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