Guwahati: With two parallel protest that raised issues such as conservation of environment and livelihood Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve in Assam’s became the hot topic across the nation. Alongside the prime concerns, it also gave rise to several issues such as illegal coal mining, destruction of forests and rights of the indigenous communities that were earlier slipped under the carpet.
Among the aforementioned issues illegal mining is one of the topics that has resurfaced amid the controversy. Although illegal mining cannot happen without active political patronage. Opposition leader and former MLA of Margherita constituency, Pradyut Bordoloi alleges that the present government is involved in fostering illegal coal mining. He also said that the matter is hushed up since a large group of media is also involved in it.
“The present government don’t have any qualms for plundering the natural resources so as a result since 2016 all the coal mafias emerged who took excavators to the wildlife sanctuary specially in the southern part that includes Dirok, Lekhajan, Namtok, etc. which are parts of the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary and the rainforests and started open cast mining. The most dangerous part which is not known because everybody is involved including a large part of the media because everybody is benefitting out of it. Unless police facilitate, such nexus cannot exist. There is another dimension of rat-hole coal mining that sprang up everywhere where poor daily wage earners mostly from lower Assam are engaged at a comparatively better wage which is 40 per cent more than what they would earn in any part of Assam so it is quite a lucrative,” Bordoloi said during an interview with EastMojo.
He also he mentioned that the department of geology and mining of the government of Assam filed 8 FIRs between 2018 to 2020 against illegal mining one of which named 18 persons who are allegedly kingpins of the mining nexus. However, no action was taken by the police. He also stated that hundreds of trucks were plying through the streets of Margherita carrying illegally mined coal even during lockdown.
There are also words on the street alleging the involvement of the former minister of forest in illegal coal mining. On being asked about the same, Bordoloi claimed that the green cover of the area has reduced specifically after 2016 while he was very strict during his regime as the MLA or Forest Minister.
“If I was a part of that, why did I establish the protected areas? It is because I was very concerned and now BJP is running it, that is why I have challenged everyone to see how the destruction of forest is taking place. Compare the satellite imagery of the area from 2001 to 2016. If on one side we keep images from 2001 to 2016 and on the other 2016 to 2020, you will see a striking difference. But no one is taking up the challenge. I was always very strict and never allowed the coal mafia to destruct the reserve forest and the rain forest. But one thing I have always said that, when there are existing coal mines, there are petty thefts which are there and you cannot stop it because of the biotic pressure but never ever allowed illegal coal mining and I have the courage of the conviction to say that,” Bordoloi claimed.
We also spoke to Minister for Forests, Parimal Suklabaidya who had surveyed the area after the controversy surfaced. Like the locals, he also denies existence of an elephant corridor near Tikak Colliery.
“There is a characteristic among elephants that if their ancestors have travelled through a certain path, it will also go through that path. You will see an elephant suddenly appearing in an area after 10 years. This is one of the strengths in them to find their paths. 98 ha of area means around 700 bighas. If there was a corridor in these areas, then if someone is saying that mining has been legal coal mining, how were they allowed to operate? Since the specialists of our department are aware of the existence of elephant corridor so we have asked them to trace the existence of elephant corridors along with GPS mapping and give it to us. If Coal India succeeds in fulfilling all the 28 conditions, the findings of the department will be raised. But as per my knowledge there is no elephant corridor near Tikak colliery,” Suklabaidya said.
While on one hand he mentioned that the government will not allow operations at the cost of the forest, on the other hand he also indicated that mining in the area will continue since Coal India already has mining lease. He however tried to steer clear of the controversy saying thet the permission was not provided by the present government.
“Mining permission in areas such as Margaerita, Patkai – some part of which is in Arunachal Pradesh – have already been given to Coal India till 2023. So mining will continue. It is a different matter that Coal India has suspended its operations. But they already have the mining permission which meaning they have the permission to conduct coal mining in Dehing Patkai and it was not provided by our government. There are several rainforests and forest areas that are still there and the forest department is working towards their conservation. In comparison to 2017, green coverage in Assam has increased by 222sq km which is not said by me but by a report from Delhi after conducting a satellite survey. Our government will keep trying to create an eco-friendly environment not just Dehing Patkai but across Assam and whether it is stage 1 or stage 2 we will not allow mining at the cost of our valuable trees,” the forest minister stated.
Coal found in Margherita contains very low ash and high sulphur content. Ash content in the coal here is around 3.31 per cent, total sulphur content is close to 3 per cent or more and organic sulphur around 2.16 per cent. This makes it very valuable in the market.
Those supporting coal mining have routinely questioned whether or not the Dehing Patkai wildlife sanctuary falls within the ‘Eco Sensitive Zone’. Deboshree Gogoi, assistant professor of Digboi college who spearheaded #iamdehingpatkai movement says that Saleki is very much a part of the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve.
