Assam’s BJP-led Government is going to upgrade a wildlife sanctuary inside a huge elephant reserve often termed as Amazon of the East. Public outcries against the approval of open-cast coal mining in virgin forestland invited extensive media attention where the social media users spread the message across the globe have finally inspired the State Government in Dispur to develop Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary into a national park.
The uproar at the time of nationwide COVID-19 lockdown started in the alternate media with a mission to safeguard the sanctuary, where a large number of environmental enthusiasts, celebrities, social activists, media personalities, conscious individuals, etc. of the country poured their supports. It has erupted with the opposition to coal mining activities inside the sanctuary. It now gets transformed into a movement for bringing 500 sq km contiguous rainforests under the national park ambit.
An initial apprehension was that the new lease for coal mining would destroy the sanctuary inside the designated Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve (with the area of 937 sq km) lying under the Eastern Himalayas and the Indo-Burma global biodiversity hotspot. Most of the agitators found it challenging to understand why the mining was approved inside a sanctuary, which is legally protected under India’s Wildlife Protection Act 1972.
But soon an active conservation group named Nature’s Beckon came out with strong statements that the movement was not based on facts as Dehing Patkai sanctuary was safe and there was no mining proposal inside the rainforest. Soumyadeep Datta, who leads the influential group, clarified that the Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest, where the Centre approved conditional mining is far away from Dehing Patkai sanctuary. Later the State Government in Dispur also authenticated the fact.
Datta released a video statement asserting that some elements were misleading the people with wrong information about the mining of underground coal inside the sanctuary. He pointed out that those motivated elements played words while cunningly shifting its focus from Dehing Patkai wildlife sanctuary to Dehing Patkai elephant reserve. They kept on hiding the vital information that coal mining was legal under any elephant reserve as it is not protected under the wildlife protection laws.
Earlier, a good number of campaigners raised their voices to preserve the sanctuary on social media. They tried to convince the people that the sanctuary was in danger because of the proposed mining as it would make a negative impact on biodiversity, water and land resources. Not only the rainforest along with its wildlife, they argued, but the mining would also create troubles for various ethnic communities living around there for centuries. A group of 300 conscious citizens of Northeast India also wrote to the Union Environment and Forest Ministry expressing concerns over the approval of coal mining at 98.59 hectares of land inside Saleki reserve forest under Dehing Patkai elephant reserve. They claimed that the mining in Dehing Patkai forest region would severely affect ethnic groups like Tai Phake, Khamyang, Khampti, Singpho, Nocte, Ahom, Koibarta, Moran and Motok, Tea-tribes, Burmese and Nepali speaking people, among others in their livelihood and existences.
The history of open-cast coal mining in Saleki locality is a century-old story, where the government-run Coal India Limited (CIL) continues extracting coal for national needs. The coal authority maintained its operations in the northeastern region through North Eastern Coalfields, which came into existence in 1975 with its headquarter at Margherita of eastern Assam. The current lease of CIL expired in 2003, and it applied for the renewal of the lease.
However, CIL was unable to get the clearance till 2012 even though it simultaneously carried out mining in the area for all these years. Lately, the State Government, under its forest regulation Act 1891, imposed a penalty of Rs 43.25 crore on CIL for the unauthorised mining inside the elephant reserve between 2003 and 2019. The CIL applied for the lease in 2013 and again in 2019 to mine at Tikok colliery, which was forwarded by the Assam Government to the Centre.
Reacting to public outcries, the State Environment and Forest Minister Parimal Suklabaidya, who visited the location following the direction of CM Sarbananda Sonowal, clarified that the concerned mining field is not a part of Dehing Patkai sanctuary. He also stated that the mining was not approved in Tikok colliery since October last year and the authority seized around 5,000 metric ton coals from that location by the end of 2019.
Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife under the Union Environment & Forest Ministry gave a provisional clearance to extract coal in its last meeting held on April 7, 2020, under the chairmanship of Union Environment, Forest and Climate Change Minister Prakash Javadekar through the video conference arrangements as the pandemic lockdown continued.
However, the meeting put many conditions to the coal authority under the Forest Conservation Act 1980. Coal India Ltd. (CIL) and the Assam’s forest department have to fulfill 28 conditions, and the compliance report would be placed before the union government for Stage-II clearance. Only after the approval, coal mining operations could start. Presently a conditional clearance was granted to the coal authority, added the minister.
Even though there was no place called Dehing Patkai, the State Government in Dispur declared a patch of the rainforest with 111.19 square km area as Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary on June 13, 2004. The nomenclature was derived from Dehing/ Dihing river (that flows through it) and Patkai hills (which supports the forest). Nature’s Beckon, which launched the rainforest conservation movement proposed its name as Joydehing Wildlife Sanctuary, which was anyway ignored by Dispur. The conservation group launched its campaign in 1994 to protect 500 sq km of contiguous forest cover comprising Joypur reserve forest, upper Dehing/Dihing reserve forest and Dirak reserve forest in eastern Assam.
Lately, Nature’s Beckon urged Dispur to declare the entire Dehing Patkai forest reserve as a protected area under the concerned laws of the country as early as possible. Various other organisations also endorsed the demand following which Sonowal directed the concerned officials to prepare action plans for upgrading the sanctuary to a national park. The sanctuary on the south bank of mighty Brahmaputra River houses a large number of Asiatic elephants with over 290 species of bird, 50 species of butterfly, 45 species of mammals, 25 species of reptiles, 70 species of fish, thousands of other insect species, 60 varieties of orchid, etc. Thousands of species of trees like Hollang, Mekai, Dhuna, Udiyam, Nahar, Samkothal, Bheer, Hollock, Elephant-apple, Fig, etc. keep the forest cool and humid. Various species of wild cats (including tiger, leopard, clouded leopard, leopard cat, golden cat, jungle cat and marbled cat), non-human primates (including rhesus macaque, Assamese macaque, slow loris, capped langur, pigtailed macaque, stump-tailed macaque, hoolock gibbon) are also seen with Chinese pangolin, flying fox, wild boar, sambar, barking deer, gaur, serow, malayan giant squirrels, porcupine, etc. Datta, who is an Ashoka fellow and a member of the powerful Project Elephant Steering Committee, alleged that the former State Forest Minister Pradyut Bordoloi, now a Congress Parliamentarian, left most of the forestlands under Dehing Patkai elephant reserve for mining coal-oil, queries, sand-land cutting, logging etc. He claimed that it was because of the influence of coal & timber lobbies, Dispur did not include the entire area under the sanctuary. Pointing out the rumour about coal mining inside Dehing Patkai sanctuary was a part of huge conspiracy, Datta asserted that if CIL could be defunct, not only its 20,000 workers would face difficulties, but also the coal mafia would take advantages out of the situation. The member of Centre’s project elephant committee Datta revealed that the coal has a significant demand for nearly 300 tea-plantations, thousands of brick factories and market places. n