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

Local people in the Numaligarh area have for long critisized the oil company Numaligarh Refinary Limited (NRL) which is located in the vicinity of the Kaziranga National Park. The dispute over to whom the development of the oil refinery is serving for culminates in the fate of Deopahar Forest. Expanding of the luxury residental area, the NRL Township at the edge of the forest, together with the degradation of wood in many different ways threatens the wildlife and the elephant corridors passing through Deopahar. Local people believe that the oil refinery can not possibly compensate for the destruction caused by the construction of the residential area with its butterfly and medicinal garden. Apart from the destruction of the environment, the inhabitants are also worried about the centuries-old cultural heritage, which cradled in the Deopahar Forest

The protests accelerated in the first half of this decade, when NRL began expanding its staff's residential area, The Numaligarh Township into the Deopahar Forest. At the same time, NRL built a wall around the residential area and its new golf course. Walls prevents wildlife from moving along their natural paths, the elephant corridors. The National Green Tribunal (NGT), insisted in its decision in summer 2016 that the company must demolish the wall and restore the forest into its original state.

Elephants at the wall

In the summer of 2016, local people released a video document, showing their concern about the fate of Deopahar Forest and Kaziranga National Park. They are also worry about the environment, animals and plants, as well as their own future.

In the document, local people are asking for whome the development is, whether its for us or for them. They say that as the oil refinery and its residential area expand, thousands of years old cultural heritage is lost in the name of a few people's luxurious lifestyle. The local poor people pay the price of such development. Natural diversity disappears faster than anyone could imagine, says the document.

DEOPAHAR AND NRL TOWNSHIP

Deopahar is a forest of about 130 hectares east of Kaziranga National Park. To the south-western side the forest land is bounded by NH 39: this highway separates the forest from Karbi Anglon, some ten square kilometers wide wooded hills of the Karbi tribe. In the north are the Numaligah garden road and Numaligarh tea estate. Through Deopahar pass the wildlife trails, so called elephant corridors from Kaziranga National Park to Karbi Anglong and the Dhansiri River. In the east, Deopahar is bordered by NRL Township, the luxury residential area built by the oil refinery.

In 1999, the state of Assam placed Deopahar as a candidate for a reserved forest area. The decision was made in a situation where 93% of Assam's wild woodlands, except Kaziranga National Park, were in danger of being destroyed. The deforestation of other natural forests have continued in this millennium, so today, Deopahar is a significant area for preserving biodiversity in Assam.

There are a number of rare species of feline, reptiles and butterflies in the Deopahar forest. A large number of medical plants were also listed in the forest. In addition to local and migratory birds, wild-bee hives in Bheleu trees are sings of Deopahar forest's natural state . When the Assam State's oldest protected forest, Nambor Reserve Forest was largely destroyed, few remaining Hoolock gibbon families found a safe retreat from Deopahar. The forest also became an important transit route for animals that move to Karbi Anglong and from there to Kaziranga. Today, this forest also provides shelter for about 200-300 wild elephants.

Deopahar is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Assam.   The forest conseals about 600-900 years old ruins of Shiva Temple and Lakhowgart Fortress. Last October, the Archaeological Directorate of the Assam chose Deopahar's ruins among the archaeological sites to be restored. The ruins of Deopahar tell about the culture of Assamese ancestors, the Ahom people, but the latest information and the ruins found in the nearby suggest that the high culture in the area is much older.

Numarligarh Township was built at the end of the 1990s in the middle of Assam's countryside for the oil refinery employees. The high-end residential area was designed not only to provide housing, but also to attract educated personnel for the new oil refinery in Assam's peripheral area. More than half of the refinery's employees come from outside the state of Assam. At the beginning of the current decade, NRL applied for permission to extend the residential area, although its population decreased in the past ten years from just under 9,000 to about two thousand inhabitants.

According to NRL, there are many amenities in the residential area, such as a gym, a tennis court, swimming pool areas, parks and the controversial golf course. There is also a butterfly conservation area called Butterfly Valley, which was completed in 1998. It is maintained by the North East Institute of Science and Technology (NEIST) together with NRL. The Butterfly Valley was established due to environmental permit obligations and criticism of the oil refinery. There are about 75 rare species of butterflies growing and living in the conservation area. The protected area also includes the medicinal herb garden "Smritibon", where nearly 5,000 different medicinal plants grow. Its purpose is to maintain the diversity of medicinal plants in the area and possibly develop new medicines from plants.

The extension of NRL's residential area is not the only threat to the survival of the Deopahar Forest. Over the years, the "No Development Zone" meant to protect the forest has been violated in many ways. At the beginning of the decade, about 50 tonnes of plastic waste was dumped in the woods. Squatters also pose a threat to the preservation of the natural environment of the forest. Brick ovens, stone quarries and tea dryers are established partly illegally in the forest. The environmental authorities of Assam have called for the abolition of these activities or in the case of permitted activities, to be amended to comply with environmental legislation.

In their documentary, local residents are asking how the butterfly conservation area and the medicinal plant garden promote biodiversity when the same species are found outside the natural environment of the residential area. Walls also prevent the free movement of wild animals. Residents believe that NRL has caused more irreversible damage to biodiversity in the Deopahar area than what it can provide with its "nature conservation efforts".

Text:
Juha Holma
Vaula Martikainen

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