Northeast Today|August 2020
Arup Jyoti Das Mumeninaz Zaman

In mid-May, amid the pandemic, an outrage took place amongst the people of Assam and Northeast towards a cause of saving the largest lowland rainforest in India ‘Amazon of the East’- Dehing Patkai. The movement which initially took place on the virtual platform with tags like #SaveDehingPatkai soon gained momentum and people from all walks of life showed their discontent over the Government’s decision that allowed coal mining in the precious rainforest of the region. However, things took a turn when the state government decided that the Wildlife Sanctuary would now be upgraded to a National Park. Though the step taken by the government has been welcomed by many, the narrative of illegal mining has shifted to expansion of the wildlife sanctuary.

On 7th April, 2020, the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wild Life (NBWL), chaired by Prakash Javedkar, the Chairman of NBWL and the Minister of Forest, Environment and Climate Change of India (MoFECC), approved a coal-mining project in the Saleki reserve forest which is a part of the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve via video conference. This move by the Government sparked protest among environmentalists and young activists of Assam.

A Parallel Discourse

The Save Dehing Patkai Movement originally kick-started from Gauhati University by its student through an online campaign to save the only rain forest of Assam. The movement grew stronger, but very soon the issue got diverted to another debate and now two parallel narratives have emerged which is centred around the Dehing Patkai. One section of environmental activists and organizations that were concerned about coal mining in the area, claimed that Dehing Pakai is not safe as a wildlife sanctuary and everything is not fine with the wildlife sanctuary. This section strongly argues that the habitant of the sanctuary and its adjoining area, its flora and fauna are in danger. On the other hand, the other narrative claims that there is nothing wrong in Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary and people of Assam don't need to worry about the wildlife sanctuary and its habitants. The other narrative which was spearheaded by Nature’s Beckon, an NGO working with the environment of the region, almost came as a counter to the Save Dehing Pataki movement. Soumyadeep Datta, founder of the organization strongly argued that the proposed coal mining is not within the Wildlife Sanctuary and there is nothing to worry about the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary.

Later Nature’s Beckon started a strong social mobilization as for the inclusion of more areas of the Dehing Pataki rainforest under the protected area of the Dehing Patkai wildlife sanctuary. The campaign popularly termed as “#Complete_ Dehing Patkai_ WLS_500sqkm” demands to expand the area of the Dehing Patkai Wildlife sanctuary by including more areas within the wildlife sanctuary.

As informed by Datta, the Sanctuary encompasses 111.19 sq km but the stretch of 500 Sq. Km of rainforests in Joypur, Upper Dehing and Dirok, spread over the two districts of Tinsukia and Dibrugarh, is the storehouse of some of the diverse species. Though separated by different administrative divisions, these three reserved forests were, in reality, one undivided and continuous stretch of rainforest that needs to be preserved from the clutches of the exploiters. And that would be possible only if the Government upgrades these reserved forests as a Wildlife Sanctuary. These three reserved forests were vulnerable to further exploitation and if left unprotected would perish in no time.

“We welcome the CMs initiative of upgrading it to a National Park, but our demand is to declare the entire 500 sq km as a National Park, and if the state government takes this initiative than the entire area will be protected from various unscrupulous elements,” said Datta. Datta who has been batting for the rainforest conservation movement since the early 90s, highlighted that the Reserved Forests enjoy no legal protection. On the other hand, the Forest authorities can extract natural resources like oil, coal, timber and sand from these reserved forests. “Thus, we petitioned the Government to upgrade the status of these three reserved forests to Joydehing Wildlife Sanctuary,” he said.

In India, elephant reserves and corridors have no legal sanctity under the Wildlife Protection Act (WLPA), 1972. The act mentions only national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, conservation and community reserves (collectively called Protected Areas). Hence such lands are at the risk of being diverted for mines, drilling, polluting industries, deforestation etc.

Clearing his stand on the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve, Datta said, “granting of Elephant Reserve status in 2003 was the greatest mockery in the conservation history of Assam. There is no meaning of an elephant reserve, and it becomes indispensable to consider the expansion of the 500 sq km.”

In their social media page Nature’s Beckon states, “Let the rainforests of Assam grow with us, let the rainforests of Assam stay with us till eternity. Secure the future of Assam's richest rainforest patch. Give Dehing Patkai WLS 500sqkm of this rainforest, ensure the conservation of this rainforest patch of Assam. Complete Dehing Patkai WLS”. Nature’s Beckon has successfully engaged many prominent people in this campaign via their social media page.

However, the coal mining issue has gradually moved the focus from environmental damage to forest expansion. Nature’s Beckons position surely has sent a strong message as it has done credible work in the field of environmental protection, particularly getting a wildlife sanctuary status for Dehing Patkai.

Interestingly, along with these two campaigns, there is another campaign in the streets of Margherita, upper Assam which want to save Coal India Limited (CIL) and the livelihood of around 2,000 people. In a press release issued by the North Eastern Coalfields (NEC) on May 25, it has mentioned that it is a major employment generator in the region and 1200 employees are directly employed in North Eastern Coalfields, and a large section of beneficiaries belongs to Assam. This apart, around 3000 people are indirectly dependent on the employment opportunities provided by coal mining of NEC.

Locating Dehing Patkai

Dehing Patkai is a rain forest that stretches for more than 575 km2 (222 sq mi) in the districts of Dibrugarh, Tinsukia and Charaideo in Assam. A part of this rain forest was declared a sanctuary in 2004. The protected sanctuary area of the rain forest is located in the Dehing Patkai landscape which is a dipterocarpdominated lowland rainforest in the Dibrugarh and Tinsukia Districts of Assam. The Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary covers an area of 111.19 km2 (42.93 sq mi) rainforest. The Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary and a part of Dehing Patkai Rainforest, due to their importance for elephant habitat, were declared as the DehingPatkai Elephant Reserve under Project Elephant, which was launched in 1992 by the Government of India, Ministry of Environment and Forests to provide financial and technical support to wildlife management efforts by states for their free-ranging populations of wild Asian Elephants.

According to media reports, the total area of the Dehing Patkai is a huge area than 575 km, which is 937 sq km and is a combination of several rainforests, reserve forest. These include Dilli Reserve Forest, Jeypore Reserve Forest, Upper Dehing West, Dirak, Tokuani, Kokajan, Upper Dehing East, Nalani, Philobari, Doomdoma, Hahkati, Kumsang, Tarani, Buradehing, Kotha, Lekhapani, Tirap and Tinkupani.

The area that is under question for coal mining is the Saleki forest. NBWL approved diversion of 98.59 ha of the Saleki Proposed Reserved Forest (PRF) under Digboi Forest Division for Tikok OCP (Open Cast Project) coal mining of NorthEastern Coal Fields (Coal India Limited).

Saleki lies along the Assam-Arunachal border. Since the forest spreads over in the Tirap and Changlang districts of Arunachal Pradesh, it is trans-border in its geographical characteristic. Dehing Patkai forms the largest stretch of lowland rainforests in India.


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August 2020