Arup Jyoti Das
In mid-May amid the pandemic, an outrage took place amongst the people of Assam and Northeast towards a cause of saving the largest lowland rainforest in India ‘Amazon of the East’- Dehing Patkai. The movement which initially took place on the virtual platform with tags like #SaveDehingPatkai, soon gained momentum and people from all walks of life showed their discontent over the Government’s decision that allowed coal mining in the precious rainforest of the region. However, things took a turn when the state government decided that the Wildlife Sanctuary would now be upgraded to a National Park. Though the step taken by the government has been welcomed by many, the narrative of illegal mining has shifted to the expansion of the wildlife sanctuary.
On 7th April, 2020, the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wild Life (NBWL), chaired by Prakash Javedkar, the Chairman of NBWL and the Minister of Forest, Environment and Climate Change of India (MoFECC), approved a coal-mining project in the Saleki reserve forest which is a part of the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve via video conference. This move by the Government sparked protest among environmentalist and young activists of Assam.
A Parallel Discourse
The Save Dehing Patkai Movement originally kick started from Gauhati University by its student through an online campaign to save the only rain forest of Assam. The movement grew stronger, but very soon the issue got diverted to another debate and now two parallel narratives have emerged which is centred around the Dehing Patkai. One section of environmental activists and organizations that were concerned about coal mining in the area, claimed that Dehing Pakai is not safe as a wildlife sanctuary and everything is not fine with the wildlife sanctuary. This section strongly argues that the habitant of the sanctuary and its adjoining area, its flora and fauna are in danger. On the other hand, the other narrative claims that there is nothing wrong in Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary and people of Assam need not worry about the wildlife sanctuary and its habitants. The other narrative which was spearheaded by Nature’s Beckon, an NGO working with the environment of the region, almost came as a counter to the Save Dehing Pataki movement. Soumyadeep Datta, founder of the organization strongly argued that the proposed coal mining is not within the Wildlife Sanctuary and there is nothing to worry about the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary.
Later Nature’s Beckons started a strong social mobilization as for the inclusion of more areas of the Dehing Pataki rainforest under the protected area of the Dehing Patkai wildlife sanctuary. The campaign popularly termed as “#Complete_DehingPatkai_WLS_500sqkm” demands to expand the area of the Dehing Patkai Wildlife sanctuary by including more areas within the wildlife sanctuary.
As informed by Datta, the Sanctuary encompasses 111.19 sq km but the stretch of 500 Sq. Km of rainforests in Joypur, Upper Dehing and Dirok, spread over the two districts of Tinsukia and Dibrugarh, is the storehouse of some of the diverse species. Though separated by different administrative divisions, these three reserved forests were, in reality, one undivided and continuous stretch of rainforest that needs to be preserved from the clutches of the exploiters. And that would be possible only if the Government upgrades these reserved forests as a Wildlife Sanctuary. These three reserved forests were vulnerable to further exploitation and if left unprotected would perish in no time.
“We welcome the CMs initiative of upgrading it to a National Park, but our demand is to declare the entire 500 sq km as a National Park, and if the state government takes this initiative than the entire area will be protected from various unscrupulous elements,” said Datta.
Datta who has been batting for the rainforest conservation movement since the early 90s highlighted that the Reserved Forests enjoy no legal protection. On the other hand, the Forest authorities can extract natural resources like oil, coal, timber and sand from these reserved forests. “Thus, we petitioned the Government to upgrade the status of these three reserved forests to Joydehing Wildlife Sanctuary,” he said.
In India, elephant reserves and corridors have no legal sanctity under the Wildlife Protection Act (WLPA), 1972. The act mentions only national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, conservation and community reserves (collectively called Protected Areas). Hence such lands are at the risk of being diverted for mines, drilling, polluting industries, deforestation etc.
Clearing his stand on the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve, Datta said, “granting of Elephant Reserve status in 2003 was the greatest mockery in the conservation history of Assam. There is no meaning of an elephant reserve, and it becomes indispensable to consider the expansion of the 500 sq km.”
In their social media page Nature’s Beckon states, “Let the rainforests of Assam grow with us, let the rainforests of Assam stay with us till eternity. Secure the future of Assam’s richest rainforest patch. Give Dehing Patkai WLS 500sqkm of this rainforest, ensure the conservation of this rainforest patch of Assam. Complete Dehing Patkai WLS”. Nature’s Beckon has successfully engaged many prominent people in this campaign via their social media page.
However, the coal mining issue has gradually moved the focus from environmental damage to forest expansion. Nature’s Beckons position surely has sent a strong message as it has done credible work in the field of environmental protection, particularly getting a wildlife sanctuary status for Dehing Patkai.
