Portion of Wall Around Controversial State-Owned Refinery in Assam Pulled Down

The National Green Tribunal had ordered the wall torn down in 2016 for blocking an elephant corridor. However, the chief conservator has said the tearing-down had nothing to with the order.

New Delhi: In 2015, a short YouTube video of a barbed-wire boundary of the Numaligarh Refinery Limited (NRL) in Assam’s Golaghat district, built on a traditional elephant corridor and thereby blocking the movement of a wild herd, made the rounds on social media. The clip elicited widespread reactions of shock and anger from wildlife enthusiasts against the actions of the public sector oil company.

What added to their ire was that the NRL had reportedly constructed the wall to create a golf course for its officials by extending its existing township into the No Development Zone (NDZ) of the Deopahar forests, adjoining Kaziranga National Park (KNP).

The Deopahar forest connects the KNP to the Karbi Anglong hills and has been a traditional animal movement route in that region. The NDZ was demarcated through a notification issued in 1996 by the environment ministry, stating that no development would be allowed within a 15-km radius of the refinery, owned by the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas.

On March 13, the Golaghat district administration, together with the district forest department, demolished a part of that controversial boundary wall. According to some media reports, it was carried out by the authorities following an order passed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in August 24, 2016.

The 2016 order was based on a plea to the NGT by Rohit Choudhury, a local wildlife activist. His complaint stated that the wall had been constructed by the NRL “illegally” in the sensitive NDZ. As a result, he claimed, it not only obstructed the natural movement of wild elephants from KNP but also led to the death of a calf in May 2015, when it tried to find an alternate route.

The petitioner’s contention was based on a report sent by the divisional forest officer to the state’s principal chief conservator of forests in September 2015. The report stated, “This is the third elephant death in and around Deophar and NRL township within the span of three months.” It added, “It appears that the Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong elephant corridor is under severe crisis and immediate and concrete measures are urgently needed to improve the situation. It is, therefore, necessary to remove all barriers that have come up illegally in the area and stringent action be taken against the erring agencies.”

The Wire has tried to contact the NRL corporate communications department and the district forest officer, Rajib Das, to enquire about a portion of the wall having been torn down on March 13, but hasn’t received a response yet.

However, N.K. Vasu, the state principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife), categorically told The Wire that “it had nothing to do with the NGT order.” He said, “The case is still on and it is sub-judice.”

What Vasu has referred to is the review petition filed by NRL at the NGT less than a month after the 2016 order was passed against it. The NGT order had asked the NRL to comply with the order within a month’s time and also cough up Rs 25 lakh to help afforest the area and repair other damage.

In November 2017, Choudhury also filed another plea at the NGT seeking the execution of its August 24, 2016, order.

“On November 27, 2017, we filed an execution application under Section 25 of the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010, for the execution of the 2016 order. Non-compliance of the order attracts penalty on both the officials of the NRL and the state government, including the state forest department and pollution control board,” Choudhury said. “My petition has been clubbed together with the NRL’s review petition. The NGT has been hearing the case. The next date of hearing is April 18.”

The NGT had also directed the Assam government to “urgently take steps as per law to finally notify Deophahar ‘PRF’ [proposed reserved forest] into a Reserved Forest under Section 17 of the Assam Forest Regulation Act 1891, to prevent further loss to the ecology of Deopahar, which is in close proximity to KNP and is also used as an elephant corridor.”

Apparently mindful of the order, the State Board for Wildlife – of which Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal is the chairman – held a meeting in September 2016 on the status of the existing and proposed reserved forests. According to local media reports, the minutes of that meeting said the principal chief conservator of forests and head of the state forest force had been asked to direct the concerned divisional forest officers to take up the matter with the concerned authorities for early action. However, in reply to an RTI filed by Choudhury in December 2017, the principal chief conservator’s office said there it possessed no information on the matter.

However, Vasu told The Wire on March 21 that the recent partial demolition of the wall had been with cognisance of a proposed reserved forest at Deopahar. “The wall has been brought down because it is the forest land, a part of Deopahar forest; nothing to do with the 2016 NGT order,” he said. “Whatever was broken was because of a survey conducted by our department showing that the NRL had occupied that land. The survey was done to demarcate the proposed Deopahar reserved forest.”

On asked when would Deopahar be declared a PRF by the state government, he said, “The process is on now and I am hopeful that it will be done soon.”

Choudhury also told The Wire that “it was not [in] compliance [with] the 2016 NGT order.”

“We don’t consider it a compliance simply because out of the said 2.2-km boundary wall asked to be demolished, only 260-270 metres was broken down by the district administration on March 13. The recent partial demolition of wall has also proved that NRL has encroached the forest land of Deopahar PRF. It was done in connivance with the then-deputy-commissioner of the district, the divisional forest officer and officials of revenue department.”

The NRL review petition has claimed the portion of the wall as its land.

Also, what is clear from the communication made by the divisional forest officer to the state’s principal chief conservator of forests in September 2015 is that the NRL went ahead with constructing the golf course even though he’d clearly stated, after a site survey, that a large number of trees had been chopped to create the course without the forest department’s permission.

The report also added that elephant tracks had been found “all along the golf course, suggesting that the area is regularly used by elephants”. It stated further that the presence of water bodies within the course indicated they “were probably used earlier by the wild animals, including elephants.” Finally, it seems a private company had been engaged “for construction and maintenance of the 9-hole golf course for a period of 18 months, starting 01/12/2014. The fertile topsoil was removed, leaving the land unproductive.”

Choudhury then asked: “This has also raised a serious question – as to why the district administration and the forest department were silent at the time of construction of boundary wall by NRL in 2011. Who were the officials who allowed such illegal activity?”

Interestingly, even after the NGT upbraided the NRL for violating environment norms barely two months earlier and when a review petition was being heard, the environment ministry cleared the NRL to set up a bamboo-based bio-ethanol project in Owguri Chapori Gaon under the Morongi Mouza of Golaghat district on November 2, 2016. Reports in the media said that the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) study for the project had claimed that there were no national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, biosphere reserves, wildlife corridors, etc. within 10 km of the project.

Choudhury has challenged the EIA report as well at the NGT, and has filed a fresh plea against the clearance issued by the environment ministry for the project. According to him, the proposed project also falls within the NDZ of the KNP, and that “the report has been prepared in violation of the EIA Notification, 2006.”

The NGT issued notices to the environment ministry, the Assam government and the state pollution control board on the case in February this year. “The next date of hearing is on March 22,” Choudhury added.