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A jumbo verdict

Statesman News Service |

So much for the public sector playing a key role in demonstrating corporate social responsibility. The National Green Tribunal has come down heavily on the sarkari Numaligarh Refinery Ltd. (popularly known as the Assam Accord refinery) for constructing a wall, with barbed wire fencing to boot, right across an established elephant corridor in Golaghat district. Apart from ordering immediate demolition of the obstruction on a natural path for elephant movement, the refinery has been directed to pay environment compensation of Rs 25,00,000 to the Assam forest department for the destruction of forest cover and flattening of a hill so that a golf course could be laid out.

The NGT did not stop at that, and ordered that the NRL plant ten times the number of trees destroyed, it directed re-location of a housing complex for which the wall had been raised. "It also falls within the No-Development Zone notification (NDZ), issued by the ‘MoEF’ in 1996. Thereby, any non-forest activity thereon would be in violation of the decision of the Apex Court”, the Tribunal decreed. Further, it ordered that the state government and MoEF should maintain the spirit of no development zone (NDZ), by ensuring that no development activities take place within a radius of 15 km of the NRL.

The NGT proceeded to direct the state government to "urgently" take steps to notify Deopahar into reserved forest to prevent further loss to the ecology of Deopahar, which is in close proximity to Kaziranga National Park and an elephant corridor. That detailed account of the 

tribunal order is prompted by NRL having been an “offender” in the past as well, so surely the ministry for petroleum and natural gas has to crack the whip. The public sector often explains away its indifferent commercial functioning by pointing to its undertaking the kind of public service never demanded from its private counterparts.

Yet there is something damning about NRL&’s paying scant attention to the conservation of wildlife, particularly in Assam. Perhaps it has been emboldened by the nature of its ownership, but that is no alibi. The ministry of environment and forest cannot duck the issue. A government is assessed by the totality of its actions.

The setting up of the “Accord Refinery” was part of a larger effort at reconciliation in the then troubled state, and preserving the unique heritage of Assam — both its oil and wildlife/forests are integral to the emotional bonds between the people and their land. “Development” is no substitute, and the cash-rich oil companies cannot ride roughshod over public sentiment. The message goes beyond Assam, and punctures the theory that economic empowerment of the people will soothe hurt feelings in the Kashmir Valley.