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Mafia wreaks havoc on Assam forests

Reports compiled, and analyses carried out by various institutes have projected a grim scenario on the status of forests in Assam.

By Rajeev Bhattacharyya
New Update

publive-image Timber seized on the outskirts of Manas National Park which is a World Heritage Site | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

Assam’s pristine and ancient rain forests are being systematically wiped out by the mafia backed allegedly by a section of government officials. The government displayed an indifferent attitude to check the loot.

The illegal felling of trees in the Northeastern states has been on a rise for the past many decades, but it gathered steam over the past couple of years, an official with the state forest department claimed. Reports compiled, and analyses carried out by various institutes have projected a grim scenario on the status of forests in Assam.

According to the data mapped by Global Forest Watch, a repository of forest data worldwide, the loss of tree cover in the Northeast amounts to over 70% of all tree loss in the country that occurred between 2001 and 2018. The net loss of tree cover between 2000 - 2018 in India is 16,744 sq km, out of which 74.7% is from Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and others - amounting to 12,523 sq km.

publive-image A saw mill busted at Udalguri which is among the many similar facilities set up at several remote locations in the state by the mafia for processing timber | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

On top of the chart is Assam for the period between 2001 and 2018 with 2388.46 sq km tree cover loss, while Mizoram lost maximum trees between 2013 and 2018, spanning an area of 1392 sq km.

Assam, over the years has been seeing a steady decline in its first cover. For instance, the Sonai Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary is a protected area in Assam, which is located at the foothills of the Great Himalayan Range. Four rivers flow through this sanctuary and the place was once rich in various species of flora and fauna that is hard to find elsewhere. But this place too has today become a hotspot of rampant illegal felling of trees and encroachment.

publive-image A vast stretch of Sonai Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary in Sonitpur

The Sonia Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary is just one of many green spots in Assam that has been steadily losing its green cover. Sources say that encroachment of this sanctuary began over three decades ago and was encouraged by some politicians to settle for vote-banks.

A study carried out by the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing(IIRS) has predicted the depletion of 9,007.14 square km (2.94 per cent) of forests in some zones of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh by 2028. The study, titled ‘Forest Cover Monitoring and Prediction in a Lesser Himalayan Elephant Landscape’, which was published in Current Science warned that deforestation and loss of wildlife habitat in Upper (eastern) Assam would impact not only neighbouring Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh but Lower (western) Assam as well.

publive-image Bullock cart ferrying timber from the forest at Dhemaji which is one of the worst affected districts in Assam | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

Among the districts in Assam, the study observed that the largest amount of forest cover loss was noticed in Dhemaji (1,419.99 square km) followed by Sonitpur (825.85 square km), Tinsukia (662.28 square km) and Lakhimpur (635.15 square km).

publive-image A consignment of timber confiscated at the border district of Karimganj which was en route to Bangladesh | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

India has set a target of bringing 33 percent of its geographical area under forest cover as envisaged in the National Forest Policy, 1988. This was also one of the critical targets in the Strategy for New India document by NITI Aayog (2018). A total of 17 states and union territories in India have above 33 percent of the geographical area under forest cover. Currently, the total forest and tree cover comes to 24.62% of the geographical area of the country.

publive-image Illegal constructions continue at some animal corridors of Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve (KNPTR), which is also a World Heritage Site in violation of a Supreme Court order | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

Broadly speaking, there are two fundamental factors that are triggering deforestation in Assam. The huge demand for timber in the cities, including some in other states, have ensured a lucrative trade for the mafia, who usually employ local youths to chop the trees. On some occasions, consignments meant for Bangladesh have also been seized along the border. A percentage of the profits garnered from the illicit trade is allegedly earmarked for a section of government officials.

publive-image Teak wood seized at the Gauhati Railway Station which were being sent to a destination in another state | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

Secondly, a large swathe of forests across the state has been encroached over the past several decades. The government is unable to firm up any long-term policy to come to grips with the situation. Since the last three years or so, the government has begun the process of clearing the encroachments from some reserved forests and government land.

publive-image Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) seize a truck with timber at Udalguri in central Assam which is one of the worst affected districts with an extremely high intensity of man-animal conflict | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

In 2018, in response to an RTI application, the Assam government revealed that the total encroachment adds up to 3,87,885 hectares which is 22 percent out of the total of 17,36,301 hectares of the state’s forest cover. This encroachment includes national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, world heritage sites and numerous reserve forests. The reports revealed that Assam’s capital Guwahati had over 6000 hectares of reserved forests which were being encroached upon but the government had failed to evict the encroachers.

publive-image Many hills in and around Guwahati have been reduced in size and the trees chopped either for supply of earth required for construction or for setting up illegal colonies | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

Besides the damage to forests, trees continue to be hacked owing to hill cutting at several places in the state. The demand, again, comes from the construction sector, where the earth is required in large quantities to fill up marshy land.

publive-image On 23 February, Asomiya Pratidin published a news story with the photographs of three forest department officials involved in the racket which comes on the heels of similar news items in other local dailies and TV news channels in Assam | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

The Northeast, including Assam, is part of the Indo Burma Biodiversity Hotspot, which is among the three such zones in the country. Northeast is one of the greenest zones of our country that is blessed with rich flora and fauna. But the respective governments in the Northeastern states are yet to come up with a concrete plan to tackle the depleting forest cover of the region. The government’s indifference to the destruction of forests and loss of tree cover could have far-reaching adverse implications for the region’s future.


Rajeev Bhattacharya is a senior journalist in Assam in India’s northeast. He has worked with The Telegraph, The Indian Express, The Times of India and Times Now, and was the managing editor of Seven Sisters Post. He is a Chevening Fellow and author of “Rendezvous With Rebels: Journey to Meet India’s Most Wanted Men” and “Lens & The Guerrilla: Insurgency in India’s Northeast.” He reports on India’s northeast and its border regions with Myanmar, Bhutan, China and Bangladesh.