Tinsukia: Coal mines under Makum Coalfield might soon become operational as Assam Assembly hopefuls from the Margherita seat in Tinsukia district have made promises to bring back jobs lost during a ban on mining along with the COVID-19 lockdown.

Last year, Gauhati High Court banned mining in the Coal India Limited owned mines around Ledo after an online campaign centred on saving the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary opened a can of worms showing irregularities in diversion of forest and tribal land to coal mines.

A government-appointed single member committee led by Justice (Retired) B.P. Katakey, however, continues to investigate irregularities in the coal mining. On Monday, as sitting Member of Assam Legislative Assembly and Bhartiya Janata Party leader Bhaskar Sarma filed his nomination in Margherita, a public hearing chaired by Justice (Retired) B.P. Katakey was underway.

Katakey was appointed by Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal after environmental groups from the state started an online campaign opposing diversion of forest patch in Saleki area for Tikok mine owned by Coal India Limited.

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Later, Sarmah, the incumbent legislator who has been accused by opposition parties several times for being close to illegal mining mafia in Tinsukia district, told Eastmojo that his manifesto talks about resuming mining in the region. “We have stated in the manifesto that we want to resume coal mining, but it has to be as per rules,” Sarma said.

Public hearing notice for the committee headed by Former Judge B.P. outside Sub Divisional Office in Margherita

Manoranjan Gohain, the Congress candidate told EastMojo that job losses have paralysed the economy of the region. “We want to ensure that illegal mining stops in the area but we need the jobs that were lost after the ban came into effect across all the coal mines in the area last year,” added Gohain.

The public hearing

Meanwhile, Katakey sat in the conference hall of the sub-divisional headquarters in Margherita for two days on March 8 and 9. A protocol officer from Tinsukia District Administration told Eastmojo that the latest public hearing for grievances and issues related with coal mining in the region was taking place for the second time.

“We selected the names of the people who deposed before us in previous round that
happened in February. We published their names in a newspaper advertisement and also made a public announcement urging people to come up with their grievances before Justice Katakey,” said the official.

Interestingly, Monday’s hearing did not see a single representation until a man walked in with a sealed envelope and handed it over to Justice Katakey. Later, the protocol officer told Eastmojo that witnesses and memorialists who would have deposed before the panel did not want to come as election campaigns are on.

“They will be submitting their grievances and issues in a separate affidavit before a judge,” said the officer. The official did not make it clear as to how many people would submit their affidavits to the former judge even as close to 20 people were called to depose before the panel. However, starting March 16 onwards, the panel will conduct another round of public hearings in Guwahati.

Conservation efforts and Dehing Patkai

On Tuesday, local wildlife activist Devajit Moran deposed before the former judge, identifying the areas where illegal mining of coal is rampant. Moran, however, was concerned that his name appeared in the public hearing notice in a local daily.

“I feared that I will be targeted by illegal mining mafia. However, now that I deposed before Justice Katakey, I hope he takes some concrete steps in safeguarding our forests,” Moran told EastMojo.

Incidentally, it was Devajit and his friends in and around Digboi along with their non-profit organization, the Green Bud Society, that started the online campaign to save the Dehing Patkai forest from illegal mining, deforestation and exploitation of hydrocarbons. The activist, however, felt that illicit coal mining and the destruction of the environment is still not an issue during the elections.

“Dehing Patkai’s destruction in last couple of years and destruction of Dibru Saikhowa during the Baghjan oil fire are major issues afflicting the entire Tinsukia district, which has four major legislative assembly constituencies. However, there is no discussion on these issues,” said Moran.

Kishore Mech, an activist with Sanjeevani Northeast Socioeconomic Welfare Society, a non-profit working from Margherita, said that his organization is fighting to protect their environment from the impacts of global warming and local coal mafia.

“We do not want political parties to create division on this aspect as we go to the polls and oppose illegal coal mining in the region,” Mech said.

On the other hand, Mridu Paban Phukan, a senior environmental activist from Tinsukia district, told Eastmojo that even in 2008 and 2009, people expressed their grievances before a panel around the issues related with indiscriminate coal mining.

“However, some organizations took advantage of the loopholes through which illegal mining became rampant in this region and maintained their silence. Therefore, every successive election, coal mining or destruction of our forests in Assam is not an issue,” said Phukan.

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