Guwahati: History has repeated itself, this time in the Northeast, where citizens are taking to streets demanding preservation of another green corridor. Referring to the Sal Bagan area as the ‘pride’ of Dabaka in Assam, residents have rerun the ‘Chipko’ Andolan of the 1970s, where people had carried out a non-violent movement to protect trees in Uttarakhand.

The National Highway Authority of India’s recent proposal to cut down 5000-7000 Sal trees in Assam’s Dabaka has evoked massive outrage among inhabitants of Hojai and nearby regions. 

Locals say that a 13-km stretch of road linking Hojai district to Karbi Anglong, famous for its Bagan of Sal trees (apart from Teak, Champaka, Indian Mahogany, Bagnala, Bhatghila, Myrobalan, Taro, Elephant fruit, and a host of other medicinal herbs) has been demarcated for felling in a bid to expand the present two-lane highway that passes through the Dabaka Forest Reserve. 

Referring to the Sal Bagan area as the ‘pride’ of Dabaka, residents have rerun the ‘Chipko’ Andolan of the 1970s

What locals say

“We have submitted a memorandum to the PM, President of India and the CM at the DC office against the proposal to conduct the four-lane in Dabaka and we have been protesting for about a week now,” Jahangir Alam, General Secretary, AASU Hojai Unit told EastMojo informing that most student organizations of Assam have written to the government. On October 26, the All Assam Minorities Students’ Union had also staged a protest against the issue.

Elaborating on the grievance, Saddam Hussein Talukdar, a resident and General Secretary of another student body – Hojai District Students Union – told EastMojo that the Dabaka to Diphu road will be made into a four-lane and be expanded. “They have done markings for cutting down these trees. After we saw the markings we realised that the trees were going to be slashed.”

The local student leader further informed that surveys were conducted for alternate routes. “The NH authorities had done it, we had seen but only after marking was done, we realised this. The residents of the other site are willing to give their land for the project to save the forest but because it would cost them (the Highway authorities) more, the government is taking this route. At least 7,000-10,000 trees, including some that are over a Century-old and thousands of medicinal plants, will all be cut down,” Talukdar added.

At least 7,000-10,000 trees, including some that are over a Century old and some thousands of medicinal plants, will all be cut down

The forest has been home to nearly 600 residents, angered at the fact that the department did not feel the need to ask them before deciding to destroy their environment. 

Sal is one of the most sought-after timber and if trees are cut down, this would be worth a lot! Moreover, Sal forests have a very different ecosystem. Apart from student organizations, various NGOs have also raised their voices against the issue. The Assam Environment NGO Forum, a collective of 12-13 green groups, have appealed to the government to rethink the plan so the Dabaka Reserve Forest is safe. “The government will have to listen to the voices of the people because COP26 is approaching and this decision will put us in a bad light in front of the international community,” Environmentalist Mubina Akhtar told EastMojo.

Also read: Assam: Protests against Dabaka deforestation intensify

Man-Elephant conflict 

In May this year, 18 elephants were found dead in the Tapotjuri area, not far from Dabaka, said Mubina, calling it a very important Elephant habitat as there are seven Elephant corridors in the area between Karbi Anglong and Nagaon district. The forest is also the habitat of pangolins, porcupines, leopards, deer, snakes of various species, hornbills, and many others.

“This stretch is very important because the forest cover in the area has been decreasing at a very alarming rate, and the elephant-human conflict has increased. Between January and October, at least 10 people were killed in just that area bordering Karbi Anglong and Nagaon district. This has mainly occurred due to infrastructure development projects,” Akhtar explained.

The forest is also home to an endangered species of monkey – The Hoolock Gibbon – that does not set foot on the ground and only swings on trees. “At present, despite the two-lane, Trees have made a panel there making it easy for these monkeys to pass through but a four-lane would make that extremely difficult for the already endangered species,” Rahmat Ali, a wildlife conservationist, told EastMojo.

