Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary (WLS) controversy, or should I call it Aarey 2.0? It is surprising to see how the masses fall prey to vicious misinformation campaigns run on social media, whose clear aim is to ensure electoral gains for certain political parties. Elections can make the opposition parties create a mountain out of a mole-hill, a controversy out of a non-issue.
The same modus operandi used by woke social media influencers during the Aarey protests is being used by vested interests in Assam to spark an agitation against the incumbent government over a non-existent crisis.
In April, the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) held its 57th meeting, the minutes of which are not yet available in the public domain. It took about three weeks for the protests to gain some ground in Assam, with hashtags of #savedehingpatkai #iamdehingpatkai being thrown around indiscriminately on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
Apparently, someone told them that the NBWL had granted permission to Northeastern Coalfields (NEC) for open-cast coal mining inside the wildlife sanctuary.
This step by the government was wrong. After all, the sanctuary is rich in flora and fauna, home to about 293 species of birds, 30 species of butterflies, 47 species of mammals, 47 of reptiles, and 100 types of orchids.
Except, no such permission was ever given, as evidenced by various news-reports that have emerged ever since. To understand the complexity of the issue and the decision taken by the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) in April, we need to look at the history of the issue.
Dehing Patkai WLS is part of a massive rainforest in Assam- also known as ‘Amazon of the East.’ It is one of 18 WLS in Assam and was formed in 2004. It is also designated as an elephant reserve.
Adjoining the WLS is the Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest (PRF), 98 hectares of land where coal mining has been going on since 1884. Coal was legally mined in Saleki PRF for about 120 years by Coal India Limited (CIL) through its unit North-Eastern Coalfields since 1972.
Its lease expired in 2003, the same year in which the Forest Conservation Act 1980 came into force. The act mandated a two-stage clearance for using forest land for non-forest purposes.
NEC never obtained clearance or renewed its lease until 2012, when they applied for renewal after carrying on illegal mining in the area for nine years.
The Congress government forwarded the proposal to the central government in 2013– the proposal related to open-cast coal mining in Saleki PRF for the entire 98 hectares.
Meanwhile, two meetings of the State Board for Wildlife (SBWL) were held in 2014 and 2016. They found that the proposed area for open cast coal mining was just on the boundary of the 10 km radius of the WLS.
The SBWL did not accept the proposal unconditionally since the area fell within the eco-sensitive zone and imposed compliance with mitigation measures. There was no follow up on these measures since then.
Even though all of this was happening, illegal coal mining did not cease in the area. NEC reapplied for a lease in 2019.
This time, the state government forwarded the proposal to the centre quickly. As a result of this, an expert committee was formed in July 2019 by the NBWL. It consisted of R. Sukumar, then chief wildlife warden of Assam. He warned the committee that a cautious approach towards Dehing Patkai must be maintained.
He also informed the committee that 57 hectares of land had already been broken up by the miners, right from 1884 until 2019.
The remainder of 41 hectares remained unbroken. The committee submitted a site inspection report in November 2019. It was found that 73 hectares of land were broken up, as against the official figure of 57 hectares.
The NEC has maintained that they carried out mining operation within the 57 hectares only. Local miners mined the remaining broken area.
They have also reiterated the fact that the mining area was far away from the elephant corridor, and not a single elephant had ever fallen due to their mining operations.
The state forest department has however said that it was NEC that was carrying out illegal mining in all of the 73 hectares of land.
The NBWL in December 2019 failed to consider the site inspection report and maintained that only 57 hectares of the land was broken up.
The Centre granted conditional Stage-I clearance for mining activities in the broken areas. Stage-II clearance would be given only when NEC complied with 28 conditions, which included depositing a fine for carrying out illegal activities for 16 years, and action against the officials who violated the Forest Conservation Act. The proposal for the rest of the area was rejected.
The NBWL, in January, asked CIL to submit a feasibility report for the unbroken area to conduct underground mining. Any permission will be given only after the report is submitted, and other environmental conditions are met.
In April, they legalised CIL’s proposal to conduct mining in the broken areas once the set of 28 conditions was fulfilled.
NEC has failed to deposit its fine amount of Rs. 43.25 crores, and hence, mining operations have not commenced even in the broken areas. It must be noted that since October 2019, mining operations are on a complete halt. In October 2019, the government also seized about 5,000 metric tons of coal. The state government is also looking to penalise officers who allowed illegal mining, while the mines department will penalise CIL officials. The state government clarified today that the mining area is far away from the Dehing Patkai WLS, but for assurance, they will prepare a report on the area with proper mapping to ensure that the biodiversity of the region remains intact. The NEC recently clarified that they were in the process of fulfilling all their compliance obligations and that mining would remain suspended until they did.
So, this is the whole story in short– Saleki PRF falls outside the WLS, the broken areas are farther away. Mining is on a complete halt since last October, even in the broken areas. Stage-II clearance for mining in the 57 hectares of land will be given upon fulfilment of 28 conditions.
The unbroken areas are being considered for underground mining. Still, there is absolutely no information on how the feasibility report will be prepared, when it will be taken up, and whether or not the proposal will even be accepted.
The only possible concern at the moment is the prospect of Coal India Limited conducting a feasibility study itself so that its own unit can mine the area. The government needs to check this conflict of interest.
As for the protestors, they must introspect whether criticising the state government, which is trying to regularise an illegal activity, is valid.
They were unsurprisingly silent when their beloved Amazon was being destroyed through illegal activities. But with less than a year to the Assam elections, a whole new narrative is being spun. The government must ensure that keyboard warriors do not hijack this narrative. Because if anything, Dehing Patkai is safer now than it ever was.
(The author is a law student of NUJS, Kolkata and the above article was first published on Economyria)