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Assam: In Dehing Patkai, coal mining is a way of life

The National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) gave the approval of a coal mining project to Coal India Limited (CIL) in the Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest (PRF), which is a part of the greater Dehing Patkai Rainforest. The NBWL is under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and the meeting was chaired by Union Minister Prakash Javedekar.

Following the decision by NBWL, the environmentalists, civil societies, and student communities have vehemently opposed the move. Twitter campaigns have been run by various groups that have put commendable constraints. The media has also reported about the developments. The opposition mounted pressure on the govt to which Assam CM has directed the state Forest Minister to take stock of the situation.

After the fiasco, the CIL has put up a press release (attached), stating that it “is in the process of complying with stipulations and conditions laid down by the NBWL and MoEF&CC for mining Coal in Tikak Open Cast Project, falling under Saleki PRF of Digboi. It is clarified that coal mining operations in Tikak OCP have been suspended since October 2019 on the directive of Department of Forest, Government of Assam and that it is awaiting the Stage II clearance from MoEF&CC. They cited technicalities about reclamation site among others”.

Inside-Article-Custom

To understand the gravity of the situation, one first needs to understand the vastness of the Dehing Patkai.

Geography

The Dehing Patkai is located in the Dibrugarh and Tinsukia Districts of Assam, which covers an area of 111.19 km2 (42.93 sq mi) rainforest. The tropical wet evergreen forest consists of three parts: Jeypore, upper Dihing River, and Dirok rainforest. The rainforest stretches for more than 575 km2 (222 sq mi) in the districts of Dibrugarh, Tinsukia, and Sivasagar.

The region is home to hoolock gibbon, slow loris, pig-tailed macaque, stump-tailed macaque, capped langur, Asian elephant, Bengal tiger are just a few of the animal species living here. The Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve hosts about 293 different species of birds, including slender-billed vulture, white-winged wood duck (the state bird of Assam), greater adjutant, lesser adjutant, greater spotted eagle, beautiful nuthatch, marsh babbler, tawny-breasted wren-babbler, yellow-vented warbler, and many other varieties. The most common reptiles found here are rock python, king cobra, Asian leaf turtle, monitor lizard.

Dehing Patkai holds a sensitive ecology that has been slowly fading from human encroachments. This has led to an increase of man-animal conflicts as they look out for food outside the jungles, according to the natives.

Today, only a small patch of 400-500 sq km of this rainforest, survives. Out of this, some 111 sq km are actually recognized as a wildlife sanctuary. The rest of the areas have already been degraded and remain as forests only on paper.

How that facilitated has been already covered by an article published by InsideNortheast and the link has been tagged below.

Also read: Dehing Patkai: What led to the end game?

Beyond the contemporary

The current protests are limited to saving Dehing Patkai’s biodiversity and to stop the CIL project in Saleki. However, the issue is beyond the contested site. The NBWL fiasco has opened up a pandora’s box of irregularities. As per sources, illegal coal mining is going on at Lalpahar Paharpur under Tipong Reserve Forest of Lekhapani Forest Range, Balijan Tirap Forest Reserve, Bomgada Namdang under Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest of Lekhapani Forest Range, Assam Namphai Tinkupani Reserve Forest under Jagun Forest Range which all falls under Digboi Forest Division of Tinsukia District.

Coal depot in interiors of the forest

To unearthed such distortion, Inside Northeast, collaborated with a fact-finding team that visited the entire Dehing Patkai peripheries to understand the ground reality.

Fallout

Environmentalists have highlighted instances of illegal coal mining, jhum cultivation, and conversion of forest lands for tea plantations going about in the surroundings. “There’s heavy deforestation going in the reserves and you can see trucks carrying coal even during the lockdown”, said Romesh Hatimuriya of the Sanjeevani NGO. Another big problem for the nearby villages has been the coal drainage. There are reports alleging that coal discharged was directly thrown into the nearby field which passes through the villages. “The toxic coal waste flows through the villages in Ledo and then falls into the Dehing river. Not even a frog can survive in these waters”, said Hatimuriya.

The main aspect: why would the locals cooperate and participate in such a trade which affects their own geography?

Stakeholders of Dehing Patkai

Facilitators: The findings reveal similar to the Malana Village of Himachal, unlike hashish, coal is the opium of the masses here. Many homes have a coal depot set up in their own compound where they store the contested asset. These are mined under a network of dealers who are mostly outsiders. They hire migrant labourers of “East Bengal origin” and the villagers provide as the first chain of suppliers from the mines to the storage (which is basically their house).

Trinayan Gogoi of Green Bud society, a wildlife conservation organisation has been actively vocal about the issue mentions, “the villagers transport the coal from the mines to the depots. This transportation is done on bicycles and they earn 1000 rupees per trip from the mine to the village depots”.

