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Coal mining in Dehing Patkai, Assam, India


Description:

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 lowland rainforest area in Assam, extending upto the Deomali elephant reserve in Arunachal Pradesh [1]. These rainforests straddling the Dehing River and the Patkai range of the Eastern Himalayas, which comprise the Indo-Burma global biodiversity hotspot, is a complex yet delicate ecosystem [2]. 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 are 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 [1]. Dehing Patkai is also home to Assam’s state bird, White-Winged Duck; the state tree, Hollong and the state flower, Fox Tail Orchid [2].

The Govt of Assam declared 111.19 sq km area of the rainforest as ‘Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary’ on 13 June, 2004.  Located within the greater Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve, this 111.94 sq km of Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary spreads across the oil- and coal-rich districts of Upper Assam namely Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, and Sivasagar [5]. With a total 937 sq km of area, the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve is surrounding the sanctuary in its periphery across Tinsukia and Dibrugarh districts of Upper Assam [7]. Recently, the region has been in news for illegal coal mining activities [10]. 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 [3]. Coal mining activities in the region dates back to the British era. In 1973, North Eastern Coalfields (NEC), a Coal India subsidiary, was provided a 30-year lease to perform its operations [6]. As the lease expired in the year 2003, Coal India should have attained a clearance from the forest department as per the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, but it didn’t do so. It was the same year when the state government notified Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve and the wildlife sanctuary was carved out in June 2004 [2]. But Coal India continued to mine in the area [2]. 

The NEC approached the Assam government seeking a fresh lease only in 2012 [8]. As stated by a senior Assam Forest Department official, the clearance sought by the Coal India Limited (CIL) in 2012 was rejected then [7]. The CIL subsequently applied again for the clearance of 98.59 hectares in 2019, out of which it was carrying out mining activities in 73 hectares [7]. As the nationwide lockdown was imposed for the COVID-19 pandemic, a conditional clearance for a coal mining project was permitted in the Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest (a part of the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve Forest) in April 2020 [5, 9]. The National Board of Wild Life (NBWL) under the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change in its 56th meeting through a video conference took the decision and approved the project provided it fulfills the 28 conditions [7, 9]. 

The decision sparked massive protests in the state both on social media platforms and streets. The hashtag ´I am Dehing Patkai´ and the Facebook page with the same name have been attracting considerable attention in social media websites. From prominent student unions in Assam to internationally acclaimed actors and artists of Assamese origin like Adil Hussain, Angarag Papon Mahanta and Joi Barua, many raised their concerns on the approval of coal mining activities in the Dehing Patkai rainforest. Students from many universities such as the Guwahati University have launched digital campaigns in social media platforms with banners, cartoons, illustrations and using hashtags such as #SaveDehingPatkai [15]. The ‘Forest Man of India’ Padma Shri Jadav Payeng in his appeal to the Union government said, “Coal mining should be stopped to protect our climate and environment. Coal mining in the Dehing Patkai rainforest will severely impact our climate, environment of Assam and other parts of North Eastern region. I appeal to the government to change this decision” [11]. A prominent and popular face leading the conversations on social media, Assamese musician-composer Joi Barua said, “If our ecosystem, trees, the habitat and the wildlife are at risk – what are we left with? As an artist, I began to think – where is literature and poetry going to spring from? Where will fables originate? Where will the folk music be taking its inspiration from? As people, what do we fall back on to? Just barren land from where all of nature’s bounty has been plundered due to man’s greed?” [13]. Barua has been organizing a number of conversations via his own social media profile inviting environmentalists, journalists, artists, lawyers and student representatives among others which have been able to attract quite a bit of attention from people both within the state and outside. 

Raising concerns about the increasing detachment of people from the surrounding biodiversity, Dr. Deborshee Gogoi, an academic and a cartoonist whose creations have been instrumental in creating mass awareness on the campaign said, “Earlier when a child cried, we showed them a bird or a dragonfly. Now, we hand them the mobile phone. We can be rich only if our biodiversity is rich.” [16]. Rapper and songwriter Rahul Rajkhowa, an alumnus of New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, in his ‘Rap for Dehing Patkai’ vented his anger, “Enough Covid-19 talk/My Assam is burning for real/Another set of Ministers desperate to steal/causing damage to our forest/to the point it cannot heal/killing the lungs of Northeast/how the hell cannot you feel” [14]. 

Following the ongoing protest, the NEC announced the temporary suspension of all its mining operations in the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary [12]. Further, during the first week of July 2020, Assam government decided to upgrade the Dehing Patkai wildlife sanctuary into a national park to ensure better conservation. According to the experts, wildlife sanctuaries as protected areas do permit a few activities, for instance, grazing, while national parks necessitate an absolute protection under The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 [4]. Further, a judicial probe has been ordered by the Assam government to investigate the allegations of illegal coal mining activities in the Dehing Patkai rainforest region. A one-man inquiry panel involving the retired Gauhati High Court Judge Mr. Brajendra Prasad Katakey has been constituted in order to “investigate the allegations against coal mining in the sanctuary since 2003” [5].

