GUWAHATI, May 23 - While the State government continues to be on the denial mode about illegal coal mining in Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve, disturbing evidence is mounting that large-scale illegal mining is devastating the prime elephant habitat with tacit support of the government authorities.
A number of conservationists this correspondent talked to were unanimous in their opinion that much harm had already been caused to the elephant reserve by rampant coal mining, and only a ban on mining can help restore things.
“It does not matter anymore whether the ongoing mining is legal or illegal. In any case, there is clear evidence of illegal mining amid the lush green surroundings of the elephant reserve,” a member of the Assam Environmental NGO Forum, an apex body of around 20 NGOs said.
Advocating a same approach, conservation NGO Aaranyak urged the State government to do away with open cast coal mining in a phased manner in eastern Assam by creating alternative livelihood opportunities for local people whose livelihood is dependent upon the ongoing legal coal mining.
“We acknowledge the need for extraction of coal for the nation’s development but urge user agencies and the Ministry of Mining to explore other environment- friendly technologies for future extraction of coal without affecting biodiversity- rich areas. Non-renewable energy options like solar power should be widely promoted to reduce dependence on coal-fired power in the long run in the Northeast,” it said.
An aerial shot through drone done by an NGO that has gone viral in social media – stated to be recorded in March just ahead of the nationwide lockdown – presents an appalling picture of open cast mining in the middle of a pristine wildlife habitat. “It is the Naphai reserve forest in the heart of Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve where illegal coal mining has denuded a vast stretch of greenery. This has been happening in connivance with various government authorities,” it added.
A forest official with long experience of working in the region told The Assam Tribune that coal mining had been widespread inside the elephant reserve for years and unless some checks were made, the State’s only stretch of rain forests would suffer irreversible damage. “While there has been illegal rat-hole mining, given the well-being of this unique biodiversity hotspot, continuation of legal mining will be just as bad and will spell doom for it,” he said.
The official added that the mining areas expanded substantially inside the elephant reserve over the years and it must stop in the greater interest of the forest and its wildlife. “There is a system for reclaiming forests lost due to coal mining but little of the sort has been done. In any case, only a ban on coal mining can save it from further degradation,” he said.
The Centre recently took strong exception to illegal coal mining for over ten years in forest areas of Digboi Division – compartment No. 2 of Namphai RF, Tinkapani RF, Tipong RF/PRF, Tirap RF/PRF, Lekhpani RF and Saleki PRF. All these areas form part of the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve and are contiguous to Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary.
Meanwhile, as part of their intensified efforts to stop coal mining, the Assam Environmental NGO Forum has demanded a specific statement from Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal on illegal mining in the elephant reserve and on the permission granted to Coal India Ltd by the National Board of Wildlife to use 98.59 hectares of land of Saleki PRF which is inside the elephant reserve.
“We demand that the Chief Minister come up with a statement on these disturbing developments. We are also critical of the decision of the State government to grant permission to Oil India Limited to carry out drilling operations in at least seven places of Dibru Saikhowa National Park. Although OIL had clarified that they will use ERD (extended reach drilling) technology, on an earlier occasion their drilling attempt inside the national park had created chaotic conditions with devastating effects,” it said in a statement.
Many other NGOs and protesters have also urged the Prime Minister, the Union Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, the Chief Minister, and the NBWL to stop all current and future coal mining projects at Saleki and the whole of Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve, stating that both legal and illegal coal extraction was having catastrophic consequences for the ecosystem of the entire region.