Known for its archaeological heritage since the ancient period of Assam history, Deopahar is a small hill near Numaligarh, in Golaghat district of upper Assam.
Deopahar or Deoparbat, known for its ruins and relics of rare sculpture that dates back to a period between 8th and 10th century A D – also hosts unique biological diversity and for this reason the civil administration of Golaghat handed over Deopahar to the Forest Department in 1968.
The Forest Department notified Deopahar – with an area of 133.45 hectares – as a proposed reserve forest on August 18, 1999. This notification came at a critical juncture as the district was going through a massive eco-disaster with almost 93 per cent of its total reserve forest areas (excluding those under the Kaziranga National Park) were in the throes of destruction.
With a view to achieving the targeted 33 per cent of the forest cover in the plains and 60 per cent in the hills under the National Forest Policy (1998), the Government of Assam brought many of the state’s forest areas under its protection categorizing either as Reserve Forest (RF) or Proposed Reserve Forest (PRF).
Without any effective protective mechanism RFs and PRFs have been under large-scale organized encroachment, often having political backing. There are many more rich forest patches throughout the state enlisted as Proposed Reserve Forest. Most of these forests do not even have a signage and thus have become safe haven for encroachers. Deopahar is one example how government apathy has led to the destruction of a pristine forest over the years.
Deopahar: a treasure trove of endemic biodiversity
Dr Padmeshwar Gogoi, environmentalist and retired head of the Department of Botany, Devraj Roy College, documented a treasure of medicinal plants in Deopahar – Amul (Horsfieldia kingii), Arjun (Terminalia arjuna), Amlokhi (P emblica), Nephaphu (C colebrookianum), Mejankri (Litsea cubeba), Sarpagandha (Rauvolfia serpentina Benth), Bhajaguti, Bohera, along with different bamboo varieties, orchids and ferns.
The forest’s upper and middle wooden canopy has wide ranging variety – Poma (Cedrela toona Roxb), Gomari (Gmelina arborea), Som (P bombycina), Bheleu (Tetramilos nodiflora), Uriam (Bischofia javanica), Sopa (Michelia champaca), Lali (Walsura robusta Roxb), Holokh (Terminalia myriocarpa Heurck) etc
Apart from housing some rare cat species, reptiles, butterflies, local and migratory birds, the presence of wild bee hives on the Bheleu trees show signs of its pristine environment.
After the massive destruction of the Nambor Reserve Forest, the oldest in the State – a few Hoolock gibbon families, otherwise marooned in the fragmented habitats in and around Nambor, found a safe refuge in Deopahar.
This forest patch continues to be an important transit for the animals migrating to and from Karbi Anglong to Kaziranga and shelters some 200-300 wild elephants.
Encroachment in Deopahar turned area into hotbed of human-elephant conflict
Telgaram, where the Numaligarh Refinery is situated, is known as a traditional elephant habitat. With the establishment of Numaligarh Refinery in Telgaram in the 90s, elephant depredation reached an alarming proportion as a result of fragmentation of the forest.
Incidents of man-elephant conflict only increased over the years resulting in casualties on both sides. To make matters worse, NRL brought into its possession a stretch of Deopahar PRF (interestingly the part of the PRF was sold to NRL by the Jorhat-based Numaligarh TE) and tried to secure it by constructing a boundary wall, 2.2 km in stretch, on this traditional elephant corridor.
The illegal boundary wall became a huge physical barrier for the elephants that blocked their normal movement. In a number of cases baby elephants got trapped inside these erections and were separated from the herd. The pachyderms were even seen hitting at the walls trying to get rid of these obstructions.
Further, the wall was constructed inside the ‘No Development Zone’ violating the norms of the National Green Tribunal. As per NDZ notification, the expansion of industrial area, townships, infrastructure and such other activities which could lead to pollution and congestion shall not be allowed within the NDZ.
The NoC issued for the old NRL township by MoEF vide DO No.J-11014//91-1A II, 18 -01-1994 prohibits use of hill slopes, forest area and states that no organized human settlement in the hill or the areas adjoining the hill at least in a radius of 10 km be allowed.
It appears that the NRL might have hidden these facts while applying for the extra land. The expansion of the Refinery’s town area had become yet another threat to the elephant habitat in the Deopahar fringe that serve as a critical wildlife corridor and part of a larger ecosystem and catchment.
The Refinery authorities also cleared huge stretch of forest land in the ‘no development zone’ of the Deopahar PRF for developing a golf course. In this connection, the Golaghat Forest Division appointed Santanu Barua, ACF, (vide order no 38 dated 20/05/15) to conduct a detailed inquiry into the illegal clearing of forest area and illegal cutting and mining of earth/hillocks in the forest fringe.
Although there was an earlier approval for operating (felling) certain numbers of trees in a restricted area, however, after the receipt of the Environment Clearance by the State Level Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) the same was withdrawn later (before the final approval) due to violations (Letter No- B/32/PP/2685-92 dated 23/10/14).