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Coal mining in Dehing Patkai, Assam, India
Country:India
State or province:Assam
Location of conflict:Tinsukia and Dibrugarh districts of Upper Assam
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Fossil Fuels and Climate Justice/Energy
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Establishment of reserves/national parks
Coal extraction and processing
Specific commodities:Coal
Biological resources

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Coal mining activities in the region dates back to the British era. In 1973, North Eastern Coalfields (NEC), a Coal India subsidiary, was provided a 30-year lease to perform its operations [6]. As the lease expired in the year 2003, Coal India should have attained a clearance from the forest department as per the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, but it didn’t do so. It was the same year when the state government notified Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve and the wildlife sanctuary was carved out in June 2004 [2]. But Coal India continued to mine in the area [2]. 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 [3].

A chronological display of Google Earth images from 2014 to 2020 shows the extent of illegal mining carried out in the region [17].

In April 2020, the Assam government had fined Coal India Limited Rs 43.25 crores for carrying out illegal mining within the forest for 16 years [18].

In July 2020, the National Green Tribunal ordered the constitution of a five member committee to probe allegations of the large scale illegal coal mining being carried out, comprising of the the Central Pollution Control Board, State Pollution Control Board, State Environment Impact Assessment Authority of Assam, the principle chief conservator of forest and an expert from Indian Institute of Technology-Guwahati [19].

Project area:93,700
Type of populationRural
Start of the conflict:01/04/2020
Company names or state enterprises:Coal India Limited (CIL) from India
Relevant government actors:National Board of Wild Life (NBWL), Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change,
Assam state government,
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:National Alliance of People´s Movement, I am Dehing Patkai group

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
International ejos
Local ejos
Neighbours/citizens/communities
Social movements
Women
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Recreational users
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Artistic and creative actions (eg guerilla theatre, murals)
Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Objections to the EIA
Official complaint letters and petitions
Referendum other local consultations
Arguments for the rights of mother nature
Appeals/recourse to economic valuation of the environment

Impacts

Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Floods (river, coastal, mudflow), Food insecurity (crop damage), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Noise pollution, Soil contamination, Soil erosion, Waste overflow, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity, Mine tailing spills, Other Environmental impacts
Potential: Desertification/Drought, Genetic contamination, Global warming, Oil spills
Other Environmental impactsLarge elephant reserve, enormous biodiversity endangered
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents, Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..), Health problems related to alcoholism, prostitution, Occupational disease and accidents, Infectious diseases, Deaths, Other environmental related diseases, Other Health impacts
Potential: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Malnutrition, Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Displacement, Increase in violence and crime, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..), Specific impacts on women, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place, Other socio-economic impacts

Outcome

Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Court decision (undecided)
Application of existing regulations
Moratoria
Project temporarily suspended
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:Although Assam government's response has been positive in the sense that the wildlife sanctuary will be converted to a national park, environmentalists are still struggling to include the whole area of several reserve forests under it. Further, coal mining is only temporarily stopped.

Sources & Materials

Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

Order of NGT principle bench to form a committee to probe into the illegal coal mining in Dehing Patkai elephant reserve, dated 20 July 2020.
https://www.livelaw.in/pdf_upload/pdf_upload-378839.pdf

3. Bikash Singh. 2020. Suspension of mining operation in Coal India Ltd´s Margherita is temporary. Economic Times. 7 June 2020.
https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/industry/energy/power/suspension-of-mining-operation-in-coal-india-ltds-margherita-is-temporary/articleshow/76249402.cms?from=mdr

4. Tora Agarwala 2020. Assam government to upgrade Dehing Patkai wildlife sanctuary to national park. Indian Express. July 7, 2020.
https://indianexpress.com/article/north-east-india/assam/assam-govt-to-upgrade-dehing-patkai-wildlife-sanctuary-to-national-park-6493214/

2. Abdul Gani and Rituparna Kakoty. 2020. In quest for ´black gold´, why Dehing Patkai, amazon of the east, is gasping for life. Outlook India. 8 June 2020.
https://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/story/india-news-in-quest-for-black-gold-why-dehing-patkai-amazon-of-the-east-is-gasping-for-life/303274

13. Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty. 2020. Beginning Consversations: Assam Musician Joi Barua on kickstarting a drive for the environment. The Wire. June 22, 2020.
https://thewire.in/the-arts/assam-joi-barua-interview-dehing-patkai-baghjan

6. Environmentalist, congress, others oppose coal mining in Dehing Patkai forest. Economic Times. May 20, 2020.
https://energy.economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/coal/environmentalist-congress-others-oppose-coal-mining-in-dehing-patkai-forest/75848984

7. Assam won't allow opencast coal mining in Dehing Patkai: forest minister. Outlook India. May 27, 2020.
https://www.outlookindia.com/newsscroll/assam-wont-allow-opencast-coal-mining-in-dehing-patkai-forest-minister/1847918

