Undoubtedly nature is sending us a message with the coronavirus pandemic but are we really able to interpret the message? There is a clear consensus amongst the scientists and environmentalists that the rise in zoonotic diseases is directly linked to biodiversity and forest destruction. Zoonoses that occurred recently are Ebola, Bird Flu, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Nipah Virus, Zika Virus and now the Coronavirus. Man made environmental changes modify wildlife population structure; disrupt biodiversity, resulting in environmental conditions that favour particular pathogens. Even UN’s Environment Chief, Inger Andersen agreed to the fact that humanity was placing too many pressures on the natural habitat thereby leading to disastrous consequences and 75% of all emerging infectious diseases come from wildlife. Human beings continued destruction of wildlife has brought us closer to animals and plants that cause diseases that can be easily transmitted to humans.
Of late, Northeast has seen considerable infrastructure growth and received funds from the Central Government for socio-economic development of the region. The Union Government has made a range of efforts to hasten growth in the Northeast including the latest creation of a North East Special Infrastructure Development Scheme (NESIDS), which entirely focuses on the overall boosting of the economy in the region. It has been able to become the gateway to South East Asia under the Government of India’s Act East Policy. Northeast India has now become the harbinger of superlatives like the “longest”, the “biggest” of several projects in the country. To strengthen connectivity, the Bogibeel Bridge was inaugurated on Dec 25, 2019, over the mighty Brahmaputra River. The bridge with a total length of 4.94km is the longest rail-cum-road bridge in India. Then there is also Dr. Bhupen Hazarika Setu, the longest road bridge with a total length of 9.15km, which connects Dhola and Sadiya in the Tinsukia district. These projects enhanced connectivity and have been a great tourist attraction spots. Undoubtedly it fostered business and connectivity in the region but whether it helped in increasing State revenues along with keeping the rich biodiversity of Northeast intact, is still a matter of concern.
Recently, The National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) has nodded to a proposal recommending the usage of 98.59 hectares of land belonging to the Dihing Patkai Elephant Reserve, for extraction of coal by Coal India Limited. The decision was revealed by the minutes of the 57th Meeting of the Standing Committee of National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) chaired by Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), Prakash Javadekar, on April 17, 2020, through video-conferencing. The NBWL discussed a proposal for the use of 98.59 hectares of land from the Saleki proposed reserve forest land for a coal mining project by North-Easter Coal Field (NECF), a unit of Coal India Limited. Saleki is a part of the Dihing Patkai Elephant Reserve that is a part of the Dihing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary covering 111.19 sq km of rainforest and several reserve forests in Dibrugarh, Tinsukia and Sivasagar districts.
As the country faces a national lockdown due to a pandemic, India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) seems determined for industrial and infrastructural projects at the cost of the environment. The ministry has proposed a new set of rules i.e. the draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification, 2020 which is going to replace the EIA notification of 2006, is completely contrary to the principles of environmental protection. And it has already proved its callous attitude. The approval granted by the NBWL proves a gross violation of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. On November 25, 2019, in a letter written to the Additional Chief Secretary Forests, Assam, the Deputy General of Forests wrote that there is “clear evidence of rampant violations of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, in the proposed site”. Coal India Limited was granted a 30 year mining lease in the year 1973 and since then, CIL’s subsidiary North Eastern Coalfields has been mining in the area. The lease expired long back in 2003, but the Coal India Limited applied to the MoEFCC for lease renewal in 2012. It is shocking to note that all this while, coal mining continued illegally in the area. No mining should have been allowed to carry out until the lease was granted yet it continued allegedly. No action was however taken until recently as of May 2020, when the Assam Forest Department levied a fine of Rs 432.5 million on Coal India Limited for illegal mining in the reserve forest.
