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MoEFCC 'gateway' to eco-loot: Post-facto clearance to illegal mining in Upper Assam

Counterview Desk
Expressing “deep concern" over recent reported post-facto clearance to the 16 years of “illegal” coal mining in Dehing Patkai in Upper Assam, the National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM), India’s civil society network, has said that the fresh approval for mining by the National Board of Wild Life (NBWL) to allow open cast mining by Coal India Limited in about 98.59 hectares of land in the Saleki Reserve Forest (Digboi) is an “environmental travesty.”
Demanding urgent settlement of forest rights and a complete ban on extractive mining in order to to protect the region, NAPM in a statement said, “Dehing Patkai, famously known as ‘Amazon of the East’ is the largest rainforest in India, home to many endangered species and is believed to be the last remaining contiguous patch of rainforest area in the Upper Assam region, extending up to the Deomali elephant reserve in Arunachal Pradesh.”

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The National Alliance of People’s Movements expresses deep concern over the series of destructive and extractive projects being taken up in the bio-diverse rich regions of the North-Eastern states that jeopardize the interests of wildlife and humans alike.
‘Dehing Patkai’ in Upper Assam became a flash point of resistance last month after the recent “recommendation for approval” by the National Board of Wild Life (NBWL), to allow open cast mining by Coal India Limited in about 98.59 hectares (ha) of land in the Saleki Reserve Forest (Digboi), which is a part of the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve.
However, what has missed much of public discourse is the fact that the NBWL clearly over-looked existing scientific and official evidence of long-standing unlawful mining in the area and went ahead to ‘legalize’ the mining in a ‘post-facto mode’.
Dehing Patkai, famously known as ‘Amazon of the East’ is the largest rainforest in India, home to many endangered species and is believed to be the last remaining contiguous patch of rainforest area in the Upper Assam region, extending upto the Deomali elephant reserve in Arunachal Pradesh. The Government of Assam declared 111.19 sq km area of the rainforest as ‘Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary’ on 13th June, 2004, along with 17 other forest reserves.
According to the Forest Department of Assam, there are 46 species of mammals, 71 species of reptiles, 290 species of wild birds, 276 species of butterflies, 70 species of fish, 70 species of dragonflies,101 species of orchids and thousands of other insects found in the sanctuary.
Located on the southern bank of Brahmaputra, Dehing Patkai is also home to a large number of Asiatic elephants. Thousands of trees belonging to 61 rare species like Hollang, Mekai, Dhuna, Udiyam, Nahar, Samkothal, Bheer, Hollock, Elephant-apple, Fig etc. keep the rainforest pristine.
Information furnished under RTI confirms allegations by the local people and environmental activists that coal mining in the area has been going on for long, even in the absence of ‘formal clearances’ and renewals.
The 30-year lease permit issued in 1973 to North Eastern Coalfields (NEC), a Coal India subsidiary, for conducting mining on an area of four-square miles in a part of the Dehing Patkai sanctuary, expired in 2003.
However, NEC continued with the illegal mining for almost a decade and approached the Government of Assam only in 2012 for fresh lease! Between 2003 and 2019, the NEC mined land measuring 57 ha without clearance, in the broken area. NEC also mined in portions of the unbroken area of 41.59 ha.
These details are confirmed by a Site Inspection Report of the Shillong Regional Office of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC), submitted to the Ministry on November 25, 2019. The Report states that NEC continued mining without obtaining a lease renewal and forest clearance over 73.2 ha (of the 98.59 ha for which conditional clearance has now been granted).
It is indeed extremely unfortunate and questionable that the Standing Committee of NBWL chaired by the Environment Minister himself granted ‘approval’ while blatantly ignoring the irregularities and unlawful mining which was pointed out by the Assam Forest Department, the Shillong Regional Office of MoEFCC and even the Expert Committee constituted in 2014, in the wake of concerns expressed by the Assam State WildLife Board (SWLB). 
