Reckless mining and stone quarrying is devouring the wild habitat in Kaziranga. Ratnadip Choudhury tracks the high-stakes game
THE FAMED Kaziranga National Park in Assam finds itself in an interesting quandary, where human livelihood clashes with animal habitat. A petition filed in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) by RTI and environmental activist Rohit Choudhury on 17 December 2011 alleged that the Assam government had wrongly issued permits to stone crushers in Kaziranga, violating a 1996 notification of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), which declared an area within a 15 km radius of the Numaligarh Oil Refinery as No-Development Zone (NDZ). The notification says that operators needed prior permission from the MoEF to operate quarries in the area. The refinery is about 20 km away from the eastern boundary of the national park.
The stone crushing and quarrying industry around the Kaziranga National Park might not appear huge in area, but the stakes run high. Until the end of 2011, quarrying was highly unregulated, though within the bounds of legality. Following Choudhury’s petition, the NGT passed an interim order on 15 February 2012 asking the Tarun Gogoi government not to renew or issue fresh permits to stone crushers or stone quarrying units in the area.
The government officially claims that no permit has been issued after 31 December 2011 and that it did not renew existing permits. However, as TEHELKA found during its investigation, most of these units are ‘functional’ even without a permit.
“The NDZ was declared keeping in mind the eco-sensitivity of the area, but the forest department paid no heed to the notification and randomly issued licences,” says petitioner Choudhury. “What’s worse, even the MoEF was not aware of the notification nor did it ever check to see whether its own rules were being implemented properly, putting Kaziranga at the mercy of a money minting nexus.”
The nexus Choudhury alludes to comprises the stone mafia, a few surrendered United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) militants-turned-contractors, politicians, and government officials. “Most stone crusher permits are in the name of tribals from the adjoining Karbi Anglong district, who let them out on rent. A syndicate of businessmen, particularly from the Marwari community, and a few surrendered ULFA functionaries run the show,” says a local youth, on condition of anonymity, explaining the modus operandi. “Green laws mean nothing because political parties, forest officials and cops all get their cuts.”
Locals enumerate 50-odd legal and illegal stone crushers and quarries around the national park spread across the three districts of Golaghat, Nagaon and Karbi Anglong. TEHELKA has in its possession an RTI reply from the park authorities, dated 28 March 2011, which categorically says 10 units are within 5 km of the national park while nine others are located within 5-10 km of the wild habitat. Another RTI document shows that the state pollution control board had been issuing pollution clearance certificates to stone mining industries, violating the 1996 NDZ order of the MoEF.
“With unregulated quarrying, water and mud from the quarries are destroying the paddy fields, crushers have diverted elephant routes; the stone crushers also serve as hideouts for poachers,” rues local resident Deben Deka.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has also called the stone mining around Kaziranga a ‘major threat’ to the animal habitat. “Stone mining and crushing is a huge menace for wildlife in and around Kaziranga,” says Anupam Sharma of WWF. “The noise from the blasts in the quarries and the movement of workers and trucks create havoc among the animals, particularly elephants, affecting their movement. In the past five years, man-elephant conflict situations have risen in fringe villages close to Kaziranga.”
The Stone Spinners
stone quarries and crushing units
average amount per day made by a quarry worker
Rs 2 crore
made by a stone crusher on an average each month
THE DECISION to ban the quarries has not come as a welcome move to everyone, though. While those fighting to preserve the sanctity of the national park want the rule to be implemented more in spirit than letter, there are others who cry foul. This high-stakes game has many players.
Standing in front of his stone crusher unit at Garmur in Bokakhat sub-division, Sandeep Nimodia is close to tears. “We have been in this business for decades,” he says. “We have paid taxes. Now, all of a sudden, we have to shut down.” Nimodia’s unit dates back to 1992. His licence was renewed every year until now. “Neither the NGT nor the government can take a onesided decision. What will happen to our and our workers’ families?” he fumes.
In 2003, the stone crushers petitioned the Gauhati High Court asking for relaxation of norms after the forest department had asked them to submit the MOEF clearance for setting up industries within 25 km of the Kaziranga National Park. On 3 March 2011, the court quashed the petition and ruled that no industry could operate in the 25 km radius of the park without clearance from the MoEF.
The court also ruled that absolutely no industry could be set up within the 10 km eco-sensitive zone of the park. Interestingly, both the Assam government and the respondent on behalf of the stone crushers informed the NGT that they were “not aware” of the high court verdict.
