The eviction of nearly 500 families who had illegally encroached upon Silsako Beel, a protected wetland in Guwahati, has once again brought to the fore the debate over the state government’s selective eviction drives. While the houses of these families, illegally constructed on the wetland, have been reduced to rubble and dust, a hotel still stands tall at the same site. And the bigger question is: how did the hotel manage to get a sanction from the authorities to construct a hotel?
But first the background of the disputed site. Guwahati has numerous hills and wetlands. Located on the bank of the mighty Brahmaputra, the city is surrounded by the Khasi-Garo hill ranges to the North and South. Consequently, the city has a limited supply of land and, therefore, has sprawled on the East-West axis, resulting in high land prices. As people looked for cheaper options, unscrupulous middlemen grabbed wetlands around Guwahati and sold these to unsuspecting buyers. To lure people, the middlemen filled up the wetlands and constructed some structures on these wetlands.
All these happened under the nose of government authorities and, in fact, with their support. The state government even allotted some parts of the Silsako Beel to some public and private institutions. For example, in the early 2000s, a portion of land in the Silsako Beel was allotted to the Omeo Kumar Das Institute of Social Change and Development (OKDISCD), a public institution, and Ginger Hotel, a budget hotel brand owned by Tata group.
In 2008, Assam Government declared Silsako a protected area. Meanwhile, many settlers, who bought land in this area before 2008, got holding numbers from Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) and kept paying property taxes and electricity bills.
It was around 2008-09 that the GMC began dumping solid waste in areas around the OKDISCD. The land filled with solid waste was quickly grabbed by the land sharks and sold off to lower middle-class migrant families as individual plots. Over time, land in Silsako Beel was allotted to other parties. There were also encroachments for residential purposes on these wetlands. The total wetland area got reduced to 71.10 ha in 2010 from 124.15 ha in 2000. In 2020, it was further reduced by 32.31 ha.
In July 2014, evictions of informal settlements began but those backed by powerful people and GMC were not touched. The then chief minister Tarun Gogoi promised that all structures on water channels and wetlands would be demolished without looking at the background of the encroacher. However, only selective demolitions were carried out which hit only the poor and indigenous people. Not only the Ginger Hotel and OKDISCD but other establishments such as a tennis court, and a hotel management institute also continue on this protected wetland.
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How could Tata Group build a hotel on the wetland?
On March 31, 1999, the Union government cleared a Rs 14-crore proposal by the Assam government for the construction of the permanent campus of the Institute of Hotel Management, Catering Technology and Applied Nutrition, Guwahati. Following the order, the revenue department of the Assam Government allotted 15 bighas of land near Lokhra in Guwahati in on July 15, 1999. But the tourism department of Assam rejected the allotted plot and wrote a letter to the revenue department on December 31, 1999, stating that 15 bighas of land near Lohkra did not meet its requirement because of the distance and communication and, therefore, requested the alternative plot of land asking 20 bighas of land between Six Mile and the VIP road. Most interestingly, the letter also read: “The land selected is to be so located so as to enable us to develop certain facilities like hotel accommodation etc. so that the institute can be self-sustaining in the long run.”
The AGP government in 2000 allotted 20 bighas of land covered by Dag no. 987 of Hengrabari village under Beltola Mouza to the Institute of Hotel Management, Catering Technology and Applied Nutrition with a condition that the institute would utilize the land within a period of three years. Strangely, while the tourism department initially claimed that 15 bighas were not adequate and demanded 20 bighas of land for the hotel management institute, in 2006, the same institute leased out a plot of land measuring 4.5 bighas out of 20 bighas under Dag no. 987 to M/S. Roots Corporation Ltd. Mandlix road, Colaba, Mumbai, which belongs to the Tata group. The Ginger Hotel came up on the same plot. Now that the government has evicted individual illegal settlers, the big question is: Will the government take action against institutions?
On March 1, three days after the eviction drive started, Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma directed Kamrup (Metro) DC to shift hotels and educational institutions from Silsako Beel. “I have instructed the DC, Kamrup (Metro) to take steps to immediately shift institutions like Hotel Ginger, OKD Institutions of Social Change, etc from Silsako,” tweeted Sarma. Interestingly, the eviction drive was stopped the very next day.
Also Read : CM Himanta Biswa Sarma instructs Kamrup DC to shift Hotel Ginger, OKD institute from Silsako Beel
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