The conflict deepens – civic activist arrested

Two civic activists who oppose the joint bioethanol processing refinary of Chempolis Oy, Finland and Numaligarh Refinary Ltd, India have been detained and prosecuted. Non-governmental organizations has called for the release of the second arrested activist and dropping of charges. Organizations have also demanded cancellation of an environmental permit for the refinery project. The project threatens Deopahar forests and Kaziranga national park which is located to the norhwest of the new refinary.

On July 15 in the afternoon, Soneswar Narah stepped to a speaker stand at the public hearing held at the Rajabari Letekujan school in Assam, India. According to the media, Narah criticized the project for its environmental and socio-economic impacts. Representatives of the regional government muted the microphone. Narah continued to speak in an effort to tell the audience how the project would affect the ecosystem of the Kaziranga National Park only few kilometres away. The state police officers barged at the speaker stand, forced Narah down and took him violently to the police car waiting in the school yard.

The report of public hearing required for environmental permit for the bioethanol refinery provides a completely different description of the insident. According to the report Narah started talking about the project, dug up a flammable liquid container and tried to ignite it. Amids of general disorder, the police escorted Narah from the speaker. Soneswar Narah was arrested. According to the police, he fell ill in police custody the following night and was moved to a hospital. Narah is still in custody.

Soneswar Narah was indicted of murder attempt, the violent objection of the officials and the belonging to the criminal gang.

Soneswar Narah was indicted of murder attempt, the violent objection of the officials and the belonging to the criminal gang. A few days after the hearings, another activist, Pranab Doley, was ordered to be arrested. He was charged with attempted murder. According to his own words, Doley was, however, in New Delhi during the episode to handle the affairs of an little boy who was injured by the shooting of Kaziranga's wildlife rangers.

Earlier this spring, the police arrested both activists. At that time the reason was their criticism in a BBC program on the shootings of poachers in the name of wildlife conservation in the Kaziranga National Park. According to the activists dozens of people have died or wounded in recent years, both poachers and innocent local residents. In one incident last spring the Kaziranga National Park rangers fired a shot on a 7-year-old boy, Akash Orang, who was permanently injured.

Soneswar Narah and Pranab Doley represent the Jeepal Krisak Sramik Sangha (JKSS), an organization of farmers and agricultural workers in Assam. It defends the rights of local communities, forest tribes and landless people in Kaziranga region to housing, to own way of life and to work. These rights are guaranteed by Indian law. The organization demands the implementation of environmental protection in an impartial and socially sustainable way.

National Alliance of People's Movement's briefing in August. Source: NAPM

By the end of August, the National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM), an umbrella organization of Indian NGOs, called for the immediate release of Soneswar Narar. In press conference with international interest, the organization also demanded that all fake charges against activists must be abandoned. According to the organization, the hearing of the environmental permit for the Chempolis and the NRL joint bioethanol refinery was illegal and hence void. The organization calls for the rejection of the environmental impact assessment report for the bioethanol project due to incorrect information contained in it. However, at the end of September the expert panel of the Indian Ministry of Forestry, Environment and Climate Change agreed to grant an environmental permit to the bioethanol plant.

HISTORY OF LOCAL RESISTANCE

When JKSS mainly represents tribal communities, the Assamese criticism of Numaligarh's oil refinery has also strengthened over the years. There are common concerns about the fate of Deopahar Forest, which has an immediate connection to the future of Kaziranga National Park.

The refinery offers little work for Assamese young people.

The refinery offers little work for Assamese young people. Much of the employees, especially trained staff, come from outside of Assam. When most of the social development programs that were a precondition for setting up the oil refinery did not actualize, the people's dissatisfaction with the refinery company has steadily increased. At a July public hearing, local residents announced their support for the construction of a bioethanol plant, only if it provides jobs for local people and that, together with the oil refinery, does not endanger the environment.

Because of unemployment, locals are also critical on the No-Development Zone around the oil refinery. The Zone was initially founded to protect the sensitive environment from degradation. In the matter of No-Development Zone the goals of nature conservation and people's livelihood are in opposition. After the establishment of the zone, and in particular following the decision of the National Green Tribunal in August 2016 , the authorities of the State of Assam have ruled out a number of small businesses within the Zone. As there are no new or compensatory work opportunities, local people find it unjustified that NRL may continue to violate environmental legislation while authorities force small businesses to close their doors. In the beginning of June, some thousand people criticized the operations of the oil refinery in front the gates of Numaligarh Township. The demonstrators also demanded NRL to pay unpaid compensation for those who have lost their land and for those who have died or injured in work-related accidents.

Illegal quarry at the No-Development Zone of Kaziranga National Park. Source: Rohit Choudhury.

Environmental problems also cause concern for the local population. The riverfronts  in the vicinity of the oil refinery have, for example, rice paddocks and sugar cane plantations. People are afraid, that wastewater and rainwater spilling from the refinery area pollutes the rivers, which during the monsoon frequently flood on the field. Fears are real, as the precipitation of the region is high during the monsoon season. During rainy season there are plenty of buoyant waters coming from the refinery area. During the previous licensing processes, environmental authorities have made comments to the refinery for collecting and process rainwater. Local villagers use unprocessed water of thewaterways in their daily lives.

Local villagers use unprocessed water of thewaterways in their daily lives.

Right next to the refinery there are tea plantations, which are vulnerable to air emissions from the oil refinery . The NRL's original permit conditions required that the gases from the refining process be incinerated in an underground combustion plant to prevent emissions. However, in the permit conditions of the plant's previous extensions, the authorities of the State of Assam allow the combustion of gases by flaring or airborne flames.

For several consecutive licensing processes, environmental permit conditions for NRL's oil refinery have loosened over the years. This is a typical phenomenon in the Indian environmental permit procedure. For this reason, among a number of others, environment experts have considered India's environmental legislation ineffective. Along with the weakening of the environmental regulations of the current BJP government, environmental legislation is virtually completely losing its meaning.

 

Text:

Juha Holma

Leave a Reply