Between 2003 and 2019, the NEC, a Coal India subsidiary, mined 57 ha without clearance in the broken area. NEC also mined in portions of the unbroken area of 41.59 ha
Despite the site inspection report of MoEFCC stating that illegal mining was carried out on the ‘unbroken’ land as well, NBWL failed to take note of this and instead categorised the entire 41 ha as ‘unbroken’! Going by media reports quoting the State Forest Minister, it is also interesting to note how the Report of the first Expert Committee constituted by SWLB in July 2015 was superseded by another Expert Committee constituted by NBWL, which submitted its Report in Oct 2019.
The present clearance of NBWL appears to be based on the Report of the subsequent expert committee constituted by the NBWL itself.
The NBWL’s conditional clearance issued in April mandates that NEC must furnish a ‘site-specific mine reclamation plan’ in consultation with Assam Forest Department for the already broken up forest area and a ‘feasibility report’ for exploring underground mining in the remaining area.
Experience from coal fields across India indicates that the ‘restoration to the original state’ is next to impossible. It is, therefore, quite likely that the ‘State-II’ clearance could be granted based on whatever plan is submitted by NEC.
We feel that such unlawful mining and post-facto ‘clearance’ of illegality is a blatant disregard of people’s rights, in particular of the indigenous communities and also furthers the extractive and destructive ‘development model’ that jeopardizes the ecosystem. MoEFCC which ought to be at the forefront of conservation is sadly becoming the gateway of ecological destruction and loot.
NAPM is of the view that while NEC ‘officially suspended’ all mining operations in the Tirap Colliery since 3rd June, 2020 following massive protests, it must be held fully accountable for the 16 years of unlawful mining.
In addition to the Rs 43.25 crore penalty imposed by the Assam Forest Department on the CIL, an FIR against officials of NEC, CIL and MoEFCC, holding authority, who permitted / oversaw/ignored the unlawful mining operations must be registered under appropriate provisions of law and stringent action taken.
Accountability must also be fixed for alleged unlawful mining in the Tikak Open Cast mine, situated in the Saleki Reserve Forest, where mining has been suspended since October, 2019 as per directives of the State Forest Department.
We are aware that multiple PILs are pending consideration before the Guwahati High Court, alleging gross violations of environmental laws and procedures including Assam Forest Regulation Act, 1891; Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972; the National Wildlife Actions Plan (2002-2016) and Centrally Sponsored Scheme, 2009 and seeking a ban on the coal mining.
We hope the Court which has admitted these PILs and also taken suo moto cognizance of the serious issue, calling for reply affidavits by mid-July will fix legal accountability of all state and central agencies, including project, clearing and monitoring authorities. The Court must also objectively consider the plea to direct competent authorities to declare the entire rainforest as a heritage site, in terms of Section 37 of the Biological Diversity Act, 2002.
Activists in Assam also fear that unbridled mining in the Dehing Patkai forest region would severely affect the livelihoods and cultures of numerous ethnic groups like Tai Phake, Khamyang, Khampti, Singpho, Nocte, Ahom, Koibarta, Moran and Motok, tea-tribes, Burmese and Nepali speaking people.
Therefore, while the recent decision of the Assam Govt to upgrade the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary to a National Park is welcome, this would hold value only if all destructive coal mining in the area is stopped forthwith. Besides, the Govt. must settle all pending claims of people living in these forests as per the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 and Forest Rights Act, 2006, before issuing any formal notification for the National Park.
The ‘upgradation’, should not mean a denial of the lawful land, forest and habitat rights of individuals and communities living in the forests since generations.
Considering the ecologically-sensitive nature of the Dehing-Patkai Forest Reserve we call upon the MoEFCC and the NBWL to immediately revoke the post-facto ‘conditional clearance’ granted for coal mining in the region. We also call upon MoEFCC to fix legal accountability of all authorities responsible for the unlawful mining between 2003-2020.
The Government of Assam must settle all forest rights and claims as per the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006 before upgrading Dehing Patkai to the status of National Park. We demand a complete halt to extractive mining in the region in violation of the environmental laws of the land. In doing so, the livelihood concerns and rights of the indigenous communities as well as coal workers with NEC must be duly considered and they must be consulted.
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