Tear down wall stopping elephants from moving along forest corridor: SC to refinery

The judges said that 'elephants have the first right on the forest' in response to the refinery's appeal.

The Supreme Court on 18 January ordered a public oil refinery in Assam to entirely remove a controversial wall built on one of the state's major elephant migration corridors in Deopahar Reserve Forest, adjacent to the Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve in Golaghat, Assam.

The 2.2-kilometre boundary wall was built in 2011 to allow state-run fossil fuel facility, Numaligarh Refinery Limited (NRL), to expand its operations into the Deopahar Reserve.

NRL was taken to court by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in August 2018, where the tribunal refused to reconsider its intentions to have the wall demolished, which it has been trying to from 2016.

The refinery was compelled to take down a 289-metre stretch of the wall in March 2018 to free up the passage for elephants to move between Kaziranga and Deopahar. In their view, demolishing the entire wall was unnecessary.

A herd of elephants cross a road that passes through the flooded Kaziranga National Park in the northeastern state of Assam, India in July, 2017. Reuters

A herd of elephants cross a road that passes through the flooded Kaziranga National Park in the northeastern state of Assam, India in July, 2017. Reuters

In 2015, an elephant reportedly died of a hemorrhage after repeatedly bashing its head against the wall to try and break it. In multiple videos captured since then, elephant herds have been caught trying to frantically get past the artificial barrier before eventually giving in and heading back the way they came.

By striking down the appeal made by the NRL to maintain the wall, judges noted that "Elephants have first right on the forest," Justice D Y Chandrachud, one of the two judges overseeing the case's proceedings, said according to LiveLaw.in. "Elephants do not go to office in a designated route. We cannot encroach upon the elephant’s area."

"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. It also falls within the No-Development Zone notification, issued by the MoEF in 1996," the NGT had declared in the 2016 case. "The wall should be demolished within a period of one month and the proposed township should not come up in the present location.”

The NRL, in turn, files a legal response saying that the township it intends to build was cleared by authorities — the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority. There was no need to tear down the whole wall, as what's left of the wall today falls outside the Deopahar Reserve Forest.

The Tribunal made it clear that the wall and the township were both falling within the Deopahar Reserve and that the NRL was unnecessarily grasping at straws by rehashing arguments from the 2016 case.

"I am extremely happy about what the Supreme Court has said on the matter...a strongly worded statement in favour of wildlife and elephants. I hope the NRL will now fall in line and demolish the wall, after which elephants will be able to walk again in the Deopahar Reserve Forest," said Choudhary.

"This order is also a lesson to future would-be encroachers, especially operating in protected areas like these."

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