Interestingly, along with these two campaigns, there is another campaign in the streets of Margherita, upper Assam which want to save Coal India Limited (CIL) and the livelihood of around 2,000 people. In a press release issued by the North Eastern Coalfields (NEC) on May 25, it has mentioned that it is a major employment generator in the region and 1200 employees are directly employed in North Eastern Coalfields, and a large section of beneficiaries belongs to Assam. This apart, around 3000 people are indirectly dependent on the employment opportunities provided by coal mining of NEC.
Locating Dehing Patkai
Dehing Patkai is a rain forest that stretches for more than 575 km2 (222 sq mi) in the districts of Dibrugarh, Tinsukia and Charaideo in Assam. A part of this rain forest was declared a sanctuary in 2004. The protected sanctuary area of the rain forest is located in the Dehing Patkai landscape which is a dipterocarp-dominated lowland rainforest in the Dibrugarh and Tinsukia Districts of Assam. The Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary covers an area of 111.19 km2 (42.93 sq mi) rainforest. The Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary and a part of Dehing Patkai Rainforest, due to their importance for elephant habitat, were declared as the Dehing-Patkai Elephant Reserve under Project Elephant, which was launched in 1992 by the Government of India, Ministry of Environment and Forests to provide financial and technical support to wildlife management efforts by states for their free-ranging populations of wild Asian Elephants.
According to media reports, the total area of the Dehing Patkai is a huge area than 575 km, which is 937 sq km and is a combination of several rainforests, reserve forest. These include Dilli Reserve Forest, Jeypore Reserve Forest, Upper Dehing West, Dirak, Tokuani, Kokajan, Upper Dehing East, Nalani, Philobari, Doomdoma, Hahkati, Kumsang, Tarani, Buradehing, Kotha, Lekhapani, Tirap and Tinkupani.
The area that is under question for coal mining is the Saleki forest. NBWL approved diversion of 98.59 ha of the Saleki Proposed Reserved Forest (PRF) under Digboi Forest Division for Tikok OCP (Open Cast Project) coal mining of North-Eastern Coal Fields (Coal India Limited).
Saleki lies along the Assam-Arunachal border. Since the forest spreads over in the Tirap and Changlang districts of Arunachal Pradesh, it is trans-border in its geographical characteristic. Dehing Patkai forms the largest stretch of lowland rainforests in India.
The rich forest is home to a varied species including the hoolock gibbon, slow loris, pig-tailed macaque, stump-tailed macaque, capped langur, Indian leopard, Asian elephant, Bengal tiger, gaur, Chinese pangolin, Himalayan black bear, Himalayan squirrel, leopard cat, clouded leopard, porcupine, crab-eating mongoose, sambar, sun bear, binturong, barking deer, golden cat, and marbled cat. The Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve hosts around 293 different species of birds as well. Among the common reptiles found here are the rock python, king cobra, Asian leaf turtle, and monitor lizard. Moreover, as many as 30 species of butterflies and over 100 species of orchids thrive in this beautiful tropical vegetation.
Coal Mining in Assam: Legal, illegal and beyond
Coal was discovered in this part of the country more than 250 years ago. However, the systematic mining of coal was started only in 1888 by the erstwhile AR & T Co. (Assam Railways and Trading Company). In India, the first published reference of the coal mining dates back to 1774. During the time of Warner Hastings permission to coal mining in colonial Bengal was accorded to John Sumner and Suetonius Grant Heatly.
Initially, coal mining in Assam or the Northeastern region was first started at Makum Coalfield near Margherita, this was followed by many new collieries in the nearby areas. As the number of collieries increased so did the production, which was around 2 lakh tonnes at the beginning of the 20th century, increased to 12.10 lakh tonnes during 1993-94.
Coal like any other mineral is extracted from the earth’s body by mining. Mining involves two methods- Opencast mining (OCP) or Under-ground mining. The North Eastern Coalfields of Margherita, “Tikak” and “Tirap” mines use opencast mining method and in the rest underground mining system is used. As per the information given in the North Eastern Coalfield’s website, Two more OCPs namely “Ledo” & “Tikak Extension” was developed to augment the production capacity. As estimated in 1991- 92, Coal shares contribute to over 61.6% of total commercial primary energy sources in India and hence coal is essential for the development and progress of a nation.
Interestingly, Coal India was given a 30-year lease to carry out its operations only in 1973, the lease of which expired in 2003. According to the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, Coal India had to get a clearance from the forest department, which it has failed to obtain. Now, after 17 years, a Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife has recommended approval for Coal India Limited’s operations.