“I believe the name Dehing Patkai has been rightly used in this campaign because the disputed area which is the Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest is very much part of the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve. Moreover, there are three other proposals that are waiting for a nod from the government. These three proposals are the Tipong Open Cast Mining Project, Lekhapani Open Cast Mining Project and Jagun block Open Cast Project and all these three projects fall under the reserve forest land that is why I think it tries to highlight the threats that is associated with the rainforest and is rightly used to aware the people about the rainforest,” Gogoi mentioned to EastMojo.
BATTLE FOR LIVELIHOOD
Amid the tussle, there are around 2000 people working with Coal India and various mining companies whose livelihood is at stake. The figure excludes numerous daily wage earners who used to work in the coal mines.
55-year-old Umesh Choudhury who has been working in a mining company since 1984 is now jobless. He fears that he will meet the same fate as the other industries in Assam that have been shut down.
“Forest department on October 24, 2019 announced closure of the Tikak Colliery and since then operations in the colliery have been suspended. Following this around 1,200 workers and employees working with NE Mining Company have been jobless. All of us have families, children, there are also many who have been staying rented house and due to this situation how one is feeding the family or paying for the education of the children, it is hard to describe. If we are to present a picture of our current situation, there are many who have indulged into daily wage earning, many of us are doing petty jobs to feed their families. The employees of all government run industries that has been shut down till date, none of them have been provided with any other alternate job opportunity. They are still struggling. If coal mining is banned, all the industries supported by it will be forced to shut down. What will be the livelihood option for all these people?” Choudhury said.
With the suspension of mining operations in Tirap colliery since June 3, it is reported that employees of Coal India Limited have been given the option to choose their choice of location to be transferred to. This leaves the future of the labourers and those associated with the mining companies in uncertainty.
THE OVERLOOKED INDEGENOUS
Alongside the struggle to save the environment and the battle for one’s livelihood the people of the indigenous communities of the region allege that their rights have been overlooked. Those residing on the hills are fighting for the basics, proper roads, education and healthcare.
Tehon Akhun, Headman of Malugaon 3 in Ledo says that the tribals in the area are discriminated.
“They only turn towards us when they need our support. They discriminate us and don’t want our villages to be developed since we are Nagas. Even if a scheme is sanctioned, it is implemented in other areas. During elections they promise to construct proper roads, etc. but nothing has been provided till date. We don’t get job opportunities or even water supply. Coal India has provided us few things. They had also built a school. For the last 5 years the government has been saying that they will renovate the infrastructure but nothing has been done so far. Even vehicles cannot ply on the roads here whereas people travel on air-conditioned cars. The government likes see us in shambles. They laugh at our apathy whereas they make all the money from coal. If we protest or create hindrance in coal transportation they send the army to scare us and threaten the youth. They create so much trouble that we cannot even sleep at night. We had even asked the army not to disturb us and handle everything peacefully but they say that they have pressure from the top,” Akhun said.
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Raju Deuri, a social activist who has been voicing the apathy of the tribals in the area also says that they have been subjected to discrimination. He demands the implementation of Forest Rights Act, 2006 and Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989 to safeguard the rights of the indigenous tribes.
“Equality as per the constitution does not exist in India. People of the Tangsha have been residing in the area since 1887 but it is unfortunate that they still don’t have land rights. The government should survey and record the area but it has failed to comply its duties as per the law. We are demanding the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006. For that a committee should be formed on sub-division level but that committee has never been formed in Tinsukia and Margherita. Since the committee has not been formed, so the government does not know who we are or what we are. In fact, we are the owners of the soil. We are the aboriginals of this particular area. Yet, we are deprived of everything be it education or government job. We get contractual job but then we are ousted after 2-3 years. We always say that tribal are discriminated, tribal are exploited, tribal are supressed, tribals are manipulated and it is absolutely true. But the departments and the minister have turned a blind eye towards us. As of today we have two demands – the government should conduct a survey as per the forest act and give us the permit and secondly, why have we been deprived whereas they are mining coal around the area? Are we not human being? Secondly Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989. Here in Tirap belt there are false cases filed. I am saying that because the youth in the area are jailed based on cooked up stories. If we go to Coal India asking for a job, just because of our tone, they term us as terrorists and sent us jail based. Due to this many of our people have migrated to Arunachal Pradesh,” Deuri mentioned.
Margherita continues to be the battle ground with different sides with their concerns over environment, economy, livelihood and equality clashing against each other, the core of the matter remains the sulphur rich black diamond underneath the surface of the town. Whether or not coal mining should be, the court will take its own course of judgement but the struggle is certainly a delicate one between protecting the rainforests for the future and livelihood of locals.