Politics Of Environmental Conservation In Assam: The Case of Dehing Patkai
Ravaging floods, illegal mining, and an entire biodiversity hotspot in flames! This has been the picture of Assam in the past couple of weeks. The Assam Government has cut a sorry figure as it stood by and watched half the state burn and the other half submerged.
Amidst the fight against the pandemic, the Central Government’s policies have triggered an environmental crisis in the Northeast. The draft EIA, as has been pointed out by environmentalists, will sound the death knell for India’s conservation efforts, if passed in its current form. In Assam, where the environment has been closely linked to the lives and livelihoods of the indigenous communities for centuries, the EIA as well as specific Government decisions to allow resource extraction has led to significant opposition across a wide spectrum. The decision of the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) to allow mining inside the Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest which is a part of a notified Elephant Reserve, Union Ministry for Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) giving clearance for the extension of drilling and testing of hydrocarbons at seven locations by OIL under the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park eco-sensitive zone area and the green signal (and subsequently put on hold) for the Etalin Mega Hydro-electric Project at Dibang Valley, Arunachal Pradesh are few of the recent examples of potential irreparable ecological damage to sensitive biodiversity zones in the Northeast.
The case of Dehing Patkai
The Dehing Patkai protests that have organically erupted to protect the rainforests from the unhindered mining have been a predictable fallout of these dubious environmental policies of the present government. The entire region in the confluence of the Dehing river and the Patkai Hill Range in the Northeast most corner of the Indian map that separates Myanmar from India constitutes the largest remnants of wet evergreen forests (rainforests) in India. It lies at the extreme eastern end of Brahmaputra valley and is a part of the Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot. Historically, coal mining in Dehing Patkai began in the British era (the 1880s) by the AR&T Co and then continued subsequently when coal mines were nationalized in 1973. The collieries in Assam were transferred to the Northeastern Coalfields, a subsidiary of Coal India Ltd (CIL) for a renewable 30-year lease which ended in April 2003. With the discourse over the environment shifting towards conservation in the early 2000s, immediate steps were taken to protect the priceless environmental and cultural diversity that thrives in the region of Dehing Patkai. In this regard, the then Congress government pledged the ‘Lekhapani Declaration’, which was proclaimed by the then President of India (and the Chief Guest of the Dehing Patkai Biodiversity Festival at Lekhapani in February 2002), Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam. In 2003, the state government notified the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve, and by June 2004, the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary was carved out. CIL, now under compulsion as per Forest Conservation Act 1980 and the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, applied for clearance and a new post facto lease to continue mining in 2012 ( after a lapse of 9 years since 2003) which remained pending until the incumbent state government forwarded the proposal to the MoEF&CC on August 21, 2018. It is interesting to note here that this was in stark contradiction to the recommendation of the 10th meeting of the SBWL, chaired by the CM himself, which highlighted that mitigation measures must be ensured since “the site was found to be located just on the boundary of the 10-km radius from the Dehing Patkai WLS and it was considered falling within the Eco-Sensitive Zone”.
In May 2020, the NBWL, chaired by Union Minister Prakash Javadekar, granted post-facto approval for opencast coal mining in 57.20 hectares of forest land in Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest (PRF) under Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve in Assam. The current controversy pertains to this decision by the NBWL. CIL has been carrying out mining in the 57 hectares of the reserve and the fresh recommendation allows it to mine in another 41 hectares. There have also been allegations that the NBWL’s standing committee may have hidden facts while approving/proposing opencast mining in Tikok in Saleki, a shout away from the wildlife sanctuary and also within the eco-sensitive zone.
These actions are clearly in violation of multiple laws like the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980, Coal Mines Act (Special Provisions) 2015, Biological Diversity Act 2002 and Wildlife Protection Act 1972, and Assam Wildlife Protection Act. The biggest concerns here are that not only will it induce dramatic geological, hydrological and geotechnical changes, adversely affecting the existing ecological system and landscape, but also lead to social exploitation of the communities living in the region, and their rich cultural heritage.
Socio-political implications of environmental degradation
Victimization of indigenous communities through environmental exploitation is often the more neglected aspect of a discussion on environmental protection. Global Human Rights Group had reported that in India’s push for coal mining, it is the ethnic population that faces the worst brunt. Historically, development and deforestation have been closely intertwined with the subjugation of tribal communities. With the environment so closely connected to the socio-cultural and political lives of people around these areas, the recent episodes also must be read in the context of the various social movements going on in these regions for the past many decades, against big dams, mining of coal, oil, natural gas. Colonial Assam saw its resources like tea, oil, and coal dwindled while the tribal people of the region struggled for their survival. In a progressive direction, post-independence governments recognized customary tribal rights over forests. However, it was still subservient to what was perceived as national interests. Constructions of dams resulting in flooding, pollution caused by drilling for oil, etc have thus become lived realities. Therefore, striking a balance between environmental well-being, rights of the Forest Villages, customary rights of the tribal groups, and the ongoing coal mining have become a major concern for Dehing-Patkai.
Since the year 2016, when the BJP government came to power in Assam, the Lekhapani Declaration, introduced by the earlier government (2002) to protect the rainforests and biodiversity of has been totally disregarded. Greedy mercenaries have swarmed and swamped the surrounding rainforests with machinery to extract coal and in the bargain, destroying the priceless biodiversity. The rampant illegal ‘Rat Hole Coal Mining’ activities mushroomed all around the famed Dehing Patkai region. Today, in the Dehing Patkai region, there are more than a dozen different ethnic groups living in the area including the Tai Phake, Khamti, Singpho, Ahom, Kaibatra, Moran, and Motok, and Nepali people, most of them dependent on the resources of the forest. With this decision to expand mining, it appears as though the Government has agreed to sacrifice their livelihoods at the altar of industrialism.
The Assam Government, faced with multi-pronged protests, may now be on the backfoot. It has clarified that there has been no final approval granted. But Dehing Patkai is not the first decision taken by the NDA government which compromises environmental preservation. There have been many such instances where our international commitments and local laws have been undermined or flouted. Now, with the Union Government’s decision to open up commercial coal mining, any private entity technically would be able to excavate on a revenue-sharing basis. Privatization will bring an entirely new set of issues to the fore, including excesses and unchecked business expansion. As profit-making takes the front seat, the need for conservation will be automatically relegated to the background as a disposable obstacle. Illegal rat hole mining is already a major concern in Upper Assam and this is only bound to be aggravated unless the Government takes strong measures like appointing an inter-ministerial fact-finding team to probe these issues. It is in this context that the institutional exploitation of environmental resources including Dehing Patkai must be seen and countered.
It must also be realized that attempts to dilute the issue on the grounds of technicalities like claims that the mining site does not fall under the Wildlife Sanctuary, will only amplify the scale of the problem in the future. In this fixation with categories, demarcations, and official parameters, we must ensure that environmental altruism does not conveniently bypass a more coherent and conducive ecological articulation.
Pradyut Bordoloi is an INC MP from Nagaon, Assam.