8. Ratnadip Choudhury. 2020. Illegal coal mining continues in Assam Sanctuary before Centre´s approval: RTI . NDTV. May 25, 2020.
https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/illegal-coal-mining-continued-in-assams-dehing-patkai-wildlife-sanctuary-before-centres-approval-rti-2234714

14. Abdul Gani. 2020. Killing lungs of northeast: rapper sings on coal mining in Assam´s Dehing Patkai Forest. Outlook India. June 6, 2020.
https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/india-news-killing-lungs-of-northeast-rapper-sings-on-coal-mining-in-assams-dehing-patkai-forest/354274

9. Illegal coal mining in Dehing Patkai. The Sentinel. May 26, 2020.
https://www.sentinelassam.com/editorial/illegal-coal-mining-in-dehing-patkai-478936

11. Hemanta Kumar Nath. 2020. Online campaign urges Centre to reverse course on coal mining in Assam´s Dehing Patkai. India Today. May 21, 2020.
https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/online-campaign-urges-centre-to-reverse-course-on-coal-mining-in-assam-s-dehing-patkai-1680482-2020-05-21

12. Hemanta Kumar Nath. 2020. Assam: Thousands protest closure of North Eastern Coalfields, call to protect Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary. India Today. 14 June 2020
https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/assam-north-eastern-coalfields-protest-tinsukia-coal-mining-1688463-2020-06-13

10. Pranjal Pratim Dihingia. 2020. Don´t let Assam´s Dehing Patkai suffer like Chhattisgarh´s Hasdeo Arand forest. 21 May 2020.
https://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2020/05/save-dehing-patkai/

15. Nilakhi Hazarika. 2020. Gauhati University students start campaign to save dehing patkai wildlife sanctuary. The News Mill. May 18, 2020.
https://thenewsmill.com/gauhati-university-students-start-campaign-to-save-dehing-patkai-wildlife-sanctuary/

1. NAPM statement issued on 12 July 2020. Dehing Patkai: Post-facto clearance of 16 years od ilegal coal mining and fresh approval for mining by NBWL is an environmental travesty.
https://napmindia.wordpress.com/2020/07/12/dehing-patkai-post-facto-clearance-of-16-years-of-illegal-coal-mining-and-fresh-approval-for-mining-by-nbwl-is-an-environmental-travesty/

18. Economic Times. 2020. Assam won't allow opencast coal mining in Dehing Patkai: forest minister. 28 May 2020.
https://energy.economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/coal/assam-wont-allow-opencast-coal-mining-in-dehing-patkai-forest-minister/76055085

19. Monisha Purvar. 2020. NGT orders formation of a committee to probe large scale illegal coal mining in reserve forest of Assam. Live Law. 27 July 2020.
https://www.livelaw.in/environment/ngt-orders-formation-of-a-committee-to-probe-large-scale-illegal-coal-mining-in-reserve-forest-of-assam-160582

16. Teresa Rehman. 2020. A cartoonist is using satire to spotlight Assam’s biodiversity – and its destruction. Scroll. 4 July 2020.
https://scroll.in/article/966090/a-cartoonist-is-using-satire-to-highlight-assams-biodiversity-and-its-destruction

5. Tora Agarwala. 2020. Assam orders judicial probe into illegal coal mining in Dehing Patkai. Indian Express. July 19, 2020.
https://indianexpress.com/article/north-east-india/assam/assam-orders-one-man-inquiry-committee-to-investigate-illegal-coal-mining-in-dehing-patkai-6512349/

17. Indraneel Agasty. 2020. Dehing Patkai: Chronological mapping of coal mines reveal degradation. Inside NE. 5 June 2020.
https://www.insidene.com/dehing-patkai-chronological-mapping-of-coal-mines-reveal-degradation/

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

The Quint´s video explanation of why the online campaign to protect ´amazon of the east´ is here to stay (Youtube)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=53&v=UK3BwC1toPI&feature=emb_logo

Online campaign in Change.org to save saluki and dehing patkai elephant reserve and rainforest from coal mining.
https://www.change.org/p/national-board-for-wildlife-save-saleki-and-dehing-patkai-elephant-reserve-from-coal-mining

Meta information

Contributor:Anwesha Borthakur and Brototi Roy
Last update21/08/2020

Images

 

Art by Abu B Siddik designs, published in YouthKiAwaaz

Image Source- https://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2020/05/save-dehing-patkai/

Banner for the protest to save Dehing Patkai from coal mining

Image courtesy- https://thenewsmill.com/gauhati-university-students-start-campaign-to-save-dehing-patkai-wildlife-sanctuary/

I am Dehing Patkai banner

Banner of the protest against coal mining in Dehing Patkai. Courtesy: I am Dehing Patkai Facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/iamdehingpatkai/photos/a.106830517689177/106855574353338

Cartoon by Rohan Chakravarty, www.greenhumour.com