Army ordered out of sanctuaryGovt notice on firing range at Sonai Rupai ROOPAK GOSWAMI
Guwahati, April 6: The Assam forest department has issued orders for dismantling the firing range at Sonai Rupai wildlife sanctuary in Sonitpur district and served a notice to the army to vacate the camp.
“Though the army said this was for its defence needs, we will act according to the law,” a top ranking forest department official today told The Telegraph.
There are two firing ranges inside the 220 square km Sonai Rupai wildlife sanctuary. The short firing range, on the southern fringes of the sancutary, is behind the Lama camp at Kalamati and the long firing range at Kamengbari, on the northern side, 15km apart.
Once a place is declared a wildlife sanctuary, there can be no non-forestry activity. Sonai Rupai, 190km from Guwahati, was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1998.
Sources said this order is for the small arms firing range at Lama camp but sooner or later, the order for dismantling the other one at Kamengbari would follow.
The final order came after S.P. Vashishth, divisional forest officer of western Assam wildlife division, Tezpur, under whose jurisdiction the sanctuary falls, wrote twice to the army station commander at Missamari.
According to an earlier agreement, the Lama camp was to be shifted to the area marked for the ammunition depot in Charduar reserve forest outside the sanctuary.
The first letter was written on January 29 and the second one on March 11. “It is regretted that your office has not appreciated the value of a wildlife sanctuary vis-à-vis the need of firing practice for preparedness of troops. While firing practice may be a necessity for operational preparedness of the army, a wildlife sanctuary is not the right place to do so,” Vashishth’s second letter said. “Your troops have been carrying out long firing practice at Kamengbari also which is illegal and firing in a sanctuary amounts to attempt to hunting, an offence punishable with life imprisonment under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 (amended).”
Sources said though the firing practice was stopped after the two letters from the divisional forest officer, there is no guarantee that it would not resume.
“We share your concern for environment and wildlife protection and take it as our bounden duty to protect them. However, it is in the national interest that the troops are operationally prepared and well trained to carry out the tasks of defending the integrity of our country. Accordingly, small arms firing is a mandatory requirement,” Brig. V.S. Verma, station commander at Missamari, said in reply.
The Lama camp has been in active possession of the army for more than 50 years. Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama had camped in this area in 1959, then occupied by the 5 Assam Rifles.
The army in the letter said the short firing range had been in existence for more than 30 years and firing has been conducted since then. But the range fell into disuse because of routine redeployment of forces from the camp.
“This is shocking and of very serious concern. While one understands that this is a sensitive issue given that it is an army firing range, it is against the laws of the land, the Wildlife Protection Act, and the Forest Conservation Act. We simply cannot have a firing range in a protected area. I am sure the army, which has always been sensitive to ecological concerns, will help in constructively solving this problem. The firing range has to be shifted elsewhere,” Prerna Singh Bindra, member, National Board of Wildlife, told The Telegraph.
The forest officer, in his letter, said the sanctuary was an elephant habitat and its footprints can be seen at the firing site and in the nearby areas. In fact, the elephant population in the sanctuary is nearly 200. Besides it is home to leopards, bison, barking deer, sambar, wild boars and a variety of birds, including the great pied hornbill and minivet.
“We would like to know whether you have the ownership papers of the land on which the firing range has been constructed,” Vashishth said.
The army has not replied on this issue. The forest officer said the movement of elephants gets disturbed whenever firing takes place and there is a waterbody about 20 metres from the firing range.
“I feel that the rules and regulations, as prescribed in Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, as amended should be followed as Sonai Rupai is a wildlife sanctuary which is part of the Nameri tiger reserve and also Sonitpur elephant reserve,” said Bibhab Kumar Talukdar, Project Elephant Steering Committee.