Wildlife & Biodiversity

Elephants have first right on forest, says SC while ordering demolition of Numaligarh Refinery wall

The 2.2-km boundary wall has been erected in 2011 on an elephant migration corridor in eastern Assam’s Golaghat district, for the Numaligarh Refinery Limited's expanded township and encroaches on the proposed Deopahar Reserve Forest

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Sunday 20 January 2019
Representational Photo. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A two-judge bench of the Supreme Court on January 18 ordered public sector undertaking Numaligarh Refinery Ltd (NRL) to demolish whatever is left of a controversial 2.2-kilometre boundary wall topped with barbed wire that lies in the middle of an elephant corridor in the proposed Deopahar Reserve Forest, barely a few kilometres from the Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve in Assam's Golaghat district.

The bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud and M R Shah was listening to the appeal of NRL against the order of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) dated August 3, 2018, in which the tribunal had refused to review its order of demolition passed in the year 2016. 

"Elephants have the first right on the forest. Elephants do not go to office in a designated route. We cannot encroach upon the elephant’s area," Justice Chandrachud observed after NRL told the court that it had demolished about 1 hectare (a 289 metre stretch) of the wall on March 13, 2018 and there was no need to demolish the entire wall as it was not a part of the Deopahar Reserve Forest.

NRL had built the wall in 2011, for its housing estate. The township also boasts of a golf course among other things. But it lies in the path of an elephant corridor. In May 2015, a male elephant died of haemorrhage after bashing its head against the wall in an effort to break it. Videos have also captured elephant herds trying to frantically make sense of how to go past the barrier before dejectedly turning back.

Right To Information (RTI) activist Rohit Choudhury had first filed a petition in the NGT about the wall in August 2015. 

“As regards the wall with barbed wire fencing which comes in the way of Elephant Corridor, the same should be demolished. The area, where the wall has come up and the proposed township is to come up is a part of Deopahar PRF. It also falls within the No-Development Zone notification, issued by the MoEF in 1996. Thereby, any non-forest activity thereon would be in violation of the decision of the Apex Court in the TN Godavarman case (1996). Thus, the wall should be demolished within a period of one month and the proposed township should not come up in the present location,” the NGT had ordered in its August 24, 2016 judgment on the case.

In response, the NRL had filed a review application stating that its township had been cleared by the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority and there was no need to demolish the entire wall as it was not a part of the Deopahar Reserve Forest.

However, on August 9, 2018, the NGT said, "We are of the view that in view of categorical finding already recorded by the Tribunal (in its 2016 judgment) that the area where the wall came up and the area where proposed township is to come up is a part of Deopahar Reserve Forest, rehearing on merits is not permissible…Accordingly, we do not find any ground for review of order dated 24.08.2016". 

Speaking to Down To Earth, Choudhury said, "I am extremely happy about what the Supreme Court has said on the matter. It has come out with a strongly worded statement in favour of wildlife and elephants. I hope the NRL will now fall in line and demolish the wall after which elephants will be able to walk again in the Deopahar Reserve Forest. This order is also a lesson to future would-be encroachers, especially operating in protected areas like these."

Other conservationists also hailed the order:

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