NGT bars Assam refinery from building township, golf course by destroying forest cover, disrupting elephant corridor

The ambitious project of the public sector Numaligarh Refinery Limited in Assam to build a modern extended township and a golf course has failed to get the nod from the National Green Tribunal (NGT) because of the concern raised about conservation of natural forest and ecology and securing a traditional elephant migration corridor in the area.

Numaligarh Refinery Limited (NRL) is a joint venture company with equity participation from Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited, Oil India Limited and the Assam government. The company operates a 3.0 MMTPA capacity petroleum refinery located at Numaligarh in Golaghat district of Assam. Commercial operations of NRL commenced from October 2000.

Numaligarh Refinery Limited. Image courtesy NRL

Numaligarh Refinery Limited. Image courtesy NRL

The NGT in a long-drawn litigation has finally ended on 3 August, 2018, dismissed a review petition filed by the NRL and upheld its earlier order passed in 24 August, 2016 barring the NRL authority from constructing an extended township and a golf course by destroying forest cover and flattening natural undulating landscape in Deopahar Proposed Reserve Forest (PRF) area at the vicinity of the refinery site.

The NRL was also directed to demolish a boundary wall it had constructed by disturbing an elephant migration corridor which is very important for the protection of gene poll of the long-ranging pachyderm by the NGT.

The petition (Miscellaneous application No.787/2015 & 1006/2015 in original application No. 38/2011) before the NGT was filed by environment activist Rohit Chaudhary of Bokakhat in Assam.

The NGT in the earlier order which it has again upheld while dismissing the review petition of the NRL had said, “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 ‘Protected Reserve Forest’. It also falls within the No-Development Zone (NDZ) 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 T.N. 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.

"Further, for causing environmental damage by the destruction of forest cover and flattening of the hill to build the golf course, the ‘NRL’ will pay environmental compensation of Rs 25,00,000 to the Assam Forest Department, which is to be kept in a separate bank account for the restoration of the area and improving the environment adjoining the ‘NRL’ complex and to reduce man-animal conflict.

"The ‘NRL’ will also make compensatory afforestation of ten times the number of trees felled by it. The 22 plant varieties, suitable to the area in consultation with biologists, may be planted. In keeping with the letter and spirit of the notification for ‘NDZ’, the Government of Assam and the ‘MoEF’ will ensure that no development activities whatsoever take place within a radius of 15 kms of the ‘NRL’, which could lead to pollution and congestion, in compliance with the said notification dated 5th July, 1996.

"In furtherance thereof, we direct that the judgment of this Tribunal in O.A. No. 38/2011 be strictly implemented, thereby the polluting activities of the stone crushers, brick kilns & others be immediately closed. We direct the Government of Assam to vigorously implement the directions of the tribunal by having frequent meetings of the Task Force Committee and effective implementation of their decisions. The Assam government is directed to urgently take steps as per law to finally notify Deopahar ‘PRF’ into 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."

Some of the salient points submitted by Chaudhary before the NGT against the NRL’s venture to build a modern township and a gold course amid a forest area include:

• All works including excavation and felling of trees for the golf course, in the area in question, should be stopped immediately so as to prevent further degradation of the environment.
• The refinery to pay compensation for the destruction of prime forest land in no development zone.
• The refinery to restore forest land, including the excavated area and the area where the wall has been built illegally.
• The excavated land to be restored, and there has to be a plantation of suitable plant varieties in the area after consultation with biologists and maintain them.
• The boundary wall to the extended colony has been constructed without any ‘EC’ (environment clearance) or any permission of the Central government. The wall has come up in the way of elephant corridor, leading to the death of many elephants (video clippings were submitted as evidence).
• The residential colony which is being built within this boundary wall forms a part of the elephant corridor.
• The township extension lies within the Deopahar Proposed Reserve Forest (PRF) area notified by Government of Assam vide. Notification dated 18th August, 1999.

The NRL, on the other hand, submitted before the NGT that the boundary wall to protect the property, surrounding the land acquired (total area and 67 bighas i.e 964,800 square feet) in 2004 to 2006 for extension of existing township, was constructed in the year 2011. The NRL stated that the wall was essential for the safety of their residents.

The NRL further contended that the township extension land in issue is tea garden land and there are tea bushes and 201 shade trees, for which permission was sought from the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) and only 149 trees were cut on. On 11 April 2012, ‘NRL’ wrote to DFO intimating about the construction of residential accommodation with application to cut the tea plantation and uprooting shade trees.

The DFO granted permission on following conditions: active participation by NRL management in addressing man-animal conflict in the area the refinery by providing resource and logistic support annually and the field logistic requested during the year 2013-14 to be provided.

However, by a letter dated 10 October 2015, the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA), Assam informed the chairperson of the  NGT that the DFO had urged for cancellation/suspension of the ‘EC’ on the grounds that boundary wall and golf course were not included in the proposal submitted by the NRL for the extension of their township (Phase III).

Updated Date: Aug 17, 2018 18:33 PM

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