Tinsukia: A new resort which has been opened inside the ‘eco-sensitive zone’ of Dibru-Saikhowa National Park in Assam’s Tinsukia district, has come under the scanner for posing threat to extremely rare and several endangered species found in the region.
The development comes at a time when the forest range officer of Guijan wildlife range, in its written response to a letter by the divisional forest officer (DFO) of Tinsukia wildlife division, has pointed out that the area of the proposed resort, on the river bank near Arasuti village, for which NOC is being sought, falls inside the eco-sensitive zone of Dibru-Saikhowa National Park.
The detailed verification report for NOC against Skyland Resort at Arasuti, Guijan dated January 18, 2020 (a copy accessed by EastMojo) reads ad verbatim: “With reference to captioned subject I have the honour to submit the verification report for NOC against Skyland Resort at Arasuti, Guijan so as that the location located as per GPS coordinate 27°34’51.91″N 95°19’33.11″ E which is falling in Eco Sensitive Zone of DSNP with a distance from the core boundary 1.48 km (approx.) as per final ESZ notification no. REGD NO. DL-33004/99 [sic].”
When contacted, Guijan range officer Jaganath Agarwala said that it is true the resort falls inside the eco-sensitive zone of Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and one has to cross the Dibru river to reach there from Guijan. “According to Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, no commercial industry, resort or hotel is permitted inside the eco-sensitive zone of a national park,” he said.
“A detailed report was sought from me by the DFO of Tinsukia Wildlife Division,” Agarwala said, adding, “In my report I had mentioned that the area proposed for Skyland Resort falls inside the eco-sensitive zone of the national park”.
“After I did not issue the NOC, Sanjay Das, partner of the resort, came to my office. He said that he is a member of the ruling party and will get the permission from higher authorities anyhow,” Agarwala added.
When questioned why the work for setting up of a resort not stopped in absence of permission, Agarwala said, “We had asked them to stop the work immediately.”
Skyland Resort, on the other side of the river, has already been opened for public booking.
According to sources, based on a letter (TMJ(Admin)04/2016/112) issued by the office of the deputy commissioner of Tinsukia on January 10, 2020, seeking a NOC for a proposed resort, if deemed fit, the DFO of Tinsukia Wildlife Division had issued a letter (B-TWL/G-/ 2020/40) to the Guijan Range officer on January 13, 2020 to visit the site along with Das and submit a detailed report along with photograph and GPS coordinates. EastMojo has accessed copies of both the letters during its investigation and are published below:
Speaking with EastMojo, Tinsukia deputy commissioner Bhaskar Pegu said, “We have not issued any permission to set up a resort in the middle of Dibru River at Guijan so far. We had written to the forest department for a detailed report whether the area of proposed resort on the river bank near Arsuti village, Guijan, Tinsukia falls within the jurisdiction of forest and Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, following a prayer petition by one Sanjay Das — partner of Skyland Resort, and the same is awaited.”
Responding to a question by this EastMojo correspondent, Pegu said that primarily it was the duty of the forest department as it falls under their jurisdiction. “We have received a complaint in this regard. We are issuing a reminder to the forest department and based on their report district administration will take action,” he added.
When EastMojo questioned on how a private entity could set up a resort inside the eco-sensitive zone of Dibru-Saikhowa National Park without necessary permission or NOC, the DFO of Tinsukia wildlife division Rajendra Singh Bharti said: “It is a revenue land and primarily duty of the deputy commissioner to stop such activity in absence of necessary permission and NOC.”
“Sanjay Das had submitted an application with my office seeking permission for setting up a resort in the eco-sensitive zone of Dibru-Saikhowa National Park,” Bharti said, adding, “I had denied the permission categorically.”
“He again applied for the permission through the deputy commissioner second time,” Bharti said, adding, “So far, we have not granted any NOC. I had visited the spot personally two days ago to study its impact on birds, wildlife, dolphin, river and the ecology of the national park. We are carrying a joint verification with district administration and I had asked Das to provide documents in support of his claims that the land belongs to him.”
