Author : Neha Verma

Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Jun 19, 2023
The expansion of Guwahati, Northeast India’s largest city, has sparked discontent among multiple tribal groups in Assam
Urban expansion in Northeast India: A case study of Guwahati, Assam Political violence, militarisation, and a dysfunctional civilian regime have largely characterised India’s northeast region since independence. The academic focus of social science disciplines in the region has also primarily centred on such themes. Recently, however, academicians and policymakers have started to take note of the spatial transformation undergoing in Northeast India, symbolised by urbanisation (municipal and expansion) and rural-to-urban migration. Multiple policy initiatives of the Government of India, such as the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation and Smart Cities Mission, have facilitated this urban consolidation. India’s Act East Policy (formerly Look East Policy) has also stressed developing the border towns to facilitate cross-border trade with neighbouring nations (primarily with Bangladesh and Myanmar), leading to the proliferation and expansion of border towns, such as Dawki (Meghalaya), Champhai (Mizoram), Moreh (Manipur) and Pangsau (Arunachal Pradesh). While the region has witnessed significant urban spatial transformation, it has led to frequent contestations and opposition from the local communities.
Academicians and policymakers have started to take note of the spatial transformation undergoing in Northeast India, symbolised by urbanisation (municipal and expansion) and rural-to-urban migration.

Guwahati’s centrality in India’s northeast

The partition of Bengal and the creation of East Pakistan severed multiple road and water transport connectivity between India and different parts of today’s Northeast India. Guwahati’s importance as an urban centre increased as multiple road and railway networks were developed throughout the city to compensate for the lost logistical networks. Such endeavours made Guwahati an important town of the region along with Shillong (then the capital of Assam). Following the reorganisation of the states in Northeast India in 1972, Guwahati’s importance increased manifold as Assam’s new capital Dispur was developed adjoining Guwahati. Since then, over the decades, Guwahati has surpassed the other town and cities of the region in every aspect and has emerged as the primate city and gateway to Northeast India. Consequently, Guwahati attracted migrants from different parts of Assam, other states of the region and across India. The continuing stream of migration from different parts of Northeast India is fuelled by dwindling income from rural livelihoods, conflict situations, and climate-induced displacements. On the other hand, eviction-related conflicts between the state agencies and migrant settlers on the urban and ecological peripheries (such as hills, and wetlands) have escalated since the late 1990s.

Assam’s proposed State Capital Region and the development vs sustainability challenge

