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Plan to exploit tourism potential worries conservationists

By Rituraj Borthakur

GUWAHATI, May 19 - Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal�s plan to �transform Deepor Beel into an attractive tourist destination� has not gone down well with conservationists who feel it is now more important to secure the place as per wildlife sanctuary norms.

Sonowal had two days back chaired a meeting of the Deepor Beel Conservation and Development Society, issuing a set of directions.

�Dipa means elephant in Sanskrit. Deepor Beel means �elephant pond�. Nowhere in the CM�s press release or the meeting, there is any mention of elephants - the original inhabitants of the area. The recorded history of elephants in the area goes back over 100 years. If the area is secured for elephants, other life forms will automatically thrive,� said a conservationist.

Elephants have been at the receiving end in the area since 2004 when the first elephant death took place. Although no elephants were killed by speeding trains since 2012, it has been a Herculean task to keep elephants off the railway track and ensure safe passage to and from the beel across the railway track.

Over the last few days, large herds of elephants are seen coming down to the beel from the adjoining Rani and Garbhanga forests almost every day.

�The entire area is part of elephant habitat. Over the years, the traditional passages used by elephants to get to the beel have been disturbed. This has made elephants change their routes to get to the beel, which is proving to be a headache for the people responsible for ensuring safe movement of wild jumbos to and from the beel. Elephants have been even straying into the heart of the city in recent times,� said Guwahati�s honorary wildlife warden Kaushik Baruah.

Many feel mushrooming warehouses in the area will add to the problem in the coming days.

Another key concern for Deepor Beel is the widening of the road which passes through it connecting Rani. �It is being used as an arterial road to ease the traffic on the main highway. Vehicular traffic in this area has increased manifold as the route is being used by people to reach the airport. Plying of trucks and taxis are adding to the woes of elephants in the area. There have been incidents of elephants brushing against trucks and also coming in front of passenger vehicles, raising the possibility of accidents,� he said.

The proposed second railway track will also increase the risk of elephants being hit by running trains. Although a proposal is there to create an overpass, nothing concrete has been worked out in this regard till date. �The area is already a wildlife sanctuary. Rather than creating a buffer or an eco-sensitive zone, the State government is more interested in promoting tourism,� said another conservationist.

The beel has already shrunk. People on the Azara side are filling up their plots for construction. A large amount of soil used for earth filling has spilt into the beel, affecting its depth, sources said, adding that many perennial creeks flowing into the Deepor Beel have vanished due to encroachment and other human activities.

Moreover, on one hand, the CM-chaired meeting noted that the garbage dump at Boragaon is polluting the Deepor Beel, and on the other, instructions are given to come out with a feasibility plan for setting up a sewerage treatment plant at Pamohi.

The meeting also skipped important issues like earth cutting and stone crushing.

Forest officials admit that being an elephant area, a sub-beat office or a camp under Rani Range needs to be established in the area. This will go a long way in protecting the forest.

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