Bharti said that as per law one can set up a eco-friendly resort or carry eco-friendly tourism activities only after getting due permission from the authority concerned and NOC from the forest department.
When questioned that it’s over a month DC had written to his office for a detailed report and which is yet to respond despite the matter involving such a sensitive issue, Bharti said, “We are running with 30% shortage of staff which is hampering our efficiency and resulting in delay. My detailed verification is underway and I have written to chief wildlife warden for his guidance.”
Replying to a question by EastMojo, Bharti said, “He has brought GPS coordinates and is studying whether the area falls in eco-sensitive zone.” However, the letter addressed to him on January 18, 2020 by his Guijan range office (accessed by EastMojo and put out in this report above) has clearly mentioned that the proposed area for Skyland Resort falls in eco-sensitive zone of Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and is merely 1.48 km from the core boundary of the national park.
Bharti said that the owners have only set up the resort and are yet to open it.
According to sources, the resort has been operation for commercial bookings. “The owners of the resort has already released a video on social media highlighting the resort infrastructure and various activities available their from parasailing to zorbing ball, Pagoda tent to Segway and many more. In the video, released to attract business and customers, a Jeep can be seen in driven on the sand,” the source said, adding “They have also put up a big generator set on the area across the river.”
When this EastMojo correspondent contacted partner of Skyland Resort posing as a customer, Das offered a package of Rs 2,000 which includes one night stay in a tent. The other things included were lunch or dinner, evening coffee and cookies, bonfire, beach chair, horse ride, gun shot, trampoline, breakfast, morning tea or coffee, one cold drink and a litre of water bottle.”
“Though the resort has already become operational, night accommodation will start within a week,” added Das.
Speaking with EastMojo, Das said, “I am a local youth of this village and own this land. I have been operating an eco-tourist resort in this area since 2004, promoting eco-tourism.”
“I have acquired eco-tourism permission from the tourism department and had intimated them about setting up of a resort,” Das said, adding, “I am yet to receive NOC from the district administration. I had worked as a wildlife conservator to protect Dibru-Saikhowa National Park for several years, and have been been awarded by the government of Assam in the past.”
Refuting allegations, Das said, “I had never gone to the office of the Guijan range officer nor communicated with him in this regard.”
Who is Sanjay Das?
Das, a member of Guijan Zila Parishad, is said to have high-profile political links. His profile picture on WhatsApp has minister of excise, environment and forest Parimal Suklabaidya posing with him.
Das, also known to be a wildlife conservator, had been awarded by government of Assam for his conservation works in the past.
He is deemed to be a close aide of BJP Chabua MLA Binod Hazarika.
When EastMojo sent a WhatsApp message to Das (around 11 pm on Wednesday) requesting him to call, in order to find out about the permission for resort and his defence to a whole lot of allegations, he replied “I am on my way home from Kibito.”
A photo followed his reply which turned out to be with MLA Hazarika and two other persons in front of a road signage saying, “Welcome to Kibithu.”
Dibru-Saikhowa National Park
The sprawling Dibru-Saikhowa, a national park, is situated in the south banks of the river Brahmaputra in the extreme eastern corner of Assam with an area of 340 sq km, and is a safe haven for many extremely rare and endangered species of Wildlife. In 1997, Dibru-Saikhowa National Park became the ninth biosphere reserve out of the total over 18 identified till 2017.
An identified Important Bird Area (IBA), it is famed for the rare white-winged wood ducks as well as feral horses.
The forest type of Dibru-Saikhowa comprises semi-evergreen forests, deciduous forests, littoral and swamp forests and patches of wet evergreen forests. A total of 36 species of mammals, 104 species of fish, 43 species of reptiles, 105 species of butterflies and above 500 species of birds have so far been recorded from the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park. Moreover, 25% of India’s threatened bird species have been found in Dibru-Saikhowa National Park.
Fauna: Thirty-six species of mammals have so far been recorded – Tiger, Elephant, Leopard, Jungle Cat, Bears, Small Indian Civet, Squirrels, Gangetic Dolphin, Slow Loris, Assamese Macague, Rhesus Macaque, Capped Langur, Hoolock Gibbon, Wild Pigs, Sambar, Barking Deer, Water Buffalo, Feral Horses, etc.
