Oil Exploring Survey Near Kaziranga Cancelled After Locals Chase Away Firm

The survey site was within ten km from the national park, considered an eco-sensitive zone, in violation of norms.

Agaratoli: An oil exploration firm sponsored by state-owned Oil India Limited (OIL) has been compelled to wind up operations at a site close to the Kaziranga National Park (KNP) in Assam, considered an eco-sensitive zone, after massive opposition from local groups and the district administration.

Golaghat district administration in Assam has revoked the approval for seismic survey given to Hyderabad based Alphageo (India) Limited at a prohibited zone near KNP, which is also a World Heritage Site.

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The administration had granted permission after the firm said the operation would not be carried out in any region that flouts the norms laid down by the ministry of environment, forest and climate change and Assam Pollution Control Board.

However, only a day after the operation was launched, a large group of locals and activists from Jeepal Krishak Shramik Sangathan confronted the firm’s personnel, who were drilling a hole in Agaratol and carrying out blasts. The site is only 10 km from the Kaziranga National Park. The police was also called and a senior employee of the firm gave an undertaking that the survey would not be restarted.

‘Clear case of cheating’

Employees of Alphageo at the survey site in Agaratoli. Credit: Special arrangement

“It’s a clear case of cheating and an FIR will be lodged against the company. We apprised the firm about the norms and it has assured us that they will be followed,” said Golaghat deputy commissioner Gaurav Bothra.

The cancel order from Bothra, which was immediately issued to the superintendent of police and circle officers, said the operation carried out by Alphageo was a “violation” of the existing norms, since the spot was within the 10 km radius of the eco-sensitive zone of KNP. It also said the firm did not meet the concerned officials from the revenue and forest departments before commencing the survey.

According to another official, Agaratoli also falls in the ‘no development zone’ of Numaligarh Refinery Ltd (NRL), where any such activity is prohibited. He added that officials of the park were also ignorant about the plan by Alphageo to survey the location.

Seismic surveying is an essential ingredient of exploring for oil and gas. It produces detailed images of the different rock types, their composition and location beneath the earth’s surface. The information is used to assess the location and size of the gas and oil reservoirs. The current exercise is part of the government’s flagship National Seismic Program (NSP) for evaluating unappraised areas of sedimentary basins. It is being monitored by the directorate general of hydrocarbons and ministry of petroleum and natural gas.

A notification issued in 2014 by the ministry of environment, forest and climate change clearly specifies that any development project within 10 km of any eco-sensitive zone must have the prior approval of the National Board of Wildlife.

But the periphery of KNP is yet to be declared as an eco-sensitive zone. The matter continues to hang fire even three years after a draft was prepared by the government. The proposed eco-sensitive zone encompasses parts of four districts and areas administered by an autonomous council. In February 2016, the ministry of environment, forest & climate change, had raised a few issues and asked the state government to send a revised proposal.

No norms violated, claims OIL

Jeepal Krishak Shramik Sangathan said Alphageo was unable to produce any of the certificates to prove it had gone through the mandatory procedures. A memorandum submitted to the deputy commissioner by a group of citizens led by Bimal Gogoi underscored that as many as four ‘clearance certificates’ were mandatory for seismic surveying near a national park. This also include the environmental impact assessment report to be prepared by OIL, public hearing to be arranged by the Pollution Control Board of Assam and permission from the National Tiger Conservation Authority (since Kaziranga is also a tiger reserve).

OIL, however, claims that the survey was planned to be carried out “strictly as per the instructions and the clearances obtained from Govt. of India and Govt. of Assam (both administrative and Sate PCCF clearance).”

It explained that that survey profiles are finalised after keeping a buffer zone of 5 km from the periphery of restricted areas. The same norms were also followed in Agaratoli, which drew to a close only three days after the operation started.

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“With Reference to a letter received from DC Golaghat yesterday, mentioning violation of the norms of Eco Sensitive Zone from DC Golaghat (Attached letter), we would like to mention that while obtaining forest permission in the last field session 2017-18 for Nameri National Park and Sonai Rupai Wild Life Sanctuary, the concerned forest authority had provided the permission by demarcating 5 Km ESZ (Eco Sensitive Zone) boundary in both the cases,” said Tridiv Hazarika, deputy general manager of OIL, in response to a query on the survey.

Employees of Alphageo with locals and activists of Jeepal Krishak Shramik Sangathan. Credit : Special arrangement

He explained that there have been instances when sites have been “reoriented” and “terminated” whenever it was found that they were within eco-sensitive zones. In the case of Golaghat, he said a “proper communication” on the survey had been provided to the deputy commissioner, superintendent of police days in advance of the operation.

However, the deputy commissioner was unable to provide the certificates when the locals questioned him.

Rajeev Bhattacharyya is a Guwahati-based senior journalist.