Coal mining in Margherita dates back to pre-Independence era
Coal mining in Margherita dates back to pre-Independence era |EastMojo Image
DOCUMENTARY

Coal mining in Dehing Patkai wildlife sanctuary: The inside story

Amid two parallel protests -- one to protect environment & wildlife and the other to save livelihood -- EastMojo's latest documentary takes stock of prevailing situation

Kalyan Deb

Kalyan Deb

Mukut Medhi

Margherita: There are two parallel protests taking place in Assam. One is on social media and the other on the streets of Margherita town in Assam. One is to save the environment and wildlife and the other to save Coal India Limited (CIL) and the livelihood of around 2,000 people.

Amid the protests Coal India has come under the scanner for alleged illegal mining for over 10 years now.

THE CAUSE CELEBRE

Coal mining in Margherita dates back to pre-independence era but Coal India was given a 30-year lease to carry out its operations only in 1973. The lease expired in 2003.

According to the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, Coal India had to attain a clearance from the forest department which it didn’t. Now, after 17 years, a Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife has recommended approval to Coal India Limited’s operations.

This decision took social media by storm, giving birth to a movement to save forests of Dehing Patkai. Top celebrities like Dia Mirza, Adil Hussain, Joy Baruah and several others lent their voices to the popular movement. Two Public Interest Litigations (PILs) and a suo moto case were filed at Gauhati High Court and another in the Supreme Court against Coal India.

The petitioners alleged that Coal India carried out illegal coal mining in 98.59 ha area of the Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest from 2003 to 2020 without prior approval of the Central government. This causes several damages to the ecology of Saleki proposed reserve forest by conducting open cast mining and violating the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 among many others.

The term Dehing Patkai is derived from two entities - the river Dehing which runs through the rainforest and the Patkai hills. The total area of 937 sq km is a combination of several rainforests or reserve forests. They include Dilli Reserve Forest, Jeypore Reserve Forest, Upper Dehing West, Dirak, Tokuani, Kokajan, Upper Dehing East, Nalani, Philobari, Doomdoma, Hahkati, Kumsang, Tarani, Buradehing, Kotha, Lekhapani, Tirap and Tinkupani. Saleki lies along the Assam-Arunachal border here.

Although the ongoing controversy is regarding coal mining in and around Saleki proposed reserved forest, environmentalists say that the entire area was originally an elephant habitat.

Guwahati-based environmentalist, Moloy Baruah, says that the demarcation of Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary was constricted due to several vested interests as several surrounding forest areas were excluded from the wildlife sanctuary.

“Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary came in 2004 with an area of 111 sq km. Actually, there was a big gap between demand and the actual announcement. Unfortunately, the forest department gave a wrong picture that the adjacent forests to the existing Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary i.e. Dirok, Upper Dehing and Joypore reserves are not in a condition that could be handed over as wildlife sanctuary. That was not correct at that time but, now of course, the picture has changed. Even now the Joypore sanctuary which has a 100 sq. km patches of forests are available, and only 10 per cent of the forest has been destructed. That means Joypore should be declared as a wildlife sanctuary separated from Dehing Patkai with that 19 sq. km area. That is a viable proposal and it should go on to the notice of the government and the chief minister of Assam, otherwise it will also go,” said Baruah.

Another factor that added to the controversy is a report by WI Yatbon, deputy inspector general of forests, Shillong that was submitted to the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change following a site inspection at Tikok Open Cast Mining Project. It revealed that that 16 of the unbroken 41.39 ha area had already been cleared leaving only 25.39 ha as unbroken. The matter came to fore through a reply of an RTI filed by environment activist Rohit Choudhury.

This also created a rift between the Standing Committee of National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) and the Assam State Board for Wildlife (SBWL). Bibhab Kumar Talukdar, a member of the SBWL, had to issue a clarification note since SBWL was being blamed for supporting NBWL in providing the first phase clearance to Coal India.

Coal mining at Margherita
Coal mining at Margherita EastMojo Image

“For any developmental project generally if it is a forest area having some wildlife significance specially for national parks and wildlife sanctuaries the opinion of State Board of Wildlife is needed by the standing committee of the National Board of Wildlife in order to decide the final step. But the power to accord permission lies with the NBWL. So these are the processes and sometimes for forest clearances, if any developmental project is being proposed in a reserve forest or a proposed reserve forest then generally it goes to the advisory committee of government of India. So, if the state board says yes the central government can always say no and even if the state board says no the central government may say yes because the ultimate power lies with the central government and the NBWL. Now there is being a high court case and the Gauhati High Court has also taken a Suo Moto case so the court will look into those thing because there are issues with regard to information being given to different committees and the recent statement by forest department and Coal India doesn’t actually tally. So let Gauhati High Court take its own course of judgemental views and we are very much hopeful that the court will look into all these matters,” Talukdar mentioned to EastMojo.


The term Dehing Patkai is derived from two entities - the river Dehing which runs through the rainforest and the Patkai hills
The term Dehing Patkai is derived from two entities - the river Dehing which runs through the rainforest and the Patkai hills EastMojo Image

IN SEARCH OF THE REASONING

In order to get to the root of the issue, the EastMojo team headed towards the coal-rich town of Assam.

To reach Margherita, we had to travel a distance of around 540 kilometres from Guwahati crossing Kaziranga, Jorhat, Sivasagar and Dibrugarh.