The state government has even admitted before the NGT to violating norms by issuing permits for stone mining in industrial estates in the area. Government rules allow only sawdust and wood-based industries. The MoEF’s lackadaisical attitude has not helped matters. It has not been able to reply to the NGT petition since it is “unable to trace the relevant documents”.
What TEHELKA found in Kaziranga and surrounding areas should be an eye-opener for the MoEF. Less than 5 km from the national park, in the periphery of Methoni Tea Estate, a huge stone quarry is sending around 25 truckloads of stones to a crusher nearby every day.
“It used to be an elephant corridor to Karbi Anglong, but due to the quarries the elephants are straying, they enter fringe villages and destroy crops,” says villager Rupam Saikia, adding one more voice to the din of stakeholders. “Huge earthcutters scare the animals, and we are too scared of the stone mafia to protest.”
The situation on the ground is extremely fragile and complex. On 1 January 2012, the state forest department issued a notice to owners of 18 stone crushers asking them to shut operations. TEHELKA found almost all of them functioning in broad daylight. The stone mafia manning one of these mines even physically assaulted the TEHELKA team. “We will not allow the crushers to close down. We will kill anyone who tries to stop our only source of income and you journalists will not be spared,” an angry crusher worker shouted. His words sum up the dilemma.
The stone mining industry provides livelihood to thousands of uneducated, unskilled local and migrant labourers.
A worker in a stone quarry earns up to Rs 200 a day; each crusher does a business of up to Rs 2 crore a month. “Not only stone crushers, but hotels, petrol pumps and truckers also earn their living from this industry,” says Hari Prasad Agarwala, respondent at NGT on behalf of the stone crusher units. “We are also from the area and our workers have helped save animals during floods.”
If environmentalists and the stone crusher lobby were not enough, too many middlemen have added to the chaos. “We have permits that were not renewed, now we are not sure if we can operate,” says a crusher owner on condition of anonymity, “yet we have to pay running costs like electric bills, EMIs of bank loans, workers’ wages. Add to it, donation demands from Karbi militants and cuts to forest officials, cops and politicians. Even local NGOs and journalists have extorted money from us.”
ON AN average, stone crushers send out 150 truckloads of stone every day to various construction projects, particularly in upper Assam. “The 1996 MoEF notification lacks clarity. Further, it only puts restriction on crushers coming up after 1996, but we have had crushers here since 1984. We are being made to pay for the forest department’s goof-up,” says Dilip Chaudhury, a crusher owner at Bokakhat.
Quarries destroy paddy fields, crushers scare elephants and also serve as hideouts for poachers
Even politicians are wary. “Kaziranga is our prime concern,” says local Congress MLA Arun Phukon. “All stakeholders will have to be sensitive and respect the NGT’s verdict, but at the same time, we cannot ignore the workers.”
In this fight between biodiversity concerns and livelihood issues, it is the Kaziranga National Park that comes out a loser. The park saw tension in 2010 when tour operators, jeep safari owners and the resort lobby vehemently protested the implementation of stringent rules of eco-sensitive zone for a tiger reserve; they felt it would harm the tourism industry.
As activist Debojit Bhuyan aptly puts it: “The irony for Kaziranga is that its economy is dependent on the park, there are not many government or private jobs. Tourism is facing the animal conservation hurdle and stone crushers are in the way of biodiversity concerns.”
‘The proof was there right in front of us’
ON 19 April, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) asked the MoEF to submit a site inspection report by 23 May on a number of industrial units functioning inside the No-Development Zone near the Kaziranga National Park. We decided to look for the truth.
Our source had already informed us that quarries and crushers were operating with the government choosing to look the other way. Our main objective was to look for case studies in three areas: the No-Development Zone, the Karbi Anglong Elephant Reserve and the area around the Kaziranga National Park.
On 24 April, we found a stone crusher in Borbheta under the Bokakhat sub-division near Kaziranga, where a giant automated stone crusher was at work and trucks full of stones were waiting to be unloaded. It was all in front of us, giving the lie to the government claim.
Before we could go looking for the owner, we were spotted by a group of 35-40 workers, who surrounded us and demanded that we hand over our camera to them. Photographer Luit Chaliha was roughed up and his camera broken. It was with the help of the local police that the situation was prevented from getting out of hand. The attack made one thing clear — that shutting a quarry in the region would prove to be an uphill task. Too many people’s livelihoods depended on the quarries for them to care about the ecosystem. It is this quandary that has been explored in the story.
On the upside, the attack woke up the administration and mining in the area has scaled down. What the state couldn’t accomplish, TEHELKA did, at the cost of a broken camera.
With inputs from Dhruvajyoti Saha
Ratnadip Choudhury is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.