Bioethanol refinery project of Chempolis Oy which was a subject in Finnish media earlier this year, is progressing in secret in the state of Assam, India.  At the moment Chempolis's partner Numaligarh Refinary Ltd. is applying for the environmental clearance for the project. Local residents, however, oppose the refinery project.
 

At the end of May The Pollution Control Board of Assam, India (PCBA), suspended a public hearing for Numaligarh Refinary Ltd (NRL) and Chempolis Oy's joint bioethanol refinery project's environmental clearance. According to the Board reason for the suspension was "some unavoidable circumstances". The hearing was postponed until mid July.

Earlier in May the residents in the region criticized the timing of the hearing at a local school. It was scheduled during a school day. Even the school staff wasn't informed about the planned hearing. Besides announcement of the hearing wasn't made in local newspapers as required by environmental regulations.

Preparation period for the hearing is short even after the postponement. In just a few weeks, local people, NGOs and other organizations need to get acquainted with hundreds of pages of biorefinery's environmental impact assessment report, provide an understanding of the matter and declare their comments to the authorities. To make this even harder the complete report has been published only on the website of the Pollution Control Board. The local authorities have only a brief summary of it. The report itself has been ready since the end of 2016.

The state-owned NRL made a decision to locate the bioethanol plant without prior notice to the local people. In February 2016, the State of Assam granted land area for the refinery project at the north of NRL's industrial area. The site is located inside the Kaziranga National Park's protection area, the "No-Development Zone". Construction on it is prohibited by the Indian Government's previous decision.

The site is located inside the Kaziranga National Park's protection area, the "No-Development Zone". Construction on it is prohibited by the Indian Government's previous decision.

NRL built a wall and a fence around the area and started construction work without proper permits. The wall can be seen in the environmental scanning pictures of the Environmental Impact Assessment Report, the subject of the postponed public hearing. The fence cut off the route of wild elephant herds from Deopahar forest to the river Dhansiri. More than a year ago, residents of the area made a complaint demanding the construction work to be stopped and the wall on the elephant corridor to be demolished.

The site and the wall in the village of Owguri Chapori Gaon. Photo Rohit Choudhury

The Numaligarh Oil Refinery is located in an ecologically very sensitive environment in the immediate vicinity of the Kaziranga National Park, the Dyojang Reserve Forest and the Deopahar Forest, which the locals have suggested to be declared as a reserve forest. A few kilometers from the oil refinery flow the rivers of Dhansiri and Kaliani, which fall into the Brahmaputra stream flowing through the Kaziranga National Park. The flora and fauna on the wetland areas spread around the Brahmaputra are unique in their world. Kaziranga National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

BIOETHANOL REFINARY INSIDE THE "NO-DEVELOPMENT ZONE" OF KAZIRANGA

The site for the bioethanol refinery is located in the "No-Development Zone". The Indian government established the zone in 1996 to protect nearby Kaziranga National Park, secure the wildlife trails, and to ensure that no other industry than the oil refinery is located in the area. Building in the zone, extending the oil refinery or launching new manufacturing plants without a prior decision of the Indian government is prohibited.

Source: Google Earth/ Juha Holma. Click to enlarge

Construction in the No-Development Zone is the latest stage in the environmental conflict caused by NRL, that has devastating consequences for the region's natural environment and for local people. Through the construction of a bioethanol refinery, Finnish owened Chempolis Oy and its shareholders are now also involved in this conflict.

Through the construction of a bioethanol refinery, Finnish owened Chempolis Oy and its shareholders are now also involved in this conflict.

The launch of co-operation between NRL and Chempolis Oy has been featured several times in high-level meetings between the Finnish and Indian state leadership in recent years. Last time it was discussed between the prime ministers of India and Finland in February 2016.

Both countries have signed the Agenda for Sustainable Development (Agenda2030) agreed by the UN member states in September 2015, which obligates both developed and developing countries. The Agenda is aimed among other things at eradicating poverty with the help of sustainable development that takes the environment, economy and the people into account equally. In the light of the information received from India, NRL's activities do not meet the objectives set by the Agenda.

Last autumn the Finnish state owened company Fortum Oy became a major shareholder of Chempolis Oy. At he end of February this year, Chempolis signed an agreement on the construction of an ethanol-producing refinery at Numaligarh with NRL. Remarkably interesting is that Chempolis and its major shareholder Fortum have not publicized the agreement in Finland, even though the high representatives of both companies signed it in Assam. The binding and final decision on the construction is to be made before the beginning of September this year. By that time, companies acquire an environmental clearance for the bioethanol plant, agree on the financing of the joint venture and secure access to the plant's raw material, the bamboo.

Remarkably interesting is that Chempolis and its major shareholder Fortum have not publicized the agreement in Finland

The construction of the ethanol plant is linked to the large expansion plans of Numaligarh Refinary Ltd, which are part of the state's energy and oil policy in India and the industrial policy of the State of Assam. NRL is owned by the Indian state through its two oil companies and the state of Assam. NRL's objective is to triple its production and start exporting petroleum products abroad. This requires ethanol production to allow refinery fuel to meet the quality requirements set by the Indian state and international consumers.

