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 . 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 . 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 . Dehing Patkai is also home to Assam’s state bird, White-Winged Duck; the state tree, Hollong and the state flower, Fox Tail Orchid .
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 . 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 . Recently, the region has been in news for illegal coal mining activities . 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 . 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 . 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 . But Coal India continued to mine in the area .
The NEC approached the Assam government seeking a fresh lease only in 2012 . As stated by a senior Assam Forest Department official, the clearance sought by the Coal India Limited (CIL) in 2012 was rejected then . 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 . 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 . 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” . 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?” . 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.” . 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” .
Following the ongoing protest, the NEC announced the temporary suspension of all its mining operations in the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary . 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 . 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” .