North Eastern Coalfields is presently operating only the Tirap Colliery - an opencast mine - which has been in the existence since 1983

Tinsukia: The Coal India Limited (CIL) has ordered to “temporarily suspend” all mining operations of North Eastern Coalfields in Assam’s Margherita sub-division.

The move comes amid huge protests to support Dehing Patkai, also known as the ‘Amazon of the east’, on the backdrop of the recommendation of the National Board of Wild Life (NBWL) allowing coal mining in the 98.59-hectare ecologically-fragile Dehing Patkai in Saleki — an elephant reserve and proposed reserve forest. The decision is likely to hit the revenues of Indian Railways and Bokajan cement factory.

Speaking with EastMojo, general manager of North Eastern Coalfields of CIL J K Borah said, “We are incurring a loss of over Rs 100 crore per annum with one project in hand. It is not possible for us to sustain with one project, hence, it has been decided to temporarily suspend all mining operations till the time we get clearance on all the angles for all the projects for which clearances have been sought from the government of Assam.”

North Eastern Coalfields is presently operating only the Tirap Colliery — an opencast mine — which has been in existence since 1983. It produces around 5 lakh tonnes of coal per annum. Tikak Colliery, which produced around 2.2 lakh tonnes of coal per annum, was closed in October last year by the forest department of Assam government.

The order issued by the North Eastern Coalfields of Coal India Limited

“We have issues with the forest department and pollution control board which are yet to be resolved. On top of that, allegations of illegal mining by CIL have devastated the morale of the employees and the image of this Maharatna company,” Borah said, adding: “It has become impossible for us operate in such sort of environment.”

“We have applied for forestry clearances with government of Assam in 2003 as was the norm and subsequently made another application in 2012,” Borah said, adding, “It’s already more than 15 years passed for the clearances and we do not know how many more years will it take for the clearances to come in.”

Refuting allegations of illegal coal mining by NEC, Borah said that there was no need for Coal India Limited to indulge in illegal coal mining and it has never done so. “Whenever we have come across instances of illegal coal mining in the region, we have informed the appropriate state authorities and lodged FIR with the police. Thereafter, it is the duty of the state government to find out who all are involved in illegal mining, expose and punish them. CIL had never stopped government of Assam from doing so,” he said.

According to sources, NEC is a major source for revenue for Northeast Frontier Railway. “This move will not just hamper railway revenues, which is over Rs 100 crore per annum by transportation of coal, but will also soon see the closure of Bokajan cement factory, the only PSU cement factory in Assam beside impacting the revenues of CIL, its employees and growth of local population,” the sources added.

Also Read: OIL exploration in Assam: But at what cost to biodiversity?

Welcoming the decision of CIL, Gauri Borgohain, a professor of Digboi college and a noted environmentalist, said that this was the right opportunity for the government of Assam to conduct a thorough inquiry at the highest level into the illegal coal mining slur and expose those involved.

“We have seen images of rat hole mining, read media reports about rampant illegal mining regularly. There is an image developed that CIL is carrying illegal mining, which may not be necessarily true. There may be others including coal mafias, contractors and politically connected persons behind the illegal mining,” alleged Borgohain, adding, “Hence, a proper inquiry is the need of the hour to expose those involved in illegal mining, be it CIL officials or politically connected persons.”

“If they are not exposed and punished for plundering and destroying the forest cover, illegal mining will continue,” he said.

File picture of illegal coal miners trying to recover dead bodies clandestinely who died in ‘rat hole mining’ inside Reserved Forests of Digboi Forest Division and rat hole mining in the region

Borgohain said that the open cast mining has left a picture of disaster on forest and environment, impacting human lives too. “A portion of rainforest cover — which has been habbitat for various species of wildlife, insects and birds — has been now left damaged due to open cast mining. Several species of plants were yet to be discovered. The forests, formed over thousands years of natural growth, and de-forested today, cannot be formed merely by plantation of few species of plants. Will they bring back the wildlife and migratory bird again?” he asked.

The water and the environment surrounding the projects has been left polluted, making it harmful for human lives. “The drain water at Ledo has turned reddish,” added Borgohain.

According to Borgohain, it is not about mining inside Dehing Patkai wildlife sanctuary, which is merely 111.19 sq km of the rainforest, or outside the sanctuary. “Any mining activity inside the rainforest will be act as a slow poison for the rainforest, extending beyond 800 sq km of area, and was once India-Myanmar bio-diversity hotspot,” he said.

Also Read: Meghalaya govt faces backlash for relaxation on coal transport

“The area of proposed wildlife sanctuary was beyond 500 sq km, but the one notified by government of India is merely 111.19 sq km without clear demarcation, is nothing, but a tokenism in the name of protecting the bio-diversity,” alleged Borgohain.

The government of Assam should ensure no permission is granted for open cast mining in the 98.59 hectares of Dehing Patkai rainforest in Saleki, he said.

Dehing Patkai, the second largest bio-diversity hotspot in the world after Amazon, is spread across 575 sq km of area in the districts of Sivasagar, Dibrugarh and Tinsukia in Assam and also extends to Tirap and Changlang districts of Arunachal Pradesh. It has a five-layered canopy and is the only rainforest in the world where eight species of cat – royal Bengal tiger, leopard, clouded leopard, marbled cat, civet cat, fishing cat, jungle cat and leopard cat — are found together.

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

Also Read: 3 PIL’s on Dehing Patkai open cast mining moved to Gauhati HC

On April 17 this year, an 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.

Earlier, NEC clarified through a press release that the nearest distance of the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary from the project is 9.19 kms and nearest Elephant corridor, Golai Powai is located at a distance of more than 10 kms from the project.

The press release read that in principle approval (Stage-I) clearance was granted in December 2019 by MoEF&CC with 28 conditions. One of the condition for Stage I forest clearance was obtaining clearance from NBWL. Final clearance, which is Stage II for this project is to be granted by MoEF&CC after fulfilment of certain conditions by project proponent, NEC, and then only extraction of coal can be done. Following a meeting in April 2020 the principal conditions were that a site specific mine reclaimation plan in consultation with Assam forest department has to be submitted by NEC for whatever forest area has been broken up, of around 57 hectares, out of total 98.59 hectares. The other condition being for the rest of unbroken area the user agency, NEC, needs to submit feasibility report for exploring underground mining.

“NEC is yet to submit the above report for consideration of MoEF&CC, green signal from NBWL, and forest clearance for the project is yet to be received for starting coal mining activity in Tikak open cast project (OCP),” the press release read.

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