The death of 18 elephants at a hill in the Kundoli proposed Reserve Forest in the Nagaon district of Assam is a heartbreaking incident that has shocked the nation. Sadly, this is not the only tragic story coming out of the area. The people living in the surrounding areas have an awful story of their own
Mikir Bamuni and the Land Grab Saga:
For over a year, the inhabitants of the Mikir Bamuni cluster of villages located close to the hill have been protesting against the forceful takeover of their land measuring about 93 acres by Azure Power Forty Private Limited. The company intends to set a 15 MW solar power plant in the area and has been assisted by the local police and district authorities in the forced dislocation of the farmers and forcible takeover of their lands.
When the locals tried to resist this land grab, the police picked up a number of them for custody and jailed them for over 10 days. Such acts of violence against the villagers increased thereafter as well with increased police brutalities.
‘The Anatomy of a Solar Land Grab – Report of a Fact-Finding Committee’
Left helpless, the local communities issued an appeal for help. In response, an All-India Fact-Finding Committee (FFC) was constituted by a Delhi Solidarity Group. The committee visited Mikir Bamuni to meet with the local impacted communities, and also went to Nagaon to meet with the district, police and revenue officials from 27 to 29 January 2021 to research and gather evidence for their report titled ‘The Anatomy of a Solar Land Grab – Report of a Fact-Finding Committee.’
The report stated that the Azure Power Company was assisted by district authorities, revenue officials and police in forcibly taking over cultivated land of villagers, in abject violation of judicial orders, laws and policies. Shockingly, the reports also claimed that the office of the Governor of Assam was also found to be involved in authorising the illegal transfer of land to Azure.
“The construction of the solar part was undertaken with blatant abuse of police power, employed to terrorise local people into submission, and this including a variety of serious human rights abuses. Despite widespread media coverage in local dailies, no action has been initiated against guilty officials by the state government. Shockingly, the office of the Governor of Assam has been found to be involved in authorising the illegal transfer of land,” said the team in a press release.
Further, the team noted that not only was the land in question cultivated for decades by local communities, it was also full of standing crops at the time of demolition. The report condemned local agricultural officials for falsely claiming that there was no cultivation for over a decade.
A Solar Power Plant, Mikir Bamuni and Dead Elephants
The report also said that the village and its fertile land was part of an active elephant corridor and an ecologically sensitive zone that will be blocked by the construction of a solar plant.
The FFC also discovered during 2 of its 3-day visit to Mikir Bamuni that elephants crossed through the village, their passage was blocked by the solar plant, and thus this constitutes an active elephant corridor and ecologically sensitive region.
The locals have also supported the claim. A local informed that the elephants have been using the Mikir Bamuni area as their corridor. However, the solar project forcibly coming up in the area had blocked the usual route of the elephants and because of that, the elephants have been taking the hill route where the 18 carcasses were found.
Assam Forest Minister Parimal Sukhlabaidya and a team of senior officials, veterinarians and wildlife specialists inspected the site of the incident of Friday morning and has ordered a probe by a seven-member enquiry committee headed by the Deputy Conservator of Forest.
Meanwhile, the state forest department has been termed evasive for not declaring the area as an elephant corridor.
“Assam forest officials were evasive when we went to the solar plant site for a fact-finding report. The death of the elephants indicates that the land where the private company is setting up the solar power project is part of an active elephant corridor, hence ecologically sensitive,” Leo Saldanha of the Delhi Solidarity Group said while speaking to a prominent English daily.
The forest department of the state has also come under fire for announcing the cause of death as lightning without the supporting facts.
“It is possible that lightning killed the elephants but it is very unprofessional to attribute it to a natural cause without facts. A disease or poisoning by criminals can also result in so many elephants dying at the same spot while resting,” wildlife specialist Firoze Ahmed quoted.
Meanwhile, wildlife activist Dilip Nath speaking to Headline8 suspected some wrongdoing in the incident and has called for a CBI enquiry. He said, “It is a very tragic incident. Very sad. I suspect that the incident was not caused by an act of nature. Assam government should order a CBI enquiry in the matter immediately. 20 elephants dying due to an act of nature is not an easy thing. I think this is the first such incident in the entire country. The post mortem should be done only by experts in the best possible way.”
The atrocities caused by a solar power plant making human beings and animals suffer, makes one wonder- Why do innocent lives have to pay a price in the name of development? Why are the villagers having to fight for their rights? Don’t the elephants deserve their safe passage? We often talk about growth and development, but have we ever empathised with those to whom development may be destruction?