10 July 2020 05:35 AM

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ANANYA SINGH | 25 MAY, 2020

#SaveDehingPatkai: Coal Mining Threatens ‘Amazon of the East’

Coal mining project cleared in an elephant reserve in Assam


As the nation-wide lockdown continues, so do environment, forest and wildlife clearances. The Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) recently approved a coal mining project by North-Eastern Coal Field, a subsidiary of Coal India Limited (CIL), in an area that forms part of an elephant reserve in upper Assam.

Following the NBWL’s recommendation, Gauhati University’s Eco Club launched an online campaign to oppose coal mining in Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve, considered to be the ‘Amazon of the East’.

Hashtags #SaveDehingPatkai and #IAmDehingPatkai began trending on social media as students across colleges in Assam joined in online, taking up the cause to stop extraction in this ecologically-rich region. Students and environment activists have also highlighted CIL’s alleged illegal mining activities in the proposed area.

The Standing Committee of NBWL reviewed the project during its April 7 meeting via video conference. The Tikok open cast mining project proposes to use 98.59 hectares of forestland from Saleki proposed reserve forest—which is part of the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve—for coal mining.

“This region is an Asiatic biodiversity hotspot and home to many endangered as well as rare flora and fauna. And this is the only tropical rainforest of India which is also known as 'Amazon of the East',” Lakhyajit Das, member of GU Eco Club, told The Citizen. “This decision to allow coal mining will destroy the rich biodiversity and change the ecological balance of the rainforest,” he said.

“The area has been exploited for a very long time and has already faced a lot of destruction,” Das added. Parshwa Patgiri, another member of the GU Eco Club stated that the NBWL’s decision poses a grave threat to the reserve and the people of Assam.

“For the last several years illegal coal mining is being carried out in the forests of Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve by Coal India Ltd.,” RTI and environment activist Rohit Choudhury told The Citizen. “Such mining is in gross violation of Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 and Assam Forest Regulation, 1891,” he said.

Choudhury further added that the “illegal acts” of Coal India Ltd. were brought to light by officials of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) Regional office, Shillong during their site inspection visit on October 24, 2019. The site inspection was recommended by the NBWL during its July 2019 meeting.

In a letter to the Additional Chief Secretary (Forests), Assam, the Deputy Inspector General of Forests wrote that after the site inspection and field verifications, “...it is now certain that there is clear evidence of rampant violation of local forest laws and the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 in the proposed site.”

The site inspection report noted that the land was leased to the company for a period of 30 years, between 1973 and 2003. Upon expiry of the lease, the company had to apply for a renewal. However, CIL applied for renewal of the lease only in 2012. Meanwhile, illegal mining of the land had allegedly continued unabated.

CIL officials stated that they had already broken up 57.20 hectares of the total proposed area (98.59 ha), carrying out coal mining “without obtaining the mandatory prior approval of the Central Government under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980,” the report added.

The report further noted that officials from the state government seemed to be aware of the ongoing work. “When I learnt about the illegal coal mining in Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve, I immediately filed an application under Right to Information Act,” Choudhury told The Citizen.

“As the Assam Forest Department officials were in collusion with Coal India Ltd. in this illegal mining case, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Head of Forest Force, Assam office refused to give information. They probably thought of hiding the information which exposes their own role of facilitating illegal mining,” he alleged.

The site inspection report highlighted that the state government had reportedly taken no action against CIL for violating forest laws. Only as recently as May 2020 did the Assam Forest Department fine CIL Rs. 43.25 crore for having carried out “illegal mining” for 16 years, since 2003.

Choudhury however believes, “Imposing a fine of 40 odd crores is nothing but a tap on the wrist of Coal India Ltd.”

During its April 7 meeting, despite the allegations of illegal mining against the user agency, NBWL “recommended for approval” the mining of the broken up area, provided the user agency submit a rectified site-specific reclamation plan in consultation with the Assam Forest Department.

“The forest department which is the custodian of the state's biodiversity has utterly failed in performing its protection duties,” Choudhury alleged. “Over the years, so many forest officers have served the Digboi division under whose jurisdiction both the mining area and elephant reserve fall. The corrupt elements of forest department did nothing to prevent illegal coal mining by Coal India Ltd. and the local agents of coal mafia,” he told The Citizen.

R. Sukumar, NBWL member who was part of the committee charged with the responsibility of conducting a site inspection, reportedly told the Standing Committee that while 57.20 ha of forestland had already been broken up by the user agency, the remaining area of 41.39 ha requires a “cautious approach” to “preserve the basic integrity of this forested hill slope”, keeping in mind “the rich biodiversity” in Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve and adjoining Deomali Elephant Reserve.

The Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve includes the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary that is spread across 111.19 square kilometres in Dibrugarh and Tinsukia districts. The sanctuary is reportedly home to over 40 mammal species, including the endangered Eastern Hoolock Gibbon and the Asian elephant. It also hosts over 300 bird, 100 orchid, 150 butterfly and 40 reptile species.

Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve, along with the adjoining Deomali Elephant Reserve reportedly support a population of close to 600 elephants, Sanctuary Asia quoted Upasana Ganguly, head of Wildlife Trust of India’s Elephant Corridor Project as stating. Ganguly further mentioned that two crucial elephant corridors are present in Dehing Patkai Reserve, and that the corridors and habitat have already been affected by agricultural expansion, industrial activity, tea plantations as well as infrastructure such as highways and railway tracks.

Meanwhile, Choudhury said he found it “shocking” that the MoEFCC was “busy clearing projects even during lockdown through video conference” while nearly the whole world has been brought to a standstill by the COVID-19 crisis.

He added that while the ecological destruction posed by NBWL’s decision is worrying, the mindset responsible for clearing such projects is even more so. “For this mindset, nothing is sacred and everything is about business and money… And the mindset which goes on giving clearances for such projects will slowly and gradually lead to complete dismembering of mother earth,” Choudhury told The Citizen.

“Whatever they touch is becoming a disaster,” he said.
 

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