The next morning, our first destination was Tikok Colliery where mining has been suspended since October 2019.

According to the website of Northeastern Coalfields, Tikok Colliery was established in 1986 and the entire controversy of open cast mining began from here.

Tikok became a familiar name after Coal India and National Board for Wildlife came under the scanner for allegedly presenting manipulated data of the actual area used for mining. Environmentalists claim that the broken patches of forest areas along with Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary were earlier elephant corridors.

The current situation however is a part of the linear impact on the environment due to industrialisation activities in and around the area.

Locals of the area, however, say that they have not seen elephants for generations, which contradicts one of the core issues raised by environmentalists.

We spoke to Ranajyoti Neog, a journalist and secretary, Margherita Journalists’ Association.

“One of the most talked about issues on social media is that Saleki elephant corridor and coal mining will be done in an elephant corridor. We had attended a press conference a few days ago held by the indigenous communities such as Tangsha, Sema, Singpho, Tai Phake, Tai Khamyang, etc. All of them claimed that the existence of an elephant corridor is misleading since they have not seen elephants around here for generations. If the indigenous communities are saying so, the locals will also relate to the same and if asked for my opinion, even I will say that I have never heard of the existence of elephants in these areas. The situation has been designed to create a dispute,” said Neog, secretary, Margherita Journalists’ Association.

After talking to Neog, the EastMojo team decided to reach out to the indigenous communities and get their side of the story. On the foothills of Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest and we found Saleki Gaon or Saleki Village. The village headman, however, wanted to stay clear of the controversy.

“I understand but talking too much won’t be good. Everyone watches the news and I have been repeating the same thing. Everyone knows everything and yet keep on asking us. What else should I say?” the headman said.

Locals, however, say that they have not seen elephants for generations, which contradicts one of the core issues raised by environmentalists
Locals, however, say that they have not seen elephants for generations, which contradicts one of the core issues raised by environmentalists EastMojo Image

A LOUD PAUSE

Our second day, there were protests in Margherita. People from different associations and organisations demanded resumption of mining in Tikok and Tirap collieries. This was after Coal India suspended its operations in Tirap - the only functioning colliery in the area - since June 7.

“If an industry shuts down, its affects are felts by the people where the industry has been functioning. There are around 1200 people working here which was earlier 6000 and now has been reduced to 1204 but including migrant and contractual workers, the numbers will go up to around 4000. Along with it the Vivekananda Kendra Vidyalaya which is associated with Coal India will shut down, the central nursing home will turn into a dispensary since the specialists will be transferred. Lakhs of people will be affected economically since everyone is associated with the industry in one way or the other since there are contractors and labourers working with them,” said Raju Borthakur, president, Northeast Coal Labourers’ Association.The local journalist association was also supporting and taking part in the protest.

The EastMojo team also tried to speak to Jugal Kumar Borah, general manager of Northeastern Coalfields, but he refused to speak to media. However, sources in Coal India highlighted few important things.

The sources in Coal India denied of any illegal mining in the area. The PSU had applied for nine leases of which only three leases were suspended which did not include Margherita. So it was assumed that the government had not suspended their operations.The local journalist association was also supporting and taking part in the protest.

The EastMojo team also tried to speak to Jugal Kumar Borah, general manager of Northeastern Coalfields, but he refused to speak to media. However, sources in Coal India highlighted few important things.

The sources in Coal India denied of any illegal mining in the area. The PSU had applied for nine leases of which only three leases were suspended which did not include Margherita. So it was assumed that the government had not suspended their operations.

The blast site
The blast site EastMojo Image

The local journalist association was also supporting and taking part in the protest.

The EastMojo team also tried to speak to Jugal Kumar Borah, general manager of Northeastern Coalfields, but he refused to speak to media. However, sources in Coal India highlighted few important things.

The sources in Coal India denied of any illegal mining in the area. The PSU had applied for nine leases of which only three leases were suspended which did not include Margherita. So it was assumed that the government had not suspended their operations.They also mentioned about paying taxes to the state government every year since 2003 and the entire issue has been designed to cover up anomalies by the forest department and the state government.

Our next stop was the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary. Although we could not spot any animals but we did meet a team of forest officials who were on a combing operation in the area.

The team of forest officials, who have been on a combing operation, stated that they have not been able to find any trace of elephant in and around the area. However, they also found existence of rat-hole mines which were illegally dug up by unknown miscreants.

Illegal mining in the area is another factor that on one hand has been allegedly filling pockets of many for years but on the other hand has been corroding the environment and economy of the area. Although off camera everyone talks about it but on camera the situation is dealt with sheer diplomacy.

Glimpse of unabated coal mining
Glimpse of unabated coal mining EastMojo Image

They also mentioned about paying taxes to the state government every year since 2003 and the entire issue has been designed to cover up anomalies by the forest department and the state government.

Our next stop was the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary. Although we could not spot any animals but we did meet a team of forest officials who were on a combing operation in the area.

The team of forest officials, who have been on a combing operation, stated that they have not been able to find any trace of elephant in and around the area. However, they also found existence of rat-hole mines which were illegally dug up by unknown miscreants.

Illegal mining in the area is another factor that on one hand has been allegedly filling pockets of many for years but on the other hand has been corroding the environment and economy of the area. Although off camera everyone talks about it but on camera the situation is dealt with sheer diplomacy.

Public protest in Margherita
Public protest in Margherita EastMjo Image

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