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