Wildlife & Biodiversity

Numaligarh elephants’ home restored: Deopahar notified as reserve forest after 20 years

Deopahar was the centre of a fierce battle this decade over a notorious boundary wall constructed by the Numaligarh Refinery in Assam’s Golaghat district that blocked a key elephant corridor

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Sunday 03 February 2019
Credit: Getty Images

After two decades, a number of pachyderm deaths, and a raging legal battle, the controversy regarding the elephant corridor blocked by the Numaligarh Refinery Limited (NRL) in Assam’s Golaghat district has been put to rest as the Assam government notified the surrounding area as a reserve forest.

The state government’s notification, dated January 19, 2019, notified Deopahar as a reserve forest under Section 17 of the Assam Forest Regulation 1891.

It was on August 18, 1999, that the 133.45 hectares in Deopahar were notified as a ‘Proposed Reserved Forest’ in The Assam Gazette. The document had highlighted the area as a regular migratory route for elephants and other wild animals from the world-famous Kaziranga National Park, which is barely kilometres away from the site.

A month before the notification, the NRL was dedicated to the nation by then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The refinery went into production in 2000.

In 2011, NRL had built its infamous boundary wall, for its housing estate. The township also boasted of a golf course among other things.

The wall lay in the path of the 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 National Green Tribunal (NGT) about the wall in August 2015.

In its August 24, 2016, judgment on the case, the NGT ordered the wall to be demolished.

On March 13, 2018, NRL demolished about 1 hectare (a 289 metre stretch) of the wall.

It also 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".

On January 18, 2019, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court ordered NRL to demolish whatever was left of the controversial wall.

Speaking to Down To Earth, Choudhury, who had also alleged threats to his life during the course of the case, said, “I am very happy to know that the government of Assam has finally notified Deopahar PRF (Proposed Reserve Forest) as Reserve Forest. This is a victory for wildlife and elephants.”

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