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Efforts under way to reduce Dehing-Patkai ESZ area
Ajit Patowary
 GUWAHATI, Oct 4 - Attempts have been made to reduce the size of the eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) around the Dehing-Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary (WLS) to facilitate oil drilling activities of Oil India Ltd (OIL) in its ‘vicinity.’

 This has emerged from a comparison of the draft ESZ proposals prepared by the State Government for the WLS between 2016 and 2019, and scrutiny of the related official documents.

It has also surfaced that a new lease agreement with the OIL has been finalised for drilling activities ‘in the vicinity’ of this WLS, a part of the Assam Valley Tropical Wet Evergreen Forest composed mainly of Dipterocarpus mesua and Sorea robusta.

In its February 8, 2016 draft notification, the State Government proposed an ESZ of 111.19 sq km in the WLS 215.82 sq km big forest. The revised draft notifications for the purpose were published on May 21, 2018 and on June 10, 2019. In the 2019 draft, it was proposed that the total area of the ESZ around the WLS would be 167.55 sq km. Thus, in 2019, shrinkage by 48.27 sq km was proposed in the ESZ size.

In 2016, the draft proposal said that the ESZ coverage would range between ‘Zero and 7.5 kms’ around the WLS, and in 2019, its extent was proposed to vary between ‘Zero and 5.5 kms.’

While apprising the 37th meeting of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), the ESZ Expert Committee on September 30, 2019 of the 2019 draft of the Dehing-Patkai ESZ proposal, the State’s representative said, “During the stakeholder consultation period of 60 days, received objections from OIL, with request to change the ESZ boundary citing the oil drilling sites around the area. The same was communicated to the State government for taking into consideration while finalising the notification.”

The State Government’s representative MK Yadav, while making a presentation on the proposal, said the zero-km width of the ESZ was proposed on its northern boundary which touches the inter-state border with Arunachal Pradesh.

He also informed that new oil drilling sites were identified recently in the vicinity of the WLS and hence ‘objection from Oil India Ltd was (there) for amending the ESZ boundary taking into account the oil drilling sites in the vicinity for which the lease agreement has been finalised.’

The government ‘is in discussion with OIL’ and proposed ESZ boundary for the WLS is expected to be modified in such a way that its extent goes upto 1 km beyond its southern boundary. There would be restriction on drilling activities within that 1 km, he said.

Significantly, during the deliberations, the Expert Committee observed that OIL is a public sector undertaking and it requires permission from the competent authority for drilling. “Accordingly, the proposal of the State Government is justifiable. The Committee recommended for revision of the proposal on above line by the State Government and timely submission to the Ministry (MoEFCC) for its finalisation.”

The issue came up once again in the 42nd meeting of the ESZ Expert Committee on August 28, 2020. MK Yadav presented the proposal. He told the Committee that the issue of upgrading Dehing-Patkai WLS expeditiously into a National Park is under active consideration and requested the Committee to suggest whether ESZ should be notified now or after upgrading the status of the WLS.

The Committee observed that with the WLS’ upgradation into a National Park, there is a possibility of inclusion of additional areas in its ESZ. It therefore recommended submission of the revised draft ESZ proposal after the WLS’ status upgradation.

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