- Township’s 1.24 miles-long boundary wall acts as a physical barrier to elephants and cuts off vital migratory route.
- Some elephants have died while attempting to break the wall to cross over to the other side.
- Refinery has also excavated around 12.5 acres of forested land to develop a golf course for its residents, which allegedly lies within a “No Development Zone”.
In May this year, forest officials found a seven-year-old male elephant lying dead next to a high concrete wall. Postmortem reports suggested that the elephant calf had died due to “severe hemorrhage owing to violent thrust” against the wall. Many other elephants have either died or have been injured trying to break across the wall, according to media reports.
This two-kilometer (1.24 miles) long wall marks the boundary of an area allegedly reserved for the township of Numaligarh Refinery Limited (NRL) — a joint venture between Bharat Petroleum, Oil India and the Government of Assam. On the other side lies Deopahar, a proposed reserve forest, located to the east of Kaziranga National Park in the state of Assam in northeast India. Deopahar, a forested hill, is rich in biodiversity and is part of the elephants’ traditional migratory route, according to conservationists.
Kaziranga — a mosaic of marshlands and moist tropical forests — is home to Asian elephants, tigers, and has the world’s largest population of the one-horned rhinoceros and wild water buffaloes.
During monsoons, many animals, including elephants, move out of Kaziranga in search of forests at higher elevations for shelter and food. Deopahar is one such hill, providing elephants with a stop-over place during their long-distance migration.
In 1991, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) granted environmental clearance to NRL to establish their refinery and township close to Kaziranga amid numerous protests by environmental groups. Five years later, in 1996, MoEF declared 15 kilometers (9.32 miles) around NRL as a No Development Zone prohibiting “expansion of the industrial area, townships, infrastructure facilities and such other activities which could lead to pollution and congestion.”
Despite MoEF’s notification, NRL constructed a two-kilometers long wall within the No Development Zone in 2011 to delimit their township, a step that many environmentalists have severely criticized.
NRL has also excavated around 12.5 acres (five hectares) of forested land near Deopahar to develop a golf course for its residents. This golf course, according to environmental activists, also lies within the No Development Zone, and so is being developed in violation of MoEF’s rules and regulations.
However, NRL, which has won “green” awards several years in a row for being an “eco-friendly” enterprise, maintains that the allegations “seem to be the handiwork of some vested interests to malign the green image of the company.”
Many environmentalists are not convinced, though. Rohit Choudhury, an environmental activist based in India, has filed a petition in India’s National Green Tribunal (NGT), and is leading the charge against NRL. Environmental lawyers Ritwick Dutta and Rahul Choudhury are representing Choudhury in the case.
Choudhury’s petition asks for the wall to be demolished, area excavated for the golf course to be restored, and compensation for “destruction of prime forest land in a No-Development Zone” to be paid.
Responding to the petition, the National Green Tribunal has directed NRL to stop all excavation work and felling of trees in the No Development Zone until further notice. The tribunal has also directed NRL to provide details of the number of trees felled for development of the golf-course, as well as the number of trees that NRL has planted in lieu of the deforestation in Deopahar. Moreover, the tribunal has directed the state of Assam to inspect the deforested area and file a report.
AN INTERVIEW WITH ROHIT CHOUDHURY
Mongabay: When did you first learn about the construction of the wall and golf course in the no-development zone? And how did you get involved?
Rohit Choudhury: I learned about the construction of the boundary wall when Numaligarh Refinery Limited restarted construction activities on the golf course site in 2015. The high level of disturbance from the use of heavy machineries, and high voltage lights during the day and night, greatly disrupted elephant movements in and around the Deopahar corridor. The death of an elephant calf on May 31, 2015 due to the NRL wall further brought this issue in the spotlight.
Mongabay: What do you find most surprising about this case?
Rohit Choudhury: The most alarming aspect in this case is the blatant disregard shown by NRL towards government regulations. India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests had stipulated numerous conditions to mitigate NRL’s adverse impacts as far back as 1994, including conditions that explicitly denied the direct use or disturbance of existing forest cover and hilly regions (No Objection Certificate, January 18, 1994).
NRL is also guilty of violating the No Development Zone Rules of July 5, 1996 and the Hon’ble National Green Tribunal’s orders of September 7, 2012 (Original Application No.38/2011 in the matter of Rohit Choudhury Vs Union of India & Ors). The company went ahead and blocked the Elephant movement area and indulged in mindless destruction of Wildlife habitat for the construction of a Golf Course inside the government-declared No Development Zone.
Mongabay: Why do you think NRL could fell trees and excavate land in a No Development Zone?
Rohit Choudhury: The matter is sub-judice, so I am not at liberty to discuss. But I am sure that Hon’ble National Green Tribunal will look into the matter judiciously and give proper direction to Numaligarh Refinery Ltd.
Mongabay: What has been the Forest Department’s response so far?
Rohit Choudhury: The state forest department has been extremely proactive with regard to the issue and has been facilitating prompt and efficient exchange of information. For example, the forest department prepared timely reports on the issues pertaining to the golf course and butterfly park. The Divisional Forest Officer of Golaghat Division wrote letters to the SEIAA [State Environment Impact Assessment Authority] recommending a withdrawl of the Environmental Clearance permit accorded to Numaligarh Refinery Ltd. for expansion works of township. He also highlighted the serious impacts of this wall by writing about the death of the elephant calf to the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (Wildlife) Assam.
Mongabay: How have other conservation NGOs in the area responded to NRL’s construction activities?
Rohit Choudhury: With the exception of one, all local, regional and national NGOs who otherwise work in the Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong region are surprisingly mute on this issue.
Mongabay: What has been the impact of the wall and golf course on elephants and other wildlife?
Rohit Choudhury: The impacts of the boundary wall and golf course on the elephants are many and inter-related. Some of them are as follows:
- The physical obstruction caused by the massive concrete wall is a major impediment to free elephant movement along this critical corridor. Further habitat alteration and change of land-use has also compounded this problem. The magnitude this issue is best realized by viewing the footage of an elephant herd trying to break the wall.
- The physical blockage of this ancient elephant movement path accompanied by increased anthropogenic activity is causing behavioral changes in the elephant population.
- There is an increase in human-elephant conflict manifested as damage to life, crop and property. The costs of these damages have to be borne by local communities and the Forest Department.
- The boundary wall and golf course also have deleterious effects on the Deopahar forest, and its biodiversity and ecosystem by causing fragmentation, habitat degradation, and spreading of invasive weed species.
Mongabay: Is there anything else that you would like to add?
Rohit Choudhury: NRL portrays itself as pro-environment and pro-forest as it constructed a Butterfly Park and received various green awards. However, NRL’s unethical and blatant disregard to government regulations and wild animal welfare speaks otherwise.