Towards the end of 19th century, during the construction of a railway line from Dibrugarh to Margherita in Assam, British engineers accidentally discovered crude oil through working elephants. The story goes that the oil was first spotted on one of the elephant’s feet.
Ironically, today, in the same landscape, oil exploration and refining is blocking off the migratory paths of wild pachyderms, causing ecological problems. Elephants are mega-herbivores and nomadic by nature. Herds need to move constantly for the sake of the forest. If they stay for too long, a herd can just gobble up all the vegetation.
Along the southern bank of the Brahmaputra River, between the famed Kaziranga National Park and the city of Jorhat, is the Numaligarh refinery complex. A fortnight ago, the refinery, which has bagged a number of green awards, was in news for the wrong reasons.
On 13 March, the Golaghat district administration in Assam dismantled a small portion of the 2.2 km long boundary wall of the refinery complex, following an order from The National Green Tribunal (NGT). The government action comes one and a half years since the green court’s order in August 2016.
The refinery boundary wall, constructed in 2011 as part of the refinery township expansion process, was obstructing the movements of elephants between Kaziranga and the adjoining Karbi hills. Further, the wall has been constructed on the land proposed for the Deopahar reserved forest.
“There was and there is in existence an elephant corridor which has been obstructed by the construction of the wall, which is injurious to wildlife and has its adverse impacts on environment and ecology. The barbed wire and razor’s edge fencing along the said wall is extremely dangerous to the elephants and other wildlife passing through the vicinity. As a result, some elephants have died after the wall came up. 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 ‘No Development Zone’ order,” stated the green court. At the time of NGT’s order, it was reported that the refinery wall had caused a dozen elephants deaths.
Fighting for the elephants is a local firebrand environmental activist, Rohit Choudhary. Using the Right to Information Act (RTI), Choudhary had sought the intervention of NGT in 2015, after noticing distressed elephant herds trying to push through the refinery wall.
In 1999, 133.45 hectares in Deopahar was notified as Proposed Reserved Forest in The Assam Gazette, published on August 18. The Gazette highlights the area as a regular migratory route for elephants and other wild animals from Kaziranga National Park. Coincidentally, a month before this notification, the Numaligarh Refinery was dedicated to the nation by then Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee. While the refinery went into production and expansion in 2000, the Deopahar forest remained neglected.
Choudhary wants the entire 2.2 km wall removed. It’s a fight between David and Goliath as big oil, local politicians and authorities are in collusion to delay proceedings. Last December when Choudhary filed another RTI to know the status of reserved and proposed reserve forests in the state, the forest department didn’t have an answer. Fearing the wrath of the court and heavy fines, the district administration broke a portion of the wall. But the fight for the right of passage for the elephants is far from over