Environmentalists join hands to save Amazon of the East

One can say, environmentally conscious people live in Assam and hence public outcries against hydroelectric projects or mining approvals in forest lands are natural to invite media attentions. The recent public mobilization against the rampant open-cast coal mining in rainforests was natural to happen, but its tame end indicates that the uprising was not properly focused.

The uproar at the time of nationwide Covid-19 lockdown was started in the social media and soon it expanded to the mainstream media outlets. With an aim to safeguard a forest reserve, large numbers of environmental enthusiasts, celebrities, social activists, media personalities, etc of the country came out to oppose the lease for extracting coal by the central government in New Delhi.

An initial apprehension was that the new lease for coal mining would destroy Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary under the designated Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve lying under the Eastern Himalayas and the Indo-Burma global biodiversity hotspot, which is known as Amazon of the East. Most of the agitators found it difficult to understand why the mining was ‘approved inside a sanctuary’, which is legally protected under India’s Wildlife Protection Act 1972.

But soon an active conservation group named Nature’s Beckon came out with strong statements that the movement was not based on facts as Dehing Patkai sanctuary was totally safe and there was no mining proposal inside the rainforest. Soumyadeep Datta, who leads the influential group, clarified that the Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest, where conditional mining was approved by the Centre is far away from Dehing Patkai sanctuary. Later the State government in Dispur also authenticated the fact.

Datta, who is an Ashoka fellow, released a video statement asserting that some elements were misleading the people with wrong information about the mining of underground coal inside the sanctuary. He pointed out that those motivated elements played words while cunningly shifting its focus from Dehing Patkai wildlife sanctuary to Dehing Patkai elephant reserve. They kept on hiding the vital information that coal mining was legal under any elephant reserve as it is not protected under the wildlife protection laws.

Earlier, a good number of campaigners raised their voice to preserve the sanctuary through their posts on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc with slogans like ‘I am Dehing Patkai’, ‘Save Dehing Patkai from Coal Mafia’, ‘Save Amazon of the East’, etc. They tried to convince the people that the sanctuary was in danger because of the proposed mining as it would make a negative impact on biodiversity, water and land resources. Not only the rainforest along with its wildlife, they argued, the mining would create troubles for various ethnic communities living around there for centuries.

Members belonged to the All Assam Students’ Union, Krishak Mukti Sangram Samity along with other civilian outfits, opposition political leaders, defenders of nature and non-government organization activists that launched the online campaign arguing that it was difficult to organize immediate visible rallies because of the countrywide shutdown. Even the banned armed outfit named United Liberation Front of Assam (Independent) also came out with the threatening statement to attack anyone who would come for mining there.

A group of 300 conscious citizens of Northeast India also wrote to the central environment and forest ministry expressing concerns over the approval of coal mining at 98.59 hectare of land inside Saleki reserve forest under Dehing Patkai elephant reserve. They claimed that the mining in Dehing Patkai forest region would severely affect ethnic groups like Tai Phake, Khamyang, Khampti, Singpho, Nocte, Ahom, Koibarta, Moran and Motok, Tea-tribes, Burmese and Nepali speaking people, among others in their livelihood and existences.

The history of open-cast coal mining in Saleki locality is a century old story, where the government run Coal India Limited (CIL) continues extracting coal for national needs. The coal authority maintained its operations in northeastern region through North Eastern Coalfields, which came into existence in 1975 with its headquarter at Margherita of eastern Assam. The current lease of CIL expired in 2003 and it applied for the renewal of the lease.

However, CIL was unable to get the clearance till 2012 even though it simultaneously carried out mining in the area for all these years. Lately, the state government under its forest regulation Act 1891 imposed a penalty of Rs 43.25 crore on CIL for the unauthorised mining inside the elephant reserve between 2003 and 2019. The CIL applied for the lease in 2013 and again in 2019 to mine at Tikok colliery, which was forwarded by the Assam government to the Centre.

Reacting to public outcries, the Assam’s Environment and Forest Minister Parimal Suklabaidya, who visited the location following the direction of Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, clarified that the concerned mining field is not a part of Dehing Patkai sanctuary. He also stated that the mining was not approved in Tikok colliery since October last year and the authority seized around 5,000 metric tonne coal from that location by the end of 2019.

National Board for Wildlife under the union environment & forest ministry gave a provisional clearance to extract coal in its last meeting held on April 7, 2020 under the chairmanship of Union Environment, Forest and Climate Change Minister Prakash Javadekar through the video conference arrangements as the pandemic lockdown continued.

