The word ‘kleptocracy’ or ‘cleptocracy’ means rule by thieves. With corruption of all hues and quantum, including massive scams, having come to stay, kleptocracy has acquired the power of bull-dozing all rules, administrative guidelines and the law into the dustbin.
So far as coal mining in Assam is concerned, over the decades, despite mountains of law, rules and directives issued by various authorities, the coal mafia has always been the most powerful player in the field. With money power in astronomical figure under its belt, this player easily wields tremendous authority in virtually all corridors of power.
The coal mafia is clearly notorious for its reach beyond all imaginations to circles dominated by frontline heavyweights of the political, bureaucratic and such realms branded (metaphorically?) as nation-building.
Accordingly, almost as a rule, its comes out highly successful in making use of the medium of kleptocracy like a ‘Brahmashtra’ while twisting all rules, orders and directives according to its whims and fancies.
Since some time Assam has been rocked by an unprecedented uproar by various organizations and nature lovers on illegal coal mining in the vicinity of the bio-diversity hotspot Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary in upper Assam. It has now come to light that hitherto illegal coal mining has been in progress in a free-for-all manner in the area for at least 17 long years under the very nose of the Czars of Dispur and deputy commissioners, superintendents of police and district forest heads of several districts of the region. Is there any possibility of Dispur fixing answerability on some bigwigs and not on just forest guards?
Going by the unraveling of the illegal coal mining activities by the media, it appears that several frontline players are actively engaged in executing shadowy roles in favour of coal extraction at the site at the cost of massive destruction of forest wealth. Besides the state forest department which, in the fitness of things, may be answerable to the people of the state in respect of several major decisions and activities, heavyweight players like the State Board of Wildlife (SBWL) and the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) also seemingly cannot go unscathed so far as the threat to the existence of the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary is concerned.
The Saleki forest belt is the site close to the sanctuary where open cast mining is in progress and the name of coal major Coal India Limited (CIL) crops up in this context as per media reports. While as per law, no mining activity can be allowed within 10 kms of a wildlife sanctuary, as per a statement issued by CIL, the mining site at Saleki is less than 10 kms from the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary.
Several observers are of the view that the state forest authorities ‘misled’ the SBWL in respect of the actual distance. On account of space constraint, it my suffice to point out that the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the Central government clearly observed, “no forest clearance was granted to the mining lease in 2003 or later period but the mining operation has been going on since 2003 in violation of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.”
Meanwhile, several frontline players allegedly involved directly or indirectly in the illegal mining at the Saleki forest range are engaged in mud-slinging at each other in a ‘holier than thou’ gesture.
On the other hand, for over two decades now, conservationists have been demanding to include all contiguous forest areas in the vicinity of the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary within the ambit of the sanctuary. However, that has not happened and the government appears to be committed to keep the rainforest region fragmented possibly under pressure from anti-forest lobbies or coal mafia.
The result being that while the area covered by the original Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve in 2004 was 573 sq km, the sanctuary carved out of the reserve measures only 111.19 sq km. It is indeed an irony that the Dehing Patkai rainforests, officially branded as Assam Valley Tropical Wet Evergreen Forests and housing an extremely rich wildlife, covers an area of 934 sq km across several districts of upper Assam.
Meanwhile, an intense online campaign by several organizations that many have termed as ‘Save Dehing Patkai’ movement has seemingly caught the attention of lakhs across the country.
Unfortunately, the Dispur Sultans appear to be oblivious to the public awakening and protest against such illegal coal mining. The only action that the state government has taken is that a minister has been sent to study the situation at ground zero. Most despicably, the minister only went to the nearby town of Margherita, reportedly met some forest officials and others and returned.
One is only reminded of Thomas Hardy’s famous quote, “money matter works better.” And where the coal mafia is active, one need not question as to who is calling the shots. And the government … well, well, well … certain words may better be left unsaid.