The forest is also home to an endangered species of monkey – The Hoolock Gibbon – that does not set foot on the ground and only swings on trees

Was the State Wildlife Advisory Board consulted?

Another issue that bothers environmentalists is if the State Wildlife Advisory Board had any knowledge of the proposal. Alleging that the Forest Department is ‘playing pretend’, Mubina said, “The forest department knew about it but still the DFO said they will be approaching the government.”

“Why do you have to approach the government when you are the implementing agency?” she questioned. 

The Forest Reserve in Dabaka is a native forest and not a plantation, which is another reason why it needs to be preserved. “Some stretches across Assam have been given to private parties who usually are given an upper hand at plantations. There is always pressure on the forest department. Degraded forests are where people go for plantation and heavy corruption goes on in the department.” she further alleged. 

An alternate route 

Mentioning the alternate route that residents mentioned was surveyed by the National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Ltd. (NHIDCL), Rahmat Ali said, “The road connecting Assam to Myanmar (NH-36 from Dabaka) that comes towards us is the NH-54. Even ahead of this there is a forest reserve called the Lumding Forest Reserve.”

What is worth mentioning here is that this road connects with the Kaziranga National Park and many animals from the region seek shelter here when Kaziranga floods after incessant rains during peak monsoons. One part of this forest is in Hojai district and the other is in the Karbi Anglong District that shares a border with Lumding.

Survey of India map of the optional road burigaon baya medistreem of the Tapotjurigaon then Nijparkhowa (2009)

Lumding is already an Elephant Project, it was declared in 1985. Sharing a map of Survey of India 2009 and the recent satellite map Rahmat Ali explained that the optional road is just 300 to 400 meters away from the proposed one, where there is a village settlement. Villagers are willing to give their land for construction of the road, he added.

“Before reaching the Dabaka Forest Reserve, there is a village called Burigaon. If a road is constructed from there, towards north of the Jamuna river all the way through Tapotjuri Forest Village, this road would connect the highway again at Nijparkhowa. This would not only save the Elephant corridor but also many other animal corridors and wildlife habitat,” Rahmat Ali, Director of the Northeast Biodiversity Conservation and Resource Centre who also holds a Guinness world record for his methods of propagation and preservation. 

The Forest Department’s Version

To dismiss any speculations, get information from the horse’s mouth and delve deeper into what was really happening in Dabaka after several failed attempts of trying to get a response from the DFO and forest officials of Hojai, EastMojo approached the Minister of Forest and Environment, Parimal Suklabaidya

Satellite map of the Dabaka stretch

On the demarcation of trees, the minister clarified saying, “We are still conducting a census of how many trees there are and after that we will assess how many of these trees will fall on the route; we also want to try and preserve as many trees as possible. At the same time we are also trying to figure out how to make the road. The road is also very important, only then people will be able to commute, so both are essential. We are trying to find out a way so that there is minimum deforestation and infrastructural development.”

“We have not received any alternate proposal from NHIDCL and I am not aware of any other survey that has been done. We will not be able to divert the road because of where the road leads to. If there is an alternate route we have to conduct a survey, find out who has land there and all that information has to be collected. This proposal has to come from NHIDCL or PWD because they are doing the work,” Suklabaidya told Eastmojo.

Further, on whether the forest department gave clearance for the project, he said that the same had not been given yet because they saw the amount of loss. “Naturally the Forest Department will try to preserve the forest, but we also cannot hinder road construction.”

Credits: Mrinmoy Boro | Doboka Reserve Forest Facebook Page

“When people allege that the Forest Department does not have their best interests, how are the seven thousand trees still there? It was the department that has over the years protected and looked after the biodiversity of the area,” Suklabaidya added, reassuring that the forest department will provide protection to the forest. 

“All I would like to say to the public is that you keep fighting for the conservation of the forest, it is a good thing to protest for that. We, on the other hand, will keep our efforts to protect the forest too,” said the minister, acknowledging people’s concerns towards environmental conservation in the state.

Also read: Assam: Protests against govt’s proposal to fell 5,000 trees for four-lane project

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