The Assam Government’s ambitious plan to develop a State Capital Region (SCR) by incorporating Guwahati and its adjoining areas has added a new dimension to the city’s development versus sustainability challenge. Formed in 2016, the Assam State Capital Region Development Authority (ASCRDA) is a nodal platform of the different governing agencies operating within the proposed SCR area, including the Guwahati Development Department (GDD), Guwahati Metropolitan Development Authority (GMDA), Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC), other Urban Development Authorities, other Urban Local Bodies and Zilla Parishads. ASCRDA’s objectives align with the goals of the Guwahati Master Plan 2025, which, among other targets, seeks ‘to develop an integrated intra-urban transport system’, ‘provide space for economic activity’ and ‘create affordable housing for all’ and create a ‘city without slums’. The Chief Minister of Assam has reiterated the need and objectives of the SCR on multiple occasions. The urban expansion plan of Guwahati, however, has evoked antagonistic reactions from the tribal groups living in some of the areas proposed to be included in the SCR.
Following the reorganisation of the states in Northeast India in 1972, Guwahati’s importance increased manifold as Assam’s new capital Dispur was developed adjoining Guwahati.
Notably, the locations along the western and eastern boundaries of the proposed SCR, i.e. Boko-Chaygaon in Kamrup District and Jagi Road in Morigaon District, are parts of the Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council and the Tiwa Autonomous Council, respectively. The Rabha and Tiwa are Assam’s Scheduled Tribe (ST) groups. The groups have regularly demonstrated their dissent against the incorporation of areas under the Autonomous Council in the greater Guwahati area. Such a merger would relax the restrictions on land transactions by non-tribal people. In Boko-Chaygaon, multiple Rabha organisations, such as All Rabha Students' Union, Rabha National Literature Committee and Rabha Hasong Sixth Schedule Demand Committee, have protested against the ASCRDA, citing threats emanating from inflows of outsiders, land alienation and loss of autonomy by the Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council. The Tiwa community has similarly protested the SCR by blocking the National Highway 37 and burning effigies of the Chief Minister in the Morigaon district. Several cultural and political organisations of the region have supported these All Tiwa Students’ Union (ATSU)-led protests. In addition to land alienation, the community fears land acquisition by the government for the construction of an eight-lane highway connecting Jagi Road and Guwahati. Government representatives, including ministers, have assured that ASCRDA will not infringe on the powers of tribal autonomous councils. However, that has done little to assuage the apprehensions of the protestors. In this context, the post-independence urbanisation pattern of Guwahati narrates a cautionary tale regarding the further expansion of Guwahati as SCR. The expansion of Guwahati, from 1950s onwards, involved the displacement and dispossession of tribal people from their native habitats. The city’s spatial expansion involved the denotification of the South Kamrup (Guwahati) Tribal Belt (which includes a large part of South Guwahati today) as a result of lobbying by non-tribal residents of Guwahati, who argued that restrictions on land transactions would impede Guwhati’s urban growth and planning. The tribal population was also displaced by the establishment of the Dispur Capital Complex in 1972. Such a history of displacement and dispossession is cited by the tribal leaders leading the protest against SCR.
The urban expansion plan of Guwahati, however, has evoked antagonistic reactions from the tribal groups living in some of the areas proposed to be included in the SCR.
From the perspective of the Assam Government, SCR is likely to enhance employment, tax revenues, and infrastructural development. Most importantly, if well-executed, it might also address the housing shortage in Guwahati and the many conflicts over housing and land rights, mostly involving eviction. The SCR plan is, however, not clear on how it will accommodate the governance of Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary and multiple Reserve Forests within its proposed geographical area and achieve the stated conservation goals at the state and national levels. Within Guwahati, there already exists contestations between the ecological agendas held by environmental groups and state agencies on one hand and the settlement rights of the hill settlers (largely tribals) on the other. The welfare of tribal people who are socially recognised as ‘indigenous people’ of the region has emerged as Assam’s major political plank. Therefore, SCR must consider the position of the tribal and other communities living in the areas adjoining Guwahati while being mindful of the environmental aspects of the proposed urban expansion.

The way forward

Over the past few decades, Guwahati has outpaced the other towns of Assam and Northeast India in every social and economic indicator. It would thus make sense to focus on developing other towns in Assam, such as Dibrugarh, Digboi, Tezpur, and Barpeta, rather than consolidating the policy focus towards Guwahati. Further expansion of Guwahati would only amplify the imbalance in the state’s urbanisation. Additionally, given the region’s seismic sensitivity, it makes more sense to spread the urban infrastructures across the region rather than concentrating it in a single zone. An independent study by the Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati to evaluate the earthquake risks and prepare a corresponding disaster management master plan, like in Mumbai, might inform better policy formulation. Likewise, the government must consider a study of SCR’s social and environmental implications by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati.
SCR must consider the position of the tribal and other communities living in the areas adjoining Guwahati while being mindful of the environmental aspects of the proposed urban expansion.
Given the cities experiencing extreme weather events with increasing severity, the Assam State Capital Region Development Authority Act, 2017, must incorporate provisions for a climate action plan. Given multiple wildlife sanctuaries and reserve forests in the area, the Act must also include the Forest Department as an essential stakeholder. Currently, the SCR lacks a broader stakeholder engagement, with only certain bureaucrats and state ministers putting their weight behind it. It is necessary to engage local stakeholders to evaluate its prospects and challenges. The government must consult civil society organisations, lawyers, housing rights activists, environmental groups, and social workers to ensure equity and sustainability. Engaging with the project-affected tribal populations is crucial to ensure that the post-independence impacts of Guwahati’s urbanisation resulting in their displacement and dispossession are not repeated.
Snehashish Mitra is a Fellow with the Urban Studies at the Observer Research Foundation
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