The land acquired by the NRL is in clear violation of the established laws, rules and conditions. Further the areas in questions were serving as a critical wildlife corridors and part of a larger ecosystem and catchment. The natural eco-systems are complex and sensitive, where each species has a role and is symbiotically dependent on other species
The then serving Divisional Forest Officer of the district, Mutthu Kumar Ravel stressed for alternative sites. The loss of such critical forests, animal corridors, biodiversity and ecosystem cannot be recreated. There exist a number of alternatives for NRL. NRL should have developed a wasteland and build its township and definitely not by destroying forests, corridors and ecosystem at the cost of the state as well as present and future generations.
In 2016, the National Green tribunal had ordered demolition of the boundary wall constructed in the area in 2011 as it is part of Deopahar and also falls in the ‘no development zone’ issued by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest in 1996. The order of 2016 also said that NRL’s proposed township should not come up in the present location.
The NRL filed a review petition challenging National Green Tribunal (NGT)’s 2016 order to demolish the boundary wall. Dismissing NRL’s review application, the NGT said, “In view of categorical findings already recorded by the tribunal that the area where the wall came up and the area where the proposed township is to come up is part of the Deopahar Reserve Forest, rehearing on merits is not permissible.”
The Supreme Court on January 18, 2019, dismissed NRL’s review petition challenging National Green Tribunal (NGT)’s 2016 order to demolish the boundary wall. The Assam government also issued notification on January 19 declaring Deopahar as a reserve forest in the exercise of powers conferred by Section 17 of the Assam Forest Regulation 1891.
However, NRL is yet to comply with the SC order when it comes to demolishing of the entire illegal boundary wall.
Assam Biodiversity plan a cause of worry for endangered biodiversity
Reserve Forests have now being pooled with exotic tree plantations solely for earning revenue. Apart from carbon sequestration, logging will progressively be implemented, stated the ‘Assam Project on Forestry and Biodiversity Conservation: Feasibility report’.
The report says that as an average for Assam, one Division includes 12 Reserved Forests (Indian State of Forest, 2009), where logging and carbon sequestration will progressively be implemented. There are also plans for new fuel-wood plantation.
This is indeed scary, as scientists have already warned of native forests declining at an alarming pace. “Native forests are pooled with exotic tree plantations, such as eucalyptus, acacia, rubber or Teak plantations which have very limited value for endangered biodiversity. If one subtracts plantations from total forest cover then native forests have actually declined at an alarming pace.”
Shrinking forest cover, especially of dense natural forests, stands to raise pollution levels and seriously impact climatic conditions. A substantial portion of the State’s dense forests has been lost forever in the past three decades to large-scale encroachment and illegal logging.
Deopahar needs protected area status
For an industrially impoverish state like Assam, there is every need to boost industrial growth. However, the rush to boost industrial growth rode roughshod over long-term environmental concerns as the so called People’s Refinery that was born out of the Assam Accord after six long years of struggle, continued to bulldoze its way to spell doom to a critical habitat in the Kaziranga and Karbi-Anglong landscape. Large-scale change in the land use patterns with destruction of forest cover and cutting and mining of hillocks, NRL has already inflicted irreparable damage to Deopahar changing the topography of the area known for its rich and endemic biodiversity.
The recent years saw various activities to dissuade the people’s refinery authorities from encroaching more into this historical bio diverse spot and secure the future of Deopahar. The Deopahar Reserve Forest Demand Committee and the Deopahar Sangrashan Samittee with many renowned wildlife conservationist of the state carried the movement for conservation of Deopahar forward.
In 2015, in the capacity of a member of State Board of Wildlife, this writer submitted a memorandum to the then Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi (Chairman of the SBWL) demanding elevation of Deopahar to the status of a Reserve Forest within three months. The Chief Minister had given away necessary instructions to the State Forest and revenue departments also. Meanwhile, fearing the Reserved Forest status might jeopardize its existence further in the future, the Deopahar Sangrashan Samittee demanded the elevation of this important forest patch to a wildlife sanctuary securing its boundaries up to the Kalioni hills.
The New Wildlife Action Plan (NWAP) is the policy framework on which management plans for the protected areas (PAs) are being developed from the year 2017-2031. The NWAP sets out the framework for governmental intervention at a time when habitat loss and human-wildlife conflict are becoming increasingly commonplace in the country.
The NWAP has come out with plans taking the landscape approach to wildlife conservation–looking at landscapes in their entirety so that development and conservation can be prioritized simultaneously. However, more than the NWAP, it is expected of the government to implement existent mechanisms like the Centrally-sponsored – ‘Integrated Development of Wildlife Habitats’ that provide financial and technical assistance to the State/UT Governments for activities aimed at wildlife conservation with support to protected areas (National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries, Conservation Reserves and Community Reserves), as well as protection of Wildlife outside protected areas.
In Assam vast tracts of forests including areas inside protected areas are under illegal occupation. Encroachment of wildlife areas suffered massive degradation which could be nothing short of a conservation crisis. Deopahar is one perfect example of such crisis. While, human-wildlife conflict management in and around the greater Numaligarh area is key, in the case of a high value biodiversity area and contiguous corridor like Deopahar, it is high time the Chief Wildlife Warden of Assam should initiate the process to declare this critical forest a wildlife sanctuary.