PEOPLE IN, WILDLIFE OUT

Less than a year ago, the Indian State Environmental Court gave Numaligarh Refinary Ltd a verdict on an environmental crime. A judgment came about building a two-kilometer-long wall around the luxury housing area of the refinery. Despite the promise, the oil refinery have not complied with the court's decision to immediately rectify the environmental damage they have caused and dismantle the wall. Instead, the company filed an appeal against the decision  claiming that the company did not needed an environmental permit for the construction of a wall or a golf course according to the current regulations. However, the 1996 No-Development Zone Act prohibits construction in the protected area in all cases.

Despite the promise, the oil refinery have not complied with the court's decision to immediately rectify the environmental damage they have caused and dismantle the wall

In August 2016, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) issued a ruling on the activities of Numaligarh Refinery Ltd near the Kaziranga National Park and Deopahar Nature Reserve. The court ordered NRL to pay fines of 2.5 million rupees (about € 35 000) for use in improving the environment. The company was obligated to plant ten new trees on every tree it cut down during the construction of the golf course. The Tribunal also ordered to dismantle the illegally built walls around the oil refinery's residential area and the surrounding the golf course. According to the court, the wall prevents the movement of wild elephants between the pasture areas and water sources. This has led to a large number of elephant deaths and damages to the area's crops and villages.

POLITICAL OIL REFINERY

Several development and environmental conflicts culminate in the decision of the National Green Tribunal. Founding of the oil refinery at Numaligarh was based on the Assam Accord, the country's internal peace agreement signed in 1985. After nearly three thousand deaths, the Indian government sought to restore order to Assam by means of an agreement. The other signatory was the people's movement, which opposed immigration from Bangladesh. In the agreement, the Government of India was committed to the economic and industrial development of the State of Assam, to create jobs for the Assamese and to mass deport bangladeshi immigrants. These expulsions continue today .

Placing the refinery on an environmentally sensitive and unique area close to the Kaziranga National Park, the Brahmaputra River and the extensive protected areas attracted fierce criticism. The Indian state set strict environmental conditions for the construction of the oil refinery and its township. The 1991 environmental clearance required the refinery to be located at the eastern edge of the industrial site, as far away from Kaziranga National Park as possible. The employee's township could not be built west of the refinery, so that the distance from the Kaziranga border would be sufficient.

In 1996, the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forestry (MoEF) ordered a 15-kilometer wide No-Development Zone around the NRL's oil refinery and its township. The zone was established to protect the forests, wetlands, rivers and fauna in the sensitive area from a destruction of construction, industry and agriculture. The natural environment of Assam is formed by cultivated areas, wetlands and forests between them, so the No-Development Zone is also intended to protect the trails used by herbivores moving between pastures and water sources. Despite the restrictions set by the authorities the regulations are repeatedly not complied with.

DEAD ELEPHANTS vs. GOLF

In 2011, NRL began building a wall in the No-Development Zone as part of the extension plan for its luxurious township. The company applied a permit for the extension. Soon the authorities discovered that NRL had applied for permission with misleading and defective information. The application was lacking informatiom that NRL was about to build walls and a golf course. An environmental impact assessment study was not carried out to estimate the impact of construction work on biodiversity. The National Green Tribunals decision last year makes it clear that construction of that first wall began without permission from the authorities. The wall builted is over two kilometers long and a barbed wire fence on top of it.

In 2014, NRL began building a 9-hole golf course in the township. For the golf course, a considerable amount of forest was cut down, fertile land was removed and the dirt terrain was flattened with excavators. In addition, the area was illuminated round the clock, which disturbed the movement of night animals. Likewise the township, a wall was built around the golf course, a barbed wire on top of it.

These walls block an elephant corridor that runs through Deopahar Forest, Karbi Anglong Forest and Kaziranga. Therefore entire herds of wild elephants and other animals will have to find new trails for pastures and water sources. The corridor is a wild, thousands of miles long wildlife corridor trail from Bhutan via India to Myanmar. Closure of the corridor has led to a destruction of crops and habitats, the increased conflicts between humans and elephants, and, at worst, the deaths of humans and elephants. According to Indian media sources, since 2011, a total of 10 elephants have died due to the walls built by NRL. Three adult elephants and one cub died while trying to cross the wall, the rest dying of hunger when they got separated of their flock. Over the last few years, several elephant deaths  have occurred in nearby railways and on the road, because elephants are forced to seek new routes to their pasture grounds due to the closure of elephant corridors. Now, also the wall and the fence built around Chempolis Oy's and NRL's bioethanol factory site prevent wildlife from using this route.

Now, also the wall and the fence built around Chempolis Oy's and NRL's bioethanol factory site prevent wildlife from using this route.

The blocking of the elephant corridors is particularly damaging during monsoon from July to September. Then the wetlands in the riverside are flooded. Most of the Kaziranga National Park has such wetlands and riverfront meadows. When the flood rises, the wildlife moves out of the the national park into higher ground at Deopahar Forest and Karbi Anglong forested hills. During the monsoon, there are driving and parking restrictions at the mainroads near the national park, so that animals can safely cross the roads using elephant corridors. Built walls and fences leave the wildlife trapped in the flooding National Park. During the floods in 2016, hundreds of wildlife drowned in Kaziranga.

Text:
Juha Holma
Vaula Martikainen