Stopped in Its Jumbo Tracks


All too often, environmental laws are breached with impunity. A National Green Tribunal ruling has put paid to Numaligarh Refinery’s encroachment into reserve forests in an elephant corridor in Assam By Ajith Pillai Environment laws are often conveniently bypassed. The long-drawn tussle between environmental activists and the Assam-based Numaligarh Refinery Limited (NRL) is a case in point. The company has been wantonly destroying forest cover in Golaghat district which falls in the ecologically sensitive elephant corridor. The reason for this violation: the refinery has been nurturing plans to construct a township. Further, it had put up a boundary wall for a golf course, blocking the pachyderm path that runs through the Deopahar reserve forest. [caption id="attachment_14588" align="aligncenter" width="650"]The PM at the launch of the wax plant of Numaligarh Refinery. The NGT has stopped Numaligarh Refinery Limited from setting up a golf course and a township at the cost of an elephant corridor The PM at the launch of the wax plant of Numaligarh Refinery. The NGT has stopped Numaligarh Refinery Limited from setting up a golf course and a township at the cost of an elephant corridor[/caption] However, the good news is that NRL has been rather belatedly stopped in its tracks. In what is seen in environmental circles as a significant judgment, the National Green tribunal (NGT) on August 24 directed the refinery to demolish the boundary wall it had constructed for its golf course within a month. It has also restrained NRL from constructing the proposed township which fell under the No Development Zone (NDZ) notification issued by the Union Environment Ministry when it gave clearance for the setting up of the refinery in 1996.  Not just that. The NGT also imposed a Rs 25 lakh fine on NRL for the green cover it had destroyed and directed the refinery to carry out afforestation ten times the magnitude of the trees felled by it to facilitate its so-called “development activities”. The tribunal also asked the Union environment ministry and the Assam government to ensure that no polluting activity is carried out in a 15-km radius around the refinery which falls under the NDZ demarcated when environment clearance was given to NRL 20 years ago. TOUGH DIRECTIVES The NGT in its directions noted: “As regards the wall with barbed wire fencing which comes in the way of Elephant Corridor, the same should be demolished. The area, where the wall has come up and the proposed township is to come up is a part of Deopahar ‘PRF’ (Protected Reserve Forest). It also falls within the No Development Zone notification, issued by the ‘MoEF’ in 1996. Thereby, any non-forest activity thereon would be in violation of the decision of the Apex Court in the TN Godavarman case (1996). Thus, the wall should be demolished within a period of one month and the proposed township should not come up in the present location.” GUWAHATI, AUG 20 (UNI)- A wild elephant crosses the NH-37 at Beharbari in Guwahati on Thursday. UNI PHOTO-25U

Rampant and unplanned urbanization has resulted in massive encroachments into tusker territory. This has driven the animals to seek refuge in human habitations.

The tribunal delved at great length on the landmark judgment of the Supreme Court referred to as the TN Godavarman case which held that the Forest Conservation Act 1980 was enacted with a view to check “further deforestation” and was to apply to all forests “irrespective of the nature of ownership or classification thereof”. The NGT quoted from the apex court ruling to stress the need to protect forests and to ensure that development activities do not lead to environmental degradation. The Supreme Court had noted: “Any programme, policy or vision for overall development has to evolve a systemic approach so as to balance economic development and environmental protection. Both have to go hand in hand. In the ultimate analysis, economic development at the cost of degradation of environments and depletion of forest cover would not be long lasting. Such development would be counter-productive. Therefore, there is an absolute need to take all precautionary measures when forest lands are sought to be directed for non-forest use.” ENVIRONMENTAL DAMAGE The Tribunal was also very critical of the manner in which the NRL had caused environmental damage by “destruction of forests cover and flattening of a hill to build the golf course”. While slapping a fine of Rs 25 lakh, it directed that the money be handed over to the state forest department and kept in a separate bank account and utilized for “the restoration of the area and improving the environment adjoining the NRL complex and to reduce man-animal conflict”. The Govt of Assam is directed to urgently take steps to finally notify Deopahar ‘PRF’ into a Reserved Forest under Section 17 of the Assam Forest Regulations 1891 to prevent further loss to the ecology of Deopahar.

