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Coal Mining in the Dihing Patkai: A Quest to Save the Last Surviving Amazon of the East

Since the beginning of the year 2020, the globe has seen massive events happening everywhere on Earth. From Australian bush fires, super cyclones, global pandemic, global recession, wild protests, and communal riots and locust swarms sweeping across countries, this year has indeed proven itself to be a Satan’s year.

In India, COVID-19 combined with the already dwindling economy has threatened the government to undertake certain drastic measures which hugely cost the country’s resources and unfortunately lives and livelihoods. India has witnessed the largest mass migration and hardship of laborers across the country since the partition of 1947. But as the virus pandemic sweeps across the country with active cases at an all-time high, the northeast part of India is facing a new threat. But this time it’s not a threat from nature. Its a threat from the government’s approval to begin coal mining in the premises of the last surviving evergreen rainforest of East India, the Dihing Patkai Rainforest Reserve.

What is Dihing Patkai?

Spread across a region of 111.19 square kilometers between the plains of upper Assam and the snow-capped mountains of Arunachal Pradesh, the Dihing Patkai Rainforest is the last surviving perennial rainforest in entire East India. Named after the second largest tributary of river Brahmaputra and the Patkai hill range, Dihing Patkai is the home to the rarest species of big cats like the Clouded Leopard, Golden Cat, Royal Bengal Tiger, primate species like the Assamese Macaque, Northern Slow Loris, Stump tailed Macaque and endangered Western Hoolock Gibbon including various species of birds like the Great Hornbill, Wreathed Hornbill, Oriental Pied Hornbill and Rufous-necked Hornbill, Ruddy Kingfisher, Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher, White Breasted Kingfisher and so much more. It also houses the rarest and indigenous orchids not found anywhere else in the world. As per Shannon-Weiner Index for biodiversity richness, the state of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam tops the list for the highest varieties of shrub and herb species found all across India. Most importantly, the Dihing Patkai rainforest houses the international elephant corridor of the grand Asiatic Elephant, that wanders across South East Asia.

The Dehing River, the only source of water, that supplies water to various towns and villages in the region, including Duliajan, a small township from where I belong. Across the river on the southern bank is Naharkatia, a small town home to some of the largest oil fields in northeast India. Beyond Naharkatia, lies huge patches of wetlands (beels) and then lies the last major township called Namrup beyond which lies the Joypore range of Dehing Patkai Rainforest Reserve, or the western entrance into the forest.

Further in the northeast surrounded by the same forest lies Digboi, home to the first oil fields in Asia. The British discovered oil in this place back in the 1800s and even today it holds the largest oil reserve in entire northeast India. A few kilometers away, just on the periphery of the forest lies another small town called Margherita which is also the head office of the Coal India Limited currently operating open-cast mining in the former virgin forest of Ledo and Saleki. Wait why did I mention all these places? It’s because all these major towns and villages are located in the vicinity of this forest and directly or indirectly dependent on it. It is also quite common to occasionally find endangered animals from the forest in any of these towns or villages and Digboi being my maternal hometown has many elephant corridors in the town premises itself. Therefore the rainforest has a very special place in the hearts and minds of each and everyone living in these towns and villages.

What is this Illegal Mining Project?

On 7th April 2020, the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) chaired by the Prime Minister and Environment Minister has approved North-Eastern Coalfields (NECF), a unit of government-run Coal India Limited (CIL) to clear off the vegetation and conduct open-cast coal mining in 98.59 hectares of the Saleki Proposed Reserved Forest (PRF), a region in the southeast of the Dihing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary and the Dihing Patkai Elephant Reserve. It is noteworthy that the same Prime Minister is a receiver of the UN Champion of the Earth Award in 2018, which ironically contradicts his actions as the chairman of NBWL.

This approval by the central government has mobilized huge scale online protests amongst the youth of the nation backed by environmentalists and celebrities alike with the obvious fear of further degradation of the rare and endangered flora and fauna and a rise in the clashes between elephants and human settlements.

As per a site inspection report by the Shillong regional office of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), the approval for the mining project has given legitimacy to the illegal mining activities that are being carried out in the region for more than a decade. This report also stated that NECF once obtained a 30-year mining lease which expired back in 2003. But even though, it continued illegally in the Saleki region of the Dihing Patkai Reserved Forest, backed by the local authorities and the coal mafias. Of the 98.59 hectares of land, 12.93 hectares were legally mined before 2003, while 44.27 hectares were mined illegally between 2003 and 2012. Of the remaining 41.39 hectares of ‘unbroken’ area, mining-related activities were conducted on two separate parcels of land of seven hectares and nine hectares respectively. These mining activities were in complete violation of the Assam Forest Regulation Act, 1891.

Why is Open Cast Mining Hazardous?

Since the discovery of coal in India by the British government, coal was extracted using the method of shaft mining. Up until the end of the Coal War era until the early 1990s, shaft mining was still prevalent but with time, this method became obsolete in the country, and in the quest of a safer mining method, opencast mining was born.

Fig. Visual Explanation of the Save Dehing Patkai Movement.

Considered safer than shaft mining, this method involves rendering the land void of vegetation, removing the topsoil, blasting off the hard strata with explosives until the coal seam is exposed, following which the coal is mined and shifted off with huge fleets of transportation trucks. Considered less hazardous for humans, opencast mining has proven to be very degrading for mother nature. According to researchers, the area under consideration for opencast mining has observed a stark increase in the number of suspended particles of carbon and sulfur, that contaminates the air miles away. Also, the removal of topsoil and the harder strata renders the land infertile not just for agriculture but for any type of vegetation turning it into wastelands for centuries.

Fig. Opencast Coal Mining in Ledo, near Margherita Range. This used to be a former Reserved Forest before Coal India limited transformed the entire ecosystem.

In the context of the illegal coal mining in Dihing Patkai Rainforest Reserves, it is worth mentioning that along with the prevalent opencast mining, there are multiple illegal rat-hole mining being carried out in multiple patches. Rat-hole mining is an extremely dangerous method of small scale mining in which small crude tunnels or holes are created to extract the raw materials. Quite prevalent in the Eastern Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya, these are mostly privately owned, but when it comes to Dihing Patkai, it is completely illegal and defies the forest regulation laws.

Why should you raise voices?

Lying over a huge reservoir of coal, the Dihing Patkai Reserve Forests, especially Saleki has been widely threatened by an elaborate chain of coal mafias, timber thieves, poachers, and illegal foreign settlers which altogether deprives the forest of its richness and greatly impacts the ecosystem. The state which is exposed to annual flood and erosion especially needs this rainforest for the protection of the ecosystem and people’s livelihoods. The fertile plains of the Brahmaputra valley are very merciless and an untimely flood can drive the entire state to deprivation. Furthermore, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh link the South East Asiatic Elephant Corridor with India, and every year with the increase of the human population and decrease of forest region, the human-elephant conflict has become common news. Every year families are destroyed, villages trampled, wild animals are poached while the illegal coal mining continues, filling the deep pockets of mafia and politicians alike.

Approval by the National Board of Wildlife was one such act of ignorance by the central government. This act will only legalize the criminal activities and no can stop the culprits. It is high time the entire country raises their voice in unison to condemn this action of the NBWL and put an end to the misery of mother nature. Ending this initiative of the central government to destroy an asset of the country will not only benefit the country’s ecology but also the global balance of human and mother nature. Young artists, poets, NGOs like Nature’s Beacon, writers, singers, environmentalists, activists, and celebrities like Dia Mirza and Papon have been constantly raising voices against this harmful and uneducated move. Online protests with the hashtags #IamDihingPatkai and #SaveDihingPatkai have flooded the internet over the past one month.

Indeed it is high time we hold the power holders sitting high up in the parliament putting on white or saffron clothes accountable for their anthropogenic actions the consequences of which are only faced by the commoners and inhabitants of the land.

As Gandhi once said, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed”, it is, therefore, our responsibility as the children of Gandhi’s land to conserve, preserve and protect our natural assets and thereby planet Earth and paving the path for proper co-existence and mitigate global climate changes.

Tags : #IAmDihingPatkai#SaveDihingPatkaiCoalMiningElephantReserveNBWL

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