The areas around Mahananda - an important river in North Bengal which flows to Bangladesh - is now under threat of encroachment with many of the settlers here suspected of being foreign nationals.
Zee News took stock of the ground situation in the area and observed over 200 new settlements on the riverbed here. Siltation has been a big problem for Mahananda for some time now but now, encroachment is on the rise as well.
It may be an environmental crisis but the fact that many of the occupants of these encroached lands could also be illegal immigrants throws up a massive security challenge. It is a problem recognised by West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee who, in one of the administrative meetings attended by her, had asked the local administration to check the identity of people living here.
Locals who have been staying in these areas for years revealed to Zee News that they are concerned about the rise in the number of their new neighbours in recent times. "Encroachment and sand mafia thing was there for long but we are concerned about the new settlers," said Amiyo Patro, a local. "Suddenly, some huts are made here on the riverbed and people living there are outsiders."
People staying in these makeshift huts though claim they are not foreigners but migrants from different parts of the country. "We have been staying here for four years. We have come from Kokrajhor (Assam) and maximum people here in our locality are from outside," said Durga Das, one of many who has made the riverbed her home. She even pointed to her tin-roofed hut and said she pays rent for it.
Another resident, 30-year-old Rashid Khan, claimed he and his family have come from Bihar and that they had bought land here.
Others like Riya Rai admitted to having come from Bangladesh and said more people from across the border are expected to settle here in the times to come. "We are from Bangladesh. Till now, our voter ID cards have not been made. When I am 18, I have been told that I will get a voting card."
The concerns, therefore, are three-fold. Firstly, there is a modus operandi of land encroachment which is then illegally sold or rented out to gullible home-seekers. That many of these home-seekers could be illegal immigrants is another problem. And that they are reportedly being promised voter IDs paints an even grimmer picture.
Meanwhile, the state DG has asked for immediate action into the matter - especially because the settlements are hampering food management and causing environmental damage to the river itself. In the long run, the security implications for India could also be massive if the ground situation remains unchecked.