers who scent profits in these locations push the local government authorities to carry out evictions in the name of ecology.
The slum dwellers are mostly engaged in construction works, street vendors, rickshaw pullers, auto drivers, daily wage labors, shopkeepers, painters, etc. to earn their bread. So with the minimum wages, they maintain their families and daily needs. Basic rights are also denied in the slums, like water, sanitation, food security health, and education, in spite of this they are not out of danger. The danger or risk of evictions haunts them as nightmares, as the government evicts them in the name of illegal encroachers.
The eviction drive which is going to take place in the city covers the greater Guwahati area from Panikhaiti to Maligaon, slums settled in the railway land and also hills. But the most vulnerable are the dwellers residing in railway land which could be seen from a recent eviction drive in Bamunimaidam area of Guwahati. This eviction drive could be undertaken for any development plan of the central government, like construction of double track or building of guest houses for the railway minister. But the slums which are about to get evicted ages to 50 to 60 years, as data collected from the residences has proved that people have been residing there from 1965. The government can’t bring identity politics here as many of these slum dwellers are indigenous people residing in these areas since ages. These people have full right to get land lease or patta and demand the government for land or housing rights as it is one of their basic rights.
The Assam Land Policy, 1989 (Government of Assam 1989) gives priority of land allotment (pattas) to the indigenous people living in Guwahati or other towns on payment of the prescribed premium. The order of preference is for firstly giving pattas to the indigenous people occupying government land for 15 years and not having any land in the rural or urban areas of the state and after that to others with Assam domicile and who have been living in the city for 15 years without owning any land in rural or urban areas.