Tinsukia: The forest department of Assam on Wednesday has upgraded and notified Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary as a national park, the seventh national park of the state, making Assam the second state with the highest number of national parks in the country.

“Notification of the national park includes areas falling within the existing Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary along with all the additional Reserve Forests i.e. Upper Dehing RF (West Block) and Jeypore RF. However, the Forest Village area diverted under Forest Conservation Act has been excluded. Short stretches of Dirak and Buri Dehing rivers falling within this contiguous patch of proposed National Park have been included,” a press note by the forest department stated.

It said, “Preliminary notified on 01.12.2020, proclamations were issued on 01.01.2021 by the deputy commissioners of Tinsukia and Dibrugarh, after no claims were received and Dehing Patkai was finally notified as a National Park, following due process as outlined in the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.”

Popularly known as the Dehing Patkai Rain Forest, it has unique floral and faunal diversity, which was recognised by the Government of Assam in 2004, when 111.19 sq. km. of this area was notified as Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary. 

“Forest and wildlife conservation have now been strengthened here by adding another 123.07 sq. km. to the original sanctuary area and conferring National Park status to 234.26 sq. km, with the highest level of protection available under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972,” the forest department said.

It added: The newly notified National Park shall be administered by Soraipung Range of Digboi Division and Jeypore Range of Dibrugarh Division, both falling under Conservator, Eastern Assam Circle, who shall be notified as Director of Dehing Patkai National Park. For intensive patrolling and conservation of the new area, additional Anti-Poaching Camps and manpower is being provided by the Govt. of Assam.

The development came three days after the chief minister of Assam Himanta Biswa Sarma declared Raimona Sanctuary into a national park, on the occasion of World Environment Day, and months after former Assam CM Sarbandanda Sonowal directed officials of the forest department to take necessary steps to upgrade the Dehing Patkai wildlife sanctuary into a national park in July 2020.

The other national parks in Assam are – Kaziranga, Manas, Nameri, Orang and Dibru-Saikhowa. 

Welcoming the notification, Prof Gauri Buragohain, an environmentalist, said the decision would be a milestone in putting a check on illegal coal mining.

“The national park status will not just play a key role in protecting the forest and wildlife of Dehing Patkai—the Amazon of the East—but will bring it on a global map and open a sea of opportunities for local unemployed youths in the tourism sector,” he added.

Buragohain, who is involved deeply in preserving Dehing Patkai forest, added that way back, attempts had been made by the then divisional forest officer Ranjan Das to submit a proposal for national park status for Dehing Patkai. “A meeting was held but it hit roadblocks.”

The importance of Dehing Patkai

Dehing Patkai, dubbed the “Amazon of the East”, is the second-largest bio-diversity hotspot in the world. Spread across 575 sq km area in the districts of Sivasagar, Dibrugarh and Tinsukia and also extended to Tirap and Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh, this rainforest has a 5 layered canopy and is the only forest in the world where 8 species of cats —royal Bengal tiger, leopard, clouded leopard, marbled cat, civet cat, fishing cat, jungle cat and leopard cat—are found together. 

The rainforest, described as a jewel of forest and wildlife, has hornbills of different varieties, more than 300 species of birds, more than an equal number of species of butterflies, reptiles, hoolock gibbons, around 50 species of snakes, orchids, some with medicinal value, medicinal plants, flora and fauna among others.

The Assam state bird, state tree and state flower are found in this rainforest.

Coal mining & Dehing Patkai

The allegations of rampant coal mining inside the fragile and pristine Dehing Patkai biodiversity is not new for the residents of Assam, compelling the then chief minister of Assam Sarbananda Sonowal, to constitute a one-man inquiry committee of former Gauhati High Court Judge, Brajendra Prasad Katakey, to investigate into the allegations of illegal coal mining and destruction of biodiversity in Dehing Patkai since 2003.

Illegal mining of coal inside Dehing Patkai

The development came on a day the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) released the minutes of the meeting held on July 3 through video-conferencing stating that Coal India Limited (CIL) had opened up and mined 16 hectares of forest area in Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve.

On July 18, 2020, the chief minister’s office tweeted: “CM Shri @sarbanandsonwal has constituted an one-man inquiry commission of former Gauhati High Court Judge Shri Brajendra Prasad Katakey.” The commission will investigate allegations of illegal coal mining and the destruction of biodiversity in #DehingPatkai since 2003.

Earlier, professor Gauri Buragohain, an environmentalist and a professor of Digboi College, said, “Illegal coal mining has already damaged the Dehing Patkai to a great extent, something beyond repairable. Deforestation and encroachment have only added to the worries.”

It is still going on and not a new thing, proving to be a threat to the rainforest.

According to a report submitted to National Board for Wildlife authorities, Coal India Limited (CIL) has been carrying out mining in 57.02 hectares of the forest reserve for several years without obtaining any permission.

On April 17 same year, NBWL’s standing committee meeting, which was presided over by the Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Prakash Javadekar, and conducted via video conference, recommended new mining activities in the forest reserve, leaving activists and wildlife researchers concerned about the move.

Days earlier, amid the lockdown, the NBWL’s Standing Committee discussed a proposal for use of 98.59 hectares of land from the proposed reserve forest for a coal-mining project by North-Eastern Coal Field (NECF), a unit of the Coal India Ltd, compelling a group of 305 conservationists and professionals, from across the Northeast, to write to Javadekar, expressing their concerns over the diversion of 98.59 hectares land of Saleki proposed reserve forest for a coal-mining project in Upper Assam. 

Saleki is a proposed reserve forest and an elephant reserve inside Dehing Patkai.

The development also came close on the heels of the Assam government’s decision to upgrade the Dehing Patkai wildlife sanctuary into a national park, and amid allegations of illegal coal syndicate active in Margherita under political patronage, prompting Assam students and professor to launch an online campaign, “I am Dehing Patkai”, to save it from rampant illegal coal mining.

I am Dehing Patkai – Online campaign to save the rainforest

In 2020, Assam students with environmentalist took to social media and blew online bugle to save Dehing Patkai from rampant illegal coal mining. 

I am Dehing Patkai – became more than a slogan and gained traction across the state and even at the national level. 

Prof Gauri Buragohain said people, including environmentalist and researchers, need to come out and raise their voice in support of the rainforest. “If we do not do something now, perhaps the coming generation will never forgive us.”

A collage of students of Doomdooma college viral on Watsapp reads: Take care of the trees they will take care of you. stop coal mining at Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve.

I am Dehing Patkai campaign by students of Doomdooma College

“Nature is important. Because nature is there, so are we,” a disappointed Banashree Bailung, a student of BA 4th semester told this correspondent amid the online campaign in the year 2020, underlining the far-reaching consequences of the recent developments related to coal mining.

Bailing said, just for the benefit of some, we cannot allow others to damage nature. “This is unacceptable.”

“Dehing Patkai is not just one among other reserve forests, it is an emotion. Everyone knows it. I have been there, it is so beautiful and evergreen.” said Bailung, adding that due to lockdown we could not take out a protest march, hence, we took it to the social media to register our opposition to coal mining in any part of Dehing Patkai. 

“If the government doesn’t hear us, we will hit the streets, but won’t allow nature to be killed.”

Banashree Bailung, a student of BA 4th semester

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