Home People Interviews Dodging Death Threats And Destruction In Kaziranga

Dodging Death Threats And Destruction In Kaziranga

Dodging Death Threats And Destruction In Kaziranga

Photo: Rohit Choudhury

India is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for environmentalists and wildlife defenders. Statistics prove that. But do we really need statistics to know the truth? It is clearly getting more and more dangerous to stand up against the 'development'-obsessed government and the giant conglomerates who choose to be on the wrong side of the planet's history. In such times, describing those who are on the frontline of environmental defense as merely courageous is an understatement. It takes so much more. Meet Rohit Choudhury, RTI activist and environmentalist, who is taking the big guns head on to save one of the last abodes of the one horned rhinoceros – Kaziranga.

Most recently, the April landmark order that banned all mining in the Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong Landscape in Assam by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) irked many industrialists and businessmen. Rohit, who was the driving force behind this ban is now in the eye of the storm. He approached the courts after witnessing the unimaginable destruction that mining and stone crushing activities were causing the prime elephant habitat of the Kaziranga landscape. We talk to him about his valiant tirade against the corrupt forces in power in his quest to protect the land he so dearly loves.

You have been receiving threats from rich and powerful persons involved in illegal mining with vested interests since the ban. Were you prepared for this when you filed the complaint?

Yes, I was quite prepared for it. I knew that the persons involved in illegal mining were very rich, powerful and had deep political connections. Since the ban, an atmosphere of fear is slowly but steadily being created to pressurise me to withdraw my ongoing cases pending before the Central Empowered Committee of the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India and Hon’ble National Green Tribunal, New Delhi, all of which are related to conservation and protection of Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve. The mining mafia from Bokakhat town has even started a campaign to boycott me and my family from the society.

You are worried about your family and your safety, yet you won't back down. You even sought police protection. What goes on in that mind of yours amidst all this chaos?

Yes, it is a matter of concern for me, definitely, and a greater matter of safety for my family. However, there is no question of backing down. I have informed the police administration about the possibilities of attacks on me and my family. This shows just how powerful the mining mafia is …they don’t fear the directions of even the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India.

What degree of destruction did you see that prompted you to act? Could you describe the process until the NTCA ordered a ban on mining in the Kaziranga landscape?

One of the most visible effects is the destruction of hill sides facing Kaziranga. At many places hills covered with indigenous flora of Karbi Anglong have been ravaged at the behest of the greedy miners. If you ever stop near Numaligarh Refinery Ltd. (NRL) petrol pump enroute Bokakhat, to your right, you will see the heartbreaking sight of one such hill side that has faced the brunt of blasting by miners. It is painful to see magnificent hills, which have stood the test of time for millions of years only to be destroyed in seconds at the hands of greedy men. Once the ugly face of mining became unmistakably noticeable from the busy national highway, the miners realised that the public may turn against them. What they then did was choose covert locations that were not as visible to the public eye. But if you get down from the highway a few hundred meters towards the foothills, the destruction caused by mining is there for you to see.

Apart from the physical disfigurement of Karbi Anglong hills, another worrying development is how most of the wildlife has abandoned these areas. A decade ago, it was common to the hear calls of barking deer and hoolock gibbons near the foothills. Now you seldom hear one. Similarly, gaur, elephants, rhinos, tigers and many other wild animals have moved away from this region since their forest habitat along the foothills has been destroyed. Even more dismaying is the mining lobby’s collusion with some corrupt officials of the Forest Department. This is a highly disturbing development given the fact that we have very little forest cover left with respect to the geographical area of the state of Assam.

Mining mafias have been on a rampage in the Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong landscape, destroying prime elephant habitats and wildlife corridors. Photo: Rohit Choudhury 

You once mentioned that mining, logging and poaching in and around Kaziranga are all interlinked. Could you tell us how?

I think there is a strong nexus between rogue elements of the Forest Department of Assam, the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council, some politicians and the illegal mining lobby. This is responsible for not only the mushrooming of unlawful mining but also several other destructive activities such as tree-felling and quarrying. This lobby could also be connected to militant organisations in Karbi Anglong who work with rhino poachers. It is time the Home Ministry got its intelligence agencies to investigate the matter.

You are a one-man army.

No. I have a few trusted friends who support me and help me retain my sanity. But unfortunately I can’t name anyone for I fear for their safety.

You took on Numaligarh Refinery Ltd. (NRL) a few years ago on the issue of the elephant route obstruction created by them that resulted in elephant deaths. They are now on the verge of establishing a Bio Ethonol Project in a No Development Zone (NDZ)?

Numaligarh Refinery Ltd. was setup in an area which was once a prime elephant habitat. Then the contiguous part of Deopahar Proposed Reserve Forest was destroyed to meet the residential requirements of the officials and other employees of the industry. Gradually NRL started to encroach the government/forest land with connivance of the district administration/forest department/revenue department of Golaghat district. One such example was the construction of the boundary wall and extension of new township by NRL after encroachment of the land area of Deopahar PRF. I had to approach the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to highlight the violation. The NGT ordered the demolishment of the boundary wall and prohibited the new extension township in 2016. The NGT also imposed a fine of Rs. 25 lakhs. Recently, under pressure from the NGT, the district administration demolished only about 200 metres of the 2,000 metres-long boundary wall and took back just one hectare of land of Deopahar PRF encroached by NRL. However, the order was to demolish the entire boundary wall and take back the land that had been encroached.

The matter of setting up of Bio Ethonol Project is sub-judice before the Hon’ble National Green Tribunal, so it’s not appropriate for me to comment.

The wall built by NRL that blocks a vital elephant corridor. Photo: Samarjit Sharma

All this must anger you.

No, I am never angry because I never think that I am doing the work which government should have done. Kaziranga is more than a National Park or a Tiger Reserve, or a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a blessing of Mother Nature to everyone on the planet. Therefore, I think it is the responsibility of every individual to protect it and to keep it safe for our future generation. We don’t have the power to give back to nature, we can only take steps to protect it and not damage it further.

“...[I]ndia, to our utter shame, does not lag far behind. At fourth place, according to data published by Global Witness for 2015-17, among countries that are deadliest for activists, it ranks only behind Brazil, Columbia and Philippines. In 2018, out of the 30 activist deaths reported, three were recorded from India. In March, Sandeep Sharma, a journalist probing illegal sand mining in Madhya Pradesh, was run over by a truck. Sharma, as reported by The Times Of India, had filed a complaint citing immediate threat to his life, from a police officer he had accused of being hand-in-glove with the sand mafia.

In May 2017, four people were killed and two injured when villagers in Jatpura, Jharkhand, clashed with a sand mining company. While most Indian states have laws against sand mining, they are routinely ignored, with local officials and the police often playing the role of mute witnesses.”

Environmental activists around the world are paying the price for speaking up and standing against oppression, writes Anadya Singh. Read more The Price We Pay


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