Opposers: In contrast to the participants, there is active opposition to the trade as well. Soraipung is a forest village on the western side of the jungle where coal mining hasn’t been done. It was a heavy stronghold of ULFA and faced army oppression during the insurgency. The villagers used to be hunters but now they are hardcore conservationists. Villagers claim they know all corners of the forest and take special care to prevent felling of trees as much as possible. They also act as guides for foreign tourists. Speaking to our sources, Puneswar Phukan a local said, “we have been actively involved in the preservation of the forest and alert the forest officials as soon as they get to know about any kind of unlawful activities like tree felling or poaching”.

Non-aligned sufferers: Amid this cold war between the opposers and the facilitators, there is the third kind – the most endangered. “Even after 73 years of our country’s independence, we have not seen any Electricity”, said Janu Langching, a member of a small tribe. Lanching is in her 60’s and is a local resident of 3 Number Mullong Langching Gaon under Ledo Gaon Panchayat of 124 Number Margherita Constituency. The residents of the village lack basic essential amenities for their livelihood. “We have not seen electricity. We don’t have safe drinking water supply and there is lack of schools and medical facilities”, said Janu.

As observed by our reporter, the roads leading to the village are in bad condition. One of the reasons for the dilapidated condition has been due to the trucks crossing the locality. As coal is found in abundance at 3 Number Langching Gaon, locals reveal illegal coal mining being carried out in the vicinity. These trucks have made it difficult for the inhabitants to even cross the roads and the heavy vehicles further deteriorate the current roads.

Seekers: Apart from the villagers and migrant laborers, there are youths of neighbouring towns in Margherita, Digboi who ply their trade in this game to achieve societal mobility. They start with Bolero pickups and if they really work hard, they can acquire two more.

The normalisation

It would be wrong to blame to put the blame on the villagers for this exploitation without understanding the vulnerabilities and the lack of employment these people face. Coal Mining has been the primary activity of the region since the imperial onset and there is an oral culture tale that oil was discovered when an elephant stepped out for coal business stomped on a supposed crude extract. After-independence, the destruction continued as upper Assam became a hub of timber, tea, coal, and oil. It is interesting to note that in their press release the CIL themselves have stated the modern history of coal in Assam. “Post nationalization of coal mines in 1973, the collieries operating in Assam were transferred to CIL for a lease period of 30 years till April 2003. At that time the concept of mandatory forestry clearance prior to coal mining was not in vogue. It came into effect after notification of Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980″. The rehabilitation of the Ulfa cadres led to the surrendered militants taking interest in the sphere. As such, the majority of locals have no idea of any other form of occupation even though they stay in the middle of the green coloured heaven.

The Caretakers

BY 2003, the NBWL was formed under the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change. At the same time, the CIL lease had expired. The environmentalists allege that after 2003 illegal mining increased in the area subsequently. In 2012, CIL applied for a new lease.

In that regard, Tarun Gogoi, former CM of Assam claims that he rejected the advances of CIL. This he himself wrote on the letter penned to PM Narendra Modi. He also stated that the State Wildlife Board under CM Sarbananda Sonowal as Chairman has recommended the NBWL to make the decision. Mr. Gogoi indeed has some ground. Due to the territory falling under PRF and elephant corridors, it led to the formation of a state-level meeting. As per RTI documents filed by environmentalists, the 9th meeting of the State Board Wildlife in 20/09/2016 discussed the issue of the proposed project in Saleki PRF. It remarked that the proposed site is just outside 10km outside Dehing Patkai Sanctuary. The meeting called for further verification. On the next meeting, the 10th which held on 22/02/2018, it was revealed that the site was found to be located just on the boundary of the 10 Km radius from the Dehing Patkai WLS and was considered falling within the Eco-Sensitive Zone. After deliberation on the matter, the board recommended the proposal subject to compliance with a set of mitigation measures by the Expert Committee. Whatever happened to those measures or recommendations are yet to be public. Those meetings were chaired by the Assam CM.

What Tarun Gogoi fails to mention in his letter addressed to PM Modi is that Coal India’s proposal was forwarded to the Centre under his govt. The CIL had initially filed a proposal to the state Forest Department. “The state govt under him might not have given the approval but definitely knew the CIL proposal and forwarded it to the Centre”, said the RTI activist. In that report, it has been well addressed that 407 trees above 60 cm will be cut among other liabilities as specified in the letter attached here.

But these are just the technicalities of the Saleki, what about the other reports of illegal mining and timber continues?

Questions

Although the CM has sent his state forest minister, why weren’t the matters taken into consideration earlier during the state-level meeting?

CIL issue is only limited to Saleki PRF, what about the other forested areas which face similar concerns? Will that (illegal or legal) be continued even if the Saleki project is disbanded?

Why haven’t been the natives re-established into better economic and healthier opportunities?

The govt has failed to understand the entrepreneurial opportunities of the region which has the scope of eco-tourism. As history cites leaders are actually an outcome of the local economy and one can only understand the role coal plays in shaping those figureheads. Hence, silence and misdirection can be expected.

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