Thus it is evident that the MoEFCC has turned around its own stand by allowing coal mining in Dihing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary and affecting the biodiversity of the virgin forestland. Out of the 98.59 hectares of forest land sought for mining, 12.93 hectares was broken up for mining by 2003 and 44.27 hectares was broken up between 2003 and 2012, then the Coal India Limited applied for lease renewal for mining 41.39 hectares in 2012. In the April 7, 2020 meeting R. Sukumar, Assam’s Chief Wildlife Warden and a representative of the local wildlife division for assessing the mining area stated that 57.20 hectares of hilly forestland had already been broken up by NECF and the remaining 41.39 hectares was unbroken. For the “unbroken area” the matter will be taken up for consideration after NECF submits a feasibility report.
Dihing Patkai is inhabited by a sizeable population of elephants which is under threat from the mining project. Moreover, the area is already threatened by pollution due to industries and refineries nearby. Dihing Patkai is located in the Dibrugarh, Tinsukia and Sivasagar districts of Assam. It covers a total area of 111.19 sq km. Dihing is the river that flows through this forest, and Patkai is the name of the hill on the foot of which it lies. It was declared a wildlife sanctuary in the year 2004. This sanctuary is also a part of Dihing Patkai Elephant Reserve. Forming the largest stretch of tropical lowland rainforest in India, the Dihing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary, is also known as the ‘Amazon of the East”. This sanctuary is very rich in biodiversity. Till date, 47 mammal species, 47 reptile species and 30 butterfly species have been recorded here. The rainforest harbors 293 bird species. The towering Hollong tree which is also the state tree of Assam dominates the sanctuary. The Dihing Patkai forest region is also the habitat of dozen different ethnic groups including the indigenous Assamese communities, Tai Phake, Khamyang, Khamti, Moran, Ahom, Muttack, Nepali people and Tea-tribes.
It is very disheartening that a government which claims to believe in sustainable development without harming the environment has taken such a drastic step which posed danger to the Amazon of the East. Moreover, coal mining adversely affects the ecosystem as a whole. In a paper published in 2015 in the Russian Federation, European Reseracher, Sribas Goswami throws light on how coal mining impacts the environment. The paper very clearly depicts how coal mining usually degrades the natural environment and leads to the destruction of habitat. It poses a great threat to the biodiversity of the region. Due to illegal mining, there is massive dust and noise pollution in the surrounding area. After the cutting of coal seams, illegal miners leave all the mines open to nature. So, the whole region is converted into an abandoned field. Even a bench of the Supreme Court of India on January 2020, headed by Chief Justice of India S.A Bobde ordered re-grassing on mined areas as a mandatory condition in every mining lease and environmental clearance. It focused on restoring the land which is fit for the growth of fodder, flora and fauna. The Bench was concerned of the environmental issues caused by mining which are erosion, deforestation, formation of sinkholes, loss of biodiversity, contamination of soil etc. We are already witnessing how human behaviour caused disease to spill over to them. To prevent a deadly pandemic in the near future destruction of the natural habitat for industrial and infrastructural growth has to come to an end. Although the immediate priority is to contain the virus and break the chain, but the long term goal is to prevent loss of biodiversity. With fewer planes in the sky and cars on the road, the lockdown as a result of COVID-19 as proved to be a boon for the environment, but why we are all set to harm rainforests and wildlife sanctuaries? Are we awaiting another pandemic to care for nature? Amid nationwide lockdown, on 10th May, 2020, a rhino has been killed by poachers in Kaziranga National Park and this is alarming. Northeast, the land of the seven sisters has been fighting COVID-19 as well as racism, and now we are made to fight another battle i.e. the battle to preserve our rich natural resources. When Amazon in Brazil was burning in the year 2019, the collective efforts of the people globally imposed pressure on Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to take effective steps to stop the forest fire. Now as Amazon of the East burns why we are taking a backseat? Let us all join hands to save our Amazon of the East. Let us pledge to not make Dihing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary, a mere Geography Chapter for our future generation. As His Holiness, Dalai Lama said, “It is our collective and individual responsibility to preserve and tend to the world in which we all live”.
The writer is a lawyer and an amateur writer
Disclaimer: Views are personal