—Swatanter Kumar, Chairperson, National Green Tribunal

That the Asian Elephant is under severe stress because its natural habitat is shrinking thanks to wanton encroachment by man has been well established and recorded. The Elephant Task Force of the Ministry of Environment and Forests’ (MoEF) in its 2010 report clearly spells out the problem. To quote: “Elephants cannot survive simply through strict protection of a few parks and sanctuaries. A sole focus exclusively on Protected Areas, vital as they are, is inadequate for the long term conservation of this keystone species. On account of the habitat loss, shrinkage and degradation of its distribution range, the future of Asian elephants is a challenge. Fragmentation of the available habitats has further confined most of the populations to smaller habitation islands. ” [caption id="attachment_14590" align="alignleft" width="300"]Swatanter Kumar, Chairperson, National Green Tribunal Swatanter Kumar, Chairperson, National Green Tribunal[/caption] The NGT was scathing in its observations about the wire fencing put up by NRL and said that it posed a threat to wildlife. “The barbed wire and razor’s edge fencing along the said wall is extremely dangerous to the elephants and other wild life passing through the vicinity. As a result, some elephants have died after the wall came up, as brought out in the video clipping given by the Applicant. The elephant corridors have to be preserved to protect their habitats from fragmentation. They are of prime importance for migration of elephants from one habitat to another. We find that the wall and the proposed township are in violation of the ‘NDZ’ order.” One of the arguments put forward before the NGT by NRL was questioning whether the golf course and the boundary wall did fall within the elephant corridor. The Tribunal noted that the refinery had been alerted on this aspect by the district forest officer (DFO) of Golaghat in a letter dated February 21, 2011, addressed to the deputy general manager, NRL. It had warned: “Deopahar is regarded as a rich biodiversity spot full of wild flora and fauna and it is also a major corridor for the wild animals, particularly for the elephants. The elephants use this corridor to move from the Karbi Hills to Dhansiri river for their water requirement through this Deopahar forest only. Unfortunately, this corridor has been breached at many points by various construction and major part by the construction of ‘NRL’ Township between Deopahar and Dhansiri river. Due to loss of this corridor, the herd of elephants has to stray into human habitation resulting in huge loss of life and property.” DFO LETTER Further in May last year, the DFO had in another letter to the Assam state Environment Impact Assessment Authority spelt out the concerns. “The proposed project site which has been duly acquired by ‘NRL’ is situated very close to Deopahar ‘PRF’ and also serving as an important elephant corridor and breeding habitat that links to Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong landscape.”

That the Asian Elephant is under severe stress because its natural habitat is shrinking thanks to wanton encroachment by man has been well established and recorded. The Elephant Task Force of the Ministry of Environment and Forests’ (MoEF) in its 2010 report clearly spells out the problem.

So, the authorities were well aware that environmental laws were being violated but decided to shut their eyes to the expansion plans of NRL. That alone explains how a notified forest area was readjusted to accommodate the extension of the NRL township by officials of the state government. They also chose to ignore the conditions laid down when the refinery was given environmental clearance by the central government. In its concluding reports, the NGT directed the Assam government to “vigorously implement” the ruling given by the Tribunal. “The Government of Assam is directed to urgently take steps as per law to finally notify Deopahar ‘PRF’ into a Reserved Forest under Section 17 of the Assam Forest Regulations 1891 to prevent further loss to the ecology of Deopahar, which is in close proximity to Kaziranga National Park (15-20 km) and is also used as an elephant corridor.” The NGT ruling comes as a quiet victory for those concerned about preserving the environment as well as those who champion wildlife preservation in the country. One hopes that the directives are complied with in letter and spirit. Lead picture: A wild elephant crosses the NH-37 at Beharbari in Guwahati. Photo: UNI