However, the meeting put many conditions to the coal authority under the Forest Conservation Act 1980. Coal India Ltd. (CIL) and the Assam’s forest department have to fulfill 28 conditions and the compliance report would be placed before the union government for Stage-II clearance. Only after the clearance, coal mining operations could start. Presently a conditional clearance was granted to the coal authority, added the minister.

Meanwhile, some advocates and environment enthusiasts knocked the door of Gauhati High Court for its intervention against the clearance. The court issued notices to the union and state governments and the CIL along with other stakeholders for their responses. Lately the coal authority had temporarily suspended all mining operations in Margherita locality since June 3.

Even though there was no place called Dehing Patkai, rather it was derived from Dehing/ Dihing (a river flows through it) and Patkai (the hill which supports the forest), the state government declared a patch of rainforest with 111.19 square km area as Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary on June 13, 2004. Seventeen other forest reserves of Assam also got the status simultaneously.

The sanctuary on the south bank of mighty Brahmaputra river today houses a large number of Asiatic elephants with over 290 species of bird, 50 species of butterfly, 45 species of mammals, 25 species of reptiles, 70 species of fish, thousands of other inspect species, 60 varieties of orchid, etc. Thousands of species of trees like Hollang, Mekai, Dhuna, Udiyam, Nahar, Samkothal, Bheer, Hollock, Elephant-apple, Fig, etc keep the forest cool and humid. Various species of wild cats (including tiger, leopard, clouded leopard, leopard cat, golden cat, jungle cat and marbled cat), non-human primates (including rhesus macaque, Assamese macaque, slow loris, capped langur, pigtailed macaque, stumptailed macaque, hoolock gibbon), are also seen with Chinese pangolin, flying fox, wild boar, sambar, barking deer, gaur, serow, malayan giant squirrels, porcupine, etc.

Rare bird species like lesser adjutant stork, white winged wood duck, white backed vulture, slender billed vulture, white cheeked hill partridge, khaleej pheasant, grey peacock pheasant, rufus necked hornbill, wreathed hornbill, great pied hornbill, beautiful nuthatch, black browed leaf wabler, green imperial pigeon, purple wood pigeon, etc with king cobra, rock python, Asian leaf turtle, monitor lizard, etc are found there.

It was Nature’s Beckon that launched a massive campaign in 1994 to protect 500 sq km of contiguous pristine forest cover comprising Joypur reserve forest, upper Dehing/Dihing reserve forest and Dirak reserve forest in eastern Assam’s districts namely Dibrugarh and Tinsukia adjoining Deomali elephant reserve of neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh. The group also organized an international rainforest festival at Joypur in presence of concerned representatives from 12 different countries.

But the Tarun Gogoi-led Congress government ignored the movement, which was morally supported by a large number of wildlife conservationists, wildlife biologists, intelligentsia around the world, and announced only 111.19 sq km area as a sanctuary leaving the rest that was declared as Dehing Patkai elephant reserve keeping space for mining coal-oil, queries, sand-land cutting, logging etc. “We believe it was because of the influence of coal and timber lobbies, the government did not include the entire area under the sanctuary. Amazingly, the then State forest minister Pradyut Bardoloi, now a Parliamentarian, has released video footage trying to establish rampant coal mining inside the Dehing Patkai forest reserve,” said Datta adding that propagandists in the last few weeks cried that the coal mining was approved by both the governments in Dispur and New Delhi.

Claiming that rumours about coal mining inside Dehing Patkai sanctuary is a part of huge conspiracy, Datta also opined that if CIL could be defunct, not only its 20,000 workers would face difficulties, but also the coal mafia (illegal miners) would take advantages out of the situation. The member of Centre’s project elephant committee Datta revealed that the coal has a significant demand for nearly 300 tea-plantations, thousands of brick factories and market places.

Appreciating everyone who expressed concern over mining inside the sanctuary, the nature conservation group reiterates its old demand to declare the entire 500 sq km area of contiguous rainforests be preserved under the wildlife protection laws. The conservation group, which published several books like ‘Rainforests of Assam’, ‘Dihing Patkai Abhyaranya’, ‘Namchangor Antespur’ with thousands of awareness brochures, urged the present government to expand the area of Dehing Patkai sanctuary judiciously covering the adjacent rainforests.

Various other organizations like Patriotic People’s Front Assam, Indigenous Council Assam, Brihattar Asomiya Mohila Mancha, Sanmilita Sangbadik Mancha, etc also come forward endorsing the conservation movement of Nature’s Beckon and urged the Sarbananda Sonowal-led BJP government to declare the entire Dehing Patkai forest reserve as a protected area under the concerned laws of the country as early as possible.

Nava Thakuria
Nava Thakuria
Writer is Guwahati-based Environment Journalist

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