Dehing-Patkai protected area is located at upper Assam in Northeast India. This vast tropical rainforest is also known as Amazon of east in India. Last few weeks are seen statewide protest against coal mining in the protected area. The protest and campaign was mainly on social media platforms due to COVID-19 nationwide lockdown. Thousands of students, activist, environmental enthusiasts and institutions are opposing coal mining in the rich landscape. The wide area of this rainforest is under Dehing-Patkai Elephant Reserve (approx. 937 sq. km). The protest was intensified soon after the decision of National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) recommendation of coal mining on January, 2020. Coal mining is usually cause of natural resource degradation and destruction of habitats which is a threat to the biological diversity. It is also a long term movement between government authority and civil society for environmental causes.
Policies behind Mining:
India is aiming to reach USD 5 trillion economy by 2024 and focusing more in infrastructure development sector. This aim will boost the energy demand for industry especially in electricity production. India almost has reached the access of electricity to all its citizen, but countries per capita power consumption is still low (IEA, 2019). According to IEA 2019 forecast report, the power generation from renewable source will increase with wind capacity doubling and solar photovoltaics (PV) between 2018-2024. But increasing with solar and wind will not be enough for India. Thus, the power generation from coal will be given more importance and there is a possibility of increase in coal usage up to 4.6% per year by 2024 (IEA, 2019). More interestingly India’s coal demand is expected to grow more than any other country over the period as forecasted by IEA, 2019. Therefore, protected areas like Dehing-Patkai and Dibru-Saikhowa national park in Assam is going to suffer from this drastic vision. The economic fall of India is also an indication for dependence on natural resources. But our natural resources are already in under pressure with different factors. However, this dependency of government on natural resources may not provide sustainable livelihood to India in long term.
Finance minister of India announced in the support of commercial mining in revenue sharing basis on coal availability and more coal availability at market prices on 16th May 2020. It is also again direct threat to the Dehing-Patkai conservation area. She talked about the liberalization of people’s entry participating in mining at the cold blocks. That means various kind of actors can participate in mining activities. There were already many governmental and legal issues on mining before her decision.
Commercial mining in India was started in 1774 with the establishment of Coal Mines Act 1973 and provided a mining right to public sector enterprises like Coal India Limited (CIL) and Singareni Collieries Company Limited. Mining at Dehing-Patkai landscape was also a pioneer one among others by Coal India Limited (CIL) during 1973 in India.
Mainly the center’s controversies started from 2003 onwards for not having a proper national planning and not achieving the target of revenue from mining. As an example, the controversy of Comptroller and Auditor General, India (CAG, 2012) report describes mining as ‘windfall gain’. In 2006, Department of Legal Affairs recommended amending Coal Mines Act to allow competitive bidding methods for mining participants. The auction method was also fruitful for the government in mining development. At the end, administrative activities were recognized as problematic by Supreme Court of India in 2014 and earlier the Committee on Allocation of Natural Resources in 2011.
However, the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Act 2015 replaced the earlier Acts by giving more importance on auction and allotment, treatment of rights and obligations of prