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Amid coal mining row, Assam govt decides to upgrade Dehing Patkai wildlife sanctuary to a national park

PUBLISHED ON JUL 06, 2020 07:47 PM IST

Guwahati: Assam government on Monday decided to upgrade the Dehing Patkai wildlife sanctuary into a national park amid an ongoing row over allowing coal mining within its jurisdiction.

“Our government has decided to upgrade the Dehing Patkai wildlife sanctuary in Assam, which is home to a variety of flora and fauna, to a national park. In a meeting held with senior officials on Monday, I have directed them to take necessary steps in this regard,” Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal tweeted.

While a limited number of human activities are allowed in wildlife sanctuaries, national parks are strictly off-limits.

The state government appears to have taken a decision with an eye on next year’s assembly polls as the coal mining issue has triggered a raging controversy in Assam.

A release from the CM’s office (CMO) mentioned that in order to expedite the process of upgrading the wildlife sanctuary to a national park the forest department has been asked to prepare a draft notification and hold a public hearing to get views from local dwellers residing in and around Dehing Patkai.

Reiterating the state government’s commitment to preserving Assam’s natural resources and environment, Sonowal also instructed to prepare an action plan for conserving the adjoining areas of the wildlife sanctuary and include the opinion of the public in it.

Assam has five national parks and Dehing Patkai, if upgraded, will increase the tally to 6.

Earlier in April, the National Board of Wild Life (NBWL) under the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC) had recommended coal mining to be allowed within a portion of Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve with a caveat that fulfiled 28 pre-conditions.

Spread across 937 square kilometres, Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve falls in Upper Assam’s Tinsukia and Dibrugarh districts and is located within the periphery of the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary, which is said to be the largest lowland tropical rainforest in India.

NBWL authorities had allowed the state-run Coal India Limited (CIL) to conduct opencast coal mining in 98.59 hectares of the reserve forest.

CIL had been carrying out mining in 57 hectares of the reserve and the fresh recommendation allowed it to do mining in another 41 hectares, which was unbroken.

Besides elephants, leopards, hoolock gibbons, pangolins and bears, Dehing Patkai is also home to over 200 species of birds, various replies and many species of butterflies and orchids. Concerns were raised that the habitats of these species as well as foraging routes of elephants would be affected due to wanton coal mining.

The NBWL order had triggered a howl of protests in Assam, opposing the coal mining move.

Assam government had also sent forest minister Parimal Suklabaidya to visit the site in May and assured there would be no compromise on protecting the state’s forests and biodiversity.

Though the NBWL recommendation was passed in April, a right to information (RTI) query has revealed that mining in the area was already underway even before the approval was given.

A response to an RTI query by environment activist Rohit Choudhury had revealed mining-related work had already started in 17 hectares (or nearly 39% of the area) of the 41 hectares claimed by CIL to be unbroken.

“It was confirmed that about nine hectares out of 41.39 hectares has already been broken up and operated and another approximately seven hectares have been cleared,” mentioned a November, 2019, site inspection report by the MoEFCC’s Shillong office.

North-Eastern Coalfields, a subsidiary of CIL, had got the lease for coal mining over an area of around 11 square kilometres in the Saleki area of Dehing Patkai for 30 years from 1973.

Though the lease had expired in 2003, CIL applied for lease/diversion of forest land in 2012 seeking permission for coal extraction in 98.59 hectares.

Taking up a suo motu (on its own motion) case against a proposed move to allow coal mining in the fragile ecological zone, in June the Gauhati high court (HC) issued notices to Centre, Assam government, CIL and others last month.

A two-member division bench, comprising Chief Justice Ajay Lamba and Justice Soumitra Saikia, heard two public interest litigations (PILs) on the same issue, and directed the Central and Assam governments, CIL, NBWL, mines and mineral department of Assam, home department, Assam Police and others to appear before it on the next date of the hearing on July 20.

However, all respondents were asked to file affidavits by July 14 before the next date of hearing in the case.

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