- For years, Assam’s rainforests in and around the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary have been bearing the brunt of coal mining, both illegal and legal.
- Apart from the impact on the biodiversity of the ecologically sensitive area, it is the tribal communities of the region who have suffered due to repeated displacement and pollution.
- The tribal community alleges that there have been many instances of illegal mining and they are yet to get respite from the ills of mining.
One of India’s most important rainforests, the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam has become a battleground for communities and cheap coal mined from the region.
The foothills of Dehing Patkai in the eastern end of Assam is home to the Khamti, Singpho, Sema Nagas, Tangsa, Tai-Phake, Syam, Aitom, Nocte and other communities who have been impacted by mining and deforestation that displaced them from lands that traditionally belonged to them.
Many of the people from this region in Assam have migrated to Tirap district in the bordering state of Arunachal Pradesh, said Raju Deori, a legal advisor to the Tirap Autonomous District Council. He estimates that at least 500 villages in the Dehing Patkai foothills are facing the threat of mining and deforestation. “A lot of people depending on the forests of these areas have migrated to Tirap district of Arunachal Pradesh, leaving their homesteads after mines and illegal felling of trees destroyed entire forest areas,” Deori, who has been campaigning for the rights of these communities, told Mongabay-India.
Some of these tribes have less than 5,000 people among them, said Deori as he stated that mining has widened the income gap in communities between those dependent on the forests and those lured by illegal mining and logging activities. He also highlighted that while the tribal population is going down the illegal mining and logging activities have gone up.
If the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve and more than a dozen patches of reserve forests and proposed reserve forests are added, the size of Dehing Patkai rainforest situated farther east of the Brahmaputra river would be more than 900 square kilometres. The wildlife sanctuary alone, however, is spread over 111.9 square kilometres only with two narrow elephant corridors and fragmented patches of forests surrounded by coal mines and tea gardens.
Before this globally-endangered lowland evergreen forest and its biodiversity was officially protected as a sanctuary in 2004, industrial activity had been going on for more than 100 years in these parts.
Deori informed that the coal mining started in the land held by indigenous tribes. “Forest department claims that they have leased their land to the mines. That is false. The foothills of Dehing Patkai were never surveyed. The land ownership always remained with the communities,” Deori claimed.
Hekei Sema, a tribal elder from Tikok village said that the village had to shift three times as the mine expanded. “We were compensated a couple of times. But there are only six families left in our village. Most have migrated,” Sema told Mongabay-India. He said that the Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest next to Tikok has been mined illegally for more than a decade.
His ancestral village was turned into mine in 1888 when the British were laying down railway tracks – it is now operated by North Eastern Coalfields Limited (NECL), a subsidiary of Indian government-owned Coal India Limited (CIL).
Coal from the region supports business far and wide
A part of Makum coalfield, one of the oldest mining areas in India, with coal from five mines east and southeast of the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary, supports thousands of tea factories, thermal power plants, small-scale iron smelters and brick kilns in the Brahmaputra valley in Assam to Punjab and Haryana.
Anwaruddin Chowdhury, a renowned ornithologist from Assam whose conservation efforts led to the creation of Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary is, however, worried about the unprecedented increase of illegal coal mining in the last few years. “During my time as a civil servant in the Tinsukia district, mining was restricted to Coal India mines. However, in the last five to six years, illegal mining has increased manifold,” he told Mongabay-India.
According to Chowdhury, the increase in mining activity is due to Assam’s forest and wildlife department’s reluctance to define the forests. Tinsukia district has the highest number of proposed reserve forests in all of Assam. “Usually it takes about five years to settle the claims in a proposed reserve forest. However, this process seems to drag on for years which makes these forests vulnerable,” Chowdhury said.
Kishore Mech, a member of Sanjeevani Northeast Socio-economic Society, a non-profit working on the conservation of native trees such as Hollong (Dipterocarpus retusus), considered sacred by the local Moran community, said that miners even built a road inside the Dirok Reserve Forest, a part of the sanctuary, to transport the coal. “The community informed us about illegal mining in this area last year. We informed the local DFO about these activities. The mining has stopped for now but no culprits were arrested,” Mech told Mongabay-India.
In 2010, Kashmira Kakati, an Assam-based wildlife biologist discovered seven new species of endangered wildcats in Dehing-Jeypore Forest, a reserve forest adjoining the wildlife sanctuary.
With rampant illegal mining in these areas, Kakati approached the National Green Tribunal in 2015 highlighting its devastating impacts. She cited experts from the Institute of Advanced Study in Science and Technology (IASST) under the Ministry of Science and Technology who found the soil and water quality around Tipong, Tirap and Tikok collieries outside the sanctuary had heavily deteriorated. The deteriorated water pollutes Buri Dehing, a tributary of the Brahmaputra river, that flows through the sanctuary. The study linked the presence of low pH which indicates acidity in the soil and reduced nutrient status such as lack of phosphorus, nitrogen and organic carbon leading to heavy degradation.
The IASST researchers found cadmium and zinc levels in the water samples of Tipong colliery which were above permissible levels set by the World Health Organisation.
A soil textural analysis as part of a preliminary study published in 2013, on soil and water quality of Makum coalfield, also showed high sand content in the areas close to the mines, including the forested patches, caused due to indiscriminate dumping which in turn thwarted the growth of plants.
A lone study on the impact of Dehing Patkai coal mining on the health of the people was done between 2008 and 2011 by the MDKG (Manohari Devi Kanoi Girls) College in Dibrugarh. A team led by Ashwin Machey, an assistant professor of economics, collected primary data from two villages and their study found that a large section of the population suffered from airborne and waterborne diseases. “The quality of water is very poor in the villages due to the presence of highly acidic particles which cause diseases like jaundice and cholera,” Machey stated in the report.
According to Deori, the health condition of the people living in the vicinity of the mines remain unchanged in all these years.
Indiscriminate mining leading to human-animal conflict
Along with smaller communities, even the bigger communities such as Moran-Motok have been impacted by the indiscriminate coal mining and led to an increase in human-animal conflict cases.
The east and the west block of the Upper Dehing Reserve is connected by a 6-7 km stretch of land called the Golai Corridor and is used by about 300 elephants, according to a census done by Elephant Task Force.
Paanbari, a forest village close to the Digboi town on the south western end of Dehing Patkai has been facing conflict with herds of elephants that are trying to cross from one end of the sanctuary to another.
Trinayan Gogoi, the founder of a nature conservation NGO, Green Bud Society, told Mongabay-India that elephants have been damaging farms during the cropping seasons. “We have also recorded six deaths in the area recently. These deaths are related to the tree felling and mining in the elephant corridors,” Gogoi said. Paanbari is one of the dozen forest villages which primarily consists of lands given to the flood-affected people.
Seeing widespread destruction of their commons, Gogoi along with Devajit Moran, a wildlife activist, started an online campaign, Save Dehing Patkai, earlier this year on April 7 when the NECL proposal to mine a portion of an elephant corridor connecting Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary as an extension to the Tikok mine was cleared by Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar-led standing committee of the National Board of Wildlife. The proposal was for diverting 98.59 hectares of Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest to Tikok West open cast coal mining project of the NECL. Due to widespread protests, the standing committee in July 2020 ordered an immediate stop to coal mining in Saleki.
While the movement against coal mining in the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary intensified over the past few months, media reports note that the documents show that NECL was mining illegally at Saleki area of Tikok – a claim that is being denied by senior CIL officials. The NECL obtained a 30-year lease for the Tikok mine which ended in 2003. Once the lease expired in 2003, the company required the mandatory clearance under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980.
In June 2020, after a slew of Public Interest Litigations (PILs) highlighting the violations, Gauhati High Court issued notices to the NECL, Tinsukia district administration and the Assam forest and wildlife department.
When contacted, the NECL officials explained to Mongabay-India that illicit mining was already taking place in the Saleki Area which it sought for diversion. In the last five years, the NECL filed 80 cases in Ledo and Margherita Police Station stating that illegal mining syndicates have been pilfering coal from its mines as well as areas which are inside the forests.
Neither the NECL officials nor Assam government, however, has so far estimated the amount of coal being illicitly mined from the foothills of Dehing Patkai. Assam Government earlier this year appointed Former Justice B.P. Katakey to investigate illegal coal mining after the civil society groups protested.
According to Devajit Moran, last year in November about 3,000 trucks were ferrying coal from the area in one week. “They did not even stop during the lockdown for Covid-19,” Moran alleged.
Banner image: Dirok River, a tributary of Buri Dehing that flows through the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary. Photo by Anupam Chakravartty.