The Coal India Limited (CIL) has been carrying out illegal mining in Assam’s Dehing Patkai forest for the last 16 years and is now set to get an official license from the government to expand on its activities under a legal framework.
The Dehing Patkai Wildlife sanctuary is spread over an area of 111.19 square kilometres in the Dibrugarh and Tinsukia districts of Assam. It is a rare rainforest and a part of Assam’s tropical wet evergreen forest. Declared as a sanctuary in 2004, it forms the largest stretch of tropical lowland rainforests in India and is also known as the ‘Amazon of the East’.
Jadav Payeng, known as the ‘Forest Man of India’, and is a recipient of the UK’s 128th Commonwealth Points of Light Award, has appealed to the central and state governments to ban mining in the reserve. According to him, “Since this BJP government came to power in Assam in 2016, illegal coal mining increased many-fold and is patronized by the ruling politicians. Hundreds of coal-laden trucks come out of Dehing Patkai and many other areas of Upper Assam.” He says that nobody will be able to save the reserve if the government approves the mining of coal.
History of mining in Dehing Patkai
The CIL was given a mining lease in 1973 for 30 years, after which they were supposed to apply for forest clearance, which they did only in 2012. They continued mining activities until last year.
The Centre has given, in-principle, (Stage-I) clearance to mine 57.20 hectares inside the Dehing Patkai forest as of December 2019. This Public Sector Undertaking (PSU) needs to complete 28 conditions in order to get the official license, including the payment of fines and action against officers responsible for violating the Forest Conservation Act.
There has been a legal penalty against CIL upto Rs. 43.25 crore for the last 16 years, since 2003, for carrying out illegal mining activities in the region, as noted by the Assam Forest Department. The department has also filed an FIR against officials responsible for the illegal activity in almost 73 hectares of land inside the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve forest between 2003 and 2019.
The Congress MP from Assam, Pradyut Bordoloi has backed Payeng and said that the party will hit the streets after the lockdown to protest against such destruction if the mining activities are approved.
The mining advocates have proposed that the area falls under Saleki, which is outside of the reserve. However, Bordoloi has said that it falls under the Elephant Reserve and is only three kilometres away from it.
On Wednesday, the Chief Minister of Assam said that the government is committed to protecting the environment and biodiversity of the state and will not compromise with its stand in the name development initiatives. He also stated that the Environment and Forest minister will be visiting the area to conduct a field study of the present condition of the area and to apprise the government if necessary.
Repercussions in the forest
The Dehing Patkai Reserve houses 47 mammal species, 47 reptile species, and 30 butterfly species. It is a virgin forest. Some of the rare fauna found here are Chinese pangolin, flying fox, wild pig, sambar, barking deer and it is home to seven different species of wildcats. It is home to the Assamese Macaque which is on the list of the ‘near-threatened species.’ This forest houses 293 bird species belonging to 174 genera and 51 families. The forest is a four-layer rainforest which is important in terms of its diversity, particularly of orchids.
Most of the mining activities are underground, such as drilling, extracting, and blasting, which can cause excessive damage to the reserve’s flora and fauna. In the process of mining, trees are also uprooted or burnt, which can never be recovered and will lead to soil erosion and infertility of the land. This loose soil will get washed away by rain and then end up clogging rivers and lead to the death of fishes and cause flooding in the valley.
Clearing of the forest will also destroy the habitats for numerous animals, which will lead to an increase in the man-animal conflicts. Assam already has issues in regards to this. The noise pollution will also threaten the animals. The clearing of huge chunks of the forest can lead to a drastic change in the climate of the region.
Leading environmentalists, activists, teachers, and students have protested on social media with the hashtags “Save Amazon of East from Coal Mafias” and “I am Dehing Patkai” against the decision of the National Board of Wild Life.