As per the recommendations NBWL allowed CIL to conduct opencast coal mining in 98.59 hectares of the reserve forest. CIL had been carrying out mining in 57 hectares of the reserve forest and the fresh recommendation allowed it to do mining in another 41 hectares, which was unbroken.
Reportedly, in an RTI query by environmental activist Rohit Choudhury, it has been revealed that mining related work has already begun in 17 hectares (or nearly 39% area) of the 41 hectares claimed by CIL to be unbroken.
Even though legal mining is allowed with the permission of the authority, there is evidence that illegal mining is also done in Assam. Environmental activists often state that there are areas where CIL illegally conducts mining. However, this is only a small portion of the whole racket. The main concern is the illegal rat hole mining, which is very much active in upper Assam. Pradyut Bordoloi, Member of Parliament from Congress in July 2019 raised the issue in the Parliament. He demanded the Centre send an inter-ministerial fact-finding team to probe “large-scale illegal coal mining” in upper Assam.
According to a site inspection report by the Shillong regional office of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), the area over which North-Eastern Coalfields (NECF) continued mining — without obtaining a lease renewal and forest clearance — included 73.2 ha of the 98.59 ha.
Of the 98.59 ha of land, 12.93 ha was mined before 2003, while 44.27 ha was mined between 2003 and 2012, the report said. Of the remaining 41.39 ha of ‘unbroken’ area, mining-related activity was conducted on two separate parcels of land of seven and nine ha respectively.
The report also called out Assam’s state government for failing to take action, considering such mining activities which were in violation of the Assam Forest Regulation Act, 1891.
It needs to be mentioned here that the Assam forest department imposed a penalty of Rs 43.25 crore on CIL for carrying out “illegal mining” inside the forests of the Dehing Patkai elephant reserve between 2003 and 2019, on May 6. It is, therefore, strange that the NBWL recommended the project even though the MoEF&CC and the Assam Forest Department took note of the clear violations.
The Legal Battle
As the issue gets stronger the public demanded the immediate attention of the government, several Public Interest Litigations (PILs) have been filed at the Gauhati High Court against the Centre’s preliminary approval to CIL for mining inside the forest. The petitions stated that it violated the right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution.
One petition was filed by Mrinmoy Khataniar, a lawyer and Amar Jyoti Deka, a mountaineer on May 26. As per reports, the petitioners have made nine respondents in the case — Government of India, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Assam government, the chief secretary, the principal chief conservator of forest and head of forest force, and the principal chief conservator of forest (wildlife).
The NBWL, the State Board of Wildlife, Coal India and its chief general manager have also been made parties in the case.
The petition highlighted that the Dehing Patkai rainforest has a significant cultural and ecological importance in the lives of the people of Assam, and it is home to several rare and endangered species of plants, animals, birds, insects and other biodiversity.
Advocates DK Das and Rakhee S Chowdhury, representing Khataniar and Deka said that Coal India Limited had been mining without permission for more than a decade. “The state counsel told the court that mining was stopped in 2019. But we argued that CIL [Coal India Limited] mined without permission for 16 years,” the lawyers said. “Besides, mining activity was carried out in 16 hectares more land in addition to the informed 57.2 hectares.”
In another petition filed by Advocate Santanu Borthakur along with colleague Vikram Rajkhowa, said their petition sought to declare Dehing Patkai as a heritage site under the Biological Diversity Act, 2002.
State Government’s stand
Following the PILs filed by several petitioners, the State Government ordered a judicial inquiry into the illegal coal mining at the Dehing-Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary. Amid the raging furore over the illegal mining Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, also directed the State Forest and Environment Minister Parimal Suklabaidya to initiate an inquiry and take stock of the ground situation there.
Following an inquiry Suklabaidya said that mining has been stopped in October, 2019 and till date no final approval has been accorded, the minister said. Coal India and Forest department would have to fulfill 28 conditions and the compliance report will be placed before the central government for grant of stage II clearance. “Our government will not allow any coal mining at the cost of environment and we have not applied for any approval for coal mining”, said Suklabaidya.
Subsequently, NEC, the CIL subsidiary, temporarily suspended all mining operations in the region.
Retired Justice Brajendra Prasad Kataki of the Gauhati High Court who is also leading the National Green Tribunal’s probe into Oil India Limited’s gas well fire incident at Baghjan in Tinsukia district was assigned to look into the coal mining in the sanctuary since 2003.
Furthermore, Sonowal had on July 6 directed the state forest department to initiate steps to upgrade the sanctuary to a national park in consultation with the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests.
“Our Govt has decided to upgrade the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam, which is home to a vast variety of flora and fauna, to a National Park. In a meeting with senior officials in Guwahati today, I have directed them to take necessary steps in this regard,” tweeted Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal.
The Northeastern region being rich in natural resources has been exploited time and again. While the Central government has absolute authority over the Public Sector Undertakings such as the Oil, Coal or the Hydropower, the State government stood as mute spectators. Amid the pandemic when people remained confined to their homes, the government’s decision of granting approval for coal mining in Dehing Patkai has definitely created a huge uproar among various sections of people. Despite the widespread outrage over the ecological damage caused by illegal mining, the Central Government has approved the coal-mining project in the reserve forest. Such projects have only impacted the life and livelihood of the people whilst exploiting the ecological balance of the environment. This only depicts the foul play the government is initiating for commercial benefits. The recent tragedy of Baghjan as well as floods in Assam are some examples. Moreover, CIL’s involvement in illegal coal mining is a big compromise in terms of jurisdiction.
The proposed expansion of the Dehing Patkai Wildlife sanctuary to a larger area may indeed be a welcome step, but it would not bring any permanent solution if corruption and illegal mining continues. It has been seen in Assam that declaring a forest as a reserve forest or wildlife sanctuary has its own limitation and has failed to save wildlife and the environment.
Moreover, the recent draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) 2020 notification that seeks to replace the existing EIA notification 2006 has been criticized by experts and environmentalists alleging that it seeks to dilute the present laws.
The EIA notification regulates the process of environment clearance, which is required by projects such as dams, mining, thermal power plants, highways, ports, airports and townships. It has been regarded as a regressive draft by several intellectuals. Some of the provisions that come under the ambit of the new draft include diluting the scope of public participation, it also legalizes post-facto environmental clearance, removes the requirements of EIA study for several categories of projects, and weakens the provisions of reporting by companies.
The new draft has already faced a backlash from civil society groups and environmentalist since several projects that are running without EIA clearances are proving to be disastrous, the latest being the LG Polymer Plant in Vishakhapatnam, where the styrene gas leak happened on May 7, the Baghjan oil well blowout incident of May 27 and then the alleged illegal mining in the Dehing Patkai. This only proves the Centres credence towards the industries in the name of sustainable development rather than people and the environment. Amidst all the crisis if the MoEFCC approves such disastrous law, it will further lead to the devastation of the environment and biodiversity.
Keshav Krishna Chatradhara who prefers to call himself as an Environmental Survivor stressed that the Central Government and its allied opportunists are rather benefiting from the pandemic by clearing as much project as possible in the environmentally rich region of the Northeast.
Comments: The clearance of Dibang Valley Hydropower Project by vanishing 3.5 lakhs of trees, commissioning 600 MW Tawang HEP, drilling inside the Dibru- Saikhuwa National Park and the most controversial permit to coal mining in Dihing Patkai are some of the cases in point.
As a chairman of NBWL, Prime Minister’s position on mining is really shocking. Moreover, the State Government is only trying to mend its political image by declaring the upgradation of the Sanctuary to a National park. Since it’s just a declaration, there is a long way to get a notification and I wish Sonowal to be in the same position till then to inaugurate it. In coming days, how the state is going to negotiate with the Union Govt. on it is a major concern.
I welcome the government’s decision but it should not just replace the word Sanctuary to National Park in the same display board as this can only minimize the voices of conservationist. The large areas of the Elephant Reserve need to be included in its vicinity. Biodiversity does not judge political boundaries, Dehing Patkai has scope to be notified as an interstate National Park with Arunachal Pradesh. However, the CM needs to step up efforts with Arunachal Pradesh prior to the central move. Moreover, the issues related to forest dependent communities should not be ignored.
Singer and Music Composer Joi Barua rose to the occasion with an aim to raise awareness.
Comments: As an artist, the scope of what we can do – often exists beyond the song & the stage. The songs articulate a thought, tell a story. But what do they achieve? If we haven’t led minds to think, to question, all exercises in art become futile.
I walked into the conversation of Dehing Patkai with an aim to raise awareness. These were magical rainforests in our own backyard of which we knew next to nothing. Growing up, our own knowledge about these were zero and likewise for most people I’d met in Assam. This is what I wanted to take up. For people to know.
I decided to bring in students, environmentalists, journalists – all who felt that Dehing Patkai needed more conversation in the public space. Our depleting rainforests was also a concern and that’s where the lawyers stepped in to address the issues, where they felt the forests were threatened.