Avifauna: It is an identified Important Bird Area (IBA) having more than 382 species of birds, some of which are Greater Adjutant Stork, Lesser Adjutant Stork, Greater Crested Grebe. Large Cormorant, Open bill Stork, Black necked Stork, Large Whistling Teal. Grey leg Goose, Grey-headed Fishing Eagle, Griffon Vulture, Osprey, Crested Serpent Eagle, Spot Billed Pelican, White Winged Wood Duck, Baer’s Pochard, Greater Spotted Eagle, Pale Capped Pigeon, Great Pied Hornbill, Marsh Babbler, Jerdon’s Babbler, Black Breasted Parrot bill, etc. The park is renowned for natural regeneration of Salix trees.
Earlier known as Dibru Reserve Forest and Saikhowa Reserve Forest, the protected area was notified as a wildlife sanctuary in 1986, and a national park in 1999, and is straddling in both the districts of Dibrugarh and Tinsukia.
Apprehension of wildlife conservators
The joint director of Wildlife Trust of India Dr Rathin Barman told EastMojo that the thumb rule for a layman is that the river is the natural boundary of the national park in the south direction. “Any activity which might disturb the wildlife inside this zone is not advisable,” he said.
“The placement of the generator set will lead to pollution of sound, air and water,” said Barman adding, “It may also lead to poaching of endangered and rare species found in Dibru-Saikhowa National Park.”
Another wildlife activist said that any activity which can disturb birds and animals in the national park cannot be allowed. “Dolphins are found there and river sports and activities may be dangerous for them,” he added.
“It is a very sensitive matter and a serious concern as to how the authorities have allowed a resort to come up in the eco-sensitive zone of a national park without necessary permissions,” he further said.
The activist said an eco-sensitive zone has been defined as a designated area by the Union ministry of environment, forests and climate change because of their ecological importance. The purpose for doing so is to create a ‘shock-absorber’ around the protected areas by managing and regulating the activities around the area.
“Lodging and fooding in the eco-sensitive zone of a national park will create solid garbage waste, pollution and human discharge which will pollute the area, river and pose a danger to the ecology of the area,” the activist added.
However, according to sources, a draft notification has been issued regarding eco-sensitive zone of Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and the same is yet to be finalised.
Tinsukia Regional Students’ Union has submitted a memorandum to the deputy commissioner of Tinsukia asking to demolish the resort, which is illegal, and posing a threat to wildlife.
In the memorandum signed by the general secretary of the union, Satyajit Borgohain said, “At the time there is so much of awareness being created to protect reserve forests and national parks, the government has failed to give importance to Dibru-Saikhowa National Park.”
“Ruling party MLA Binod Hazarika‘s close aide, a worker of BJP and member of Guijan Zila Parishad, Sanjay Das, and a Tinsukia businessman Manoj Sharma has set up a resort on the other side of Lohit river inside the buffer zone of the national park against all rules which bans anti-nature activity inside national parks,” the memorandum said.
The union said that the national park is a famous tourist place for wildlife lovers and draws tourists from across the globe adding, “It is a pride for Assam and Assamese people and such illegal activity and anti-nature resort inside the buffer zone will pose a threat to the endangered birds and wildlife species found there.”
“We demand to uproot the resort immediately or else the union along with local people will launch an agitation,” it said.
Speaking with EastMojo, All Assam Students’ Union general secretary Samerjyoti Gohain alleged that the resort has been opened for booking.
“In the first place, how can authorities give permission for setting up a resort inside national park which is against the forest rules?” asked Gohain, adding: “We demand a time-bound high-level inquiry into the entire episode.”
“Who gave permission? If permission was not granted where were the concerned departments and district administration all the while when the resort owner started work for setting up resort and opened it for public? Was there political pressure behind the silence of forest department which allowed a Zila Parishad member to set up a resort in a restricted area? The public need to know the answers and the inquiry report should be made public and action be taken against all those who are involved,” Gohain added.