Saving DehingPatkai – The Amazon of the East

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Vikram Rajkhowa

Dehing Patkai is known as the ‘Amazon of the East’

Dehing Patkai rainforest is a part of northernmost tropical rainforests in the world and forms the largest stretch of tropical lowland rainforest in India. It is spread across Tinsukia, Dibrugarh and Charaideo districts of Assam and Tirap and Changlang districts of Arunachal Pradesh.

The Dehing Patkai rainforest area includes Dehing Patkai Wild Life Sanctuary, a protected area covering around 111.9 sq.km. and Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve with an area of around 937 sq.km. The entire area is part of the Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot, one of the 36 Biodiversity hotspots across the globe. The Dehing Patkai rainforest consists of pristine forests and habitat to around 47 species of mammals (including non-human primates), 293 species of birds, 47 species of reptiles, 30 species of butterfly, 7 species of cats, including more than 100 orchids and valuable trees.

A network of streams, rivulets and rivers originate from the hilly terrain of the Dehing Patkai area and the rainforest acts as its watersheds and catchments. Several indigenous communities reside along the periphery of the rainforests area. It is because of these aspects that the Dehing Patkai rainforests is compared with the world’s largest rainforest, the Amazon.

The recent controversy surrounding illegal coal mining at Dehing Patkai

Amidst the countrywide lockdown, the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wild Life (NBWL) in its 57th Meeting on 7th April 2020, recommended for post-facto approval for around 57.20 hectares of forest land inside Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest, for the Tikok Open Cast coal mining project of North-Eastern Coalfields, a unit of Coal India Ltd.

The Saleki PRF is part of the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve and adjacent to Deomali Elephant Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh having a sizeable population of elephants, India’s ‘National Heritage Animal’ and a Schedule – I mammal protected under the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972. Furthermore, several species of primates, cats, amphibians, reptiles, as well as orchids, medicinal plants, valuable trees, among others are found in Saleki PRF. According to a study on Hoolock Gibbon published in the Asian Primates Journal in 2009, around 20-50 Hoolock Gibbon, a Schedule – I mammal protected under the WLPA and listed as ‘Endangered’ by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) was found in Saleki PRF. The said area also falls in the Eco Sensitive Zone of the Dehing Patkai Wild Life sanctuary, according to the State Board for Wild Life, Assam.

Prof. R Sukumar, one of the Member of the Standing Committee of National Board for Wild Life, who had visited the site stated that – “…57.20 hectare of forest land has already been broken up by the user agency and the balance area of 41.39 hectares unbroken land, cautious approach needs to be adopted in the light of the rich biodiversity.”

Subsequently, it has also been observed by the SC-NBWL in its 58th Meeting that out of the 41.39 hectares of unbroken land around 16 hectares has already been broken up without the approval of the SC-NBWL.

Earlier the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) in its meeting dated 10th – 11th June 2013 while discussing the above matter had observed that – “…. no forest clearance was granted to the mining lease in 2003 or later period, but the mining operation is going on since 2003 in violation of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.”

Legal Interventions before Gauhati High Court

In the month of June 2020, three Public Interest Litigations were registered before the Gauhati High Court pertaining to illegal coal mining at Dehing Patkai rainforest area, including a suo-moto PIL by Hon’ble Gauhati High Court. My senior colleague Santanu Borthakur and myself had filed one of the PILs. As advocates, we have appeared in a number of PILs espousing public causes, mostly on a pro-bono basis, but this is probably the first time that we are appearing as petitioners-in-person considering the emergent situation amidst the nationwide lockdown.

At this stage without going into the merit of the case as the same is sub-judice, it may be noted that subsequent to public outcry and the above mentioned legal interventions, two positive developments have taken place– firstly, Government of Assam has decided to upgrade Dehing Patkai Wild Life Sanctuary to a National Park and secondly, Standing Committee of National Board for Wild Life has presently stopped coal mining by Coal India Ltd. in the concerned area of Dehing Patkai rainforests.

Protecting Dehing Patkai rainforest

Dehing Patkai is probably the last vestige of lowland tropical rainforests in the country and needs to be protected not only for its pristine forests and rich biodiversity but also for the environmental security and future generations of our country. It is a welcome step that the Government of Assam has decided to upgrade the Dehing Patkai WildLife sanctuary to a National Park but much more is required to be done as the said sanctuary is only a small part of the vast DehingPatkai rainforests area.

The Government should explore at implementing the following suggestions as forwarded by various experts, environmentalist, local people, etc. from time to time, which to my mind will go a long way in protecting the DehingPatkai rainforests – firstly, the area of Dehing Patkai WildLife sanctuary should be expanded. In fact, the original proposal for the wildlife sanctuary envisaged an area of 440 sq. km. This was subsequently reduced to 267 sq. km., and ultimately an area of 111.19 sq. km. was covered under the sanctuary; secondly, to facilitate gas and oil exploration as well as other mining activities the distance of Eco-sensitive Zone around the Dehing Patkai Wild Life sanctuary has been drastically reduced in many areas, frustrating the very purposes of such ESZ acting as “shock absorbers”. Hence a relook should be taken to restore the distance of the ESZ to act as an effective shock absorber; thirdly, large scale illegal coal mining and logging is going on in the Dehing Patkai rainforests area, transcending districts and state boundaries, which has been widely reported in the media, as well as a large number of FIRs, have also been filed in various police stations but no significant action seems to be taken because of a nexus between the mafia, officials and politicians. Therefore, a very high-level independent investigation is required to stop this menace; fourthly, the local people, more particularly the indigenous people from the fringe areas of the Dehing Patkai rainforests areas, should be engaged in the protection of the forests through an effective ‘People’s Participation’ model, as they are the eyes and ears and usually the first to answer calls of distressed animals as well as more manpower and facilities for forest protection; fifthly, the entire stretch of Dehing Patkai rainforests area should be notified as a ‘Biodiversity Heritage Site’ by the State Government under the Biological Diversity Act, 2002, similar to ‘Majuli’, the world’s largest river island.

The writer is an advocate at the Gauhati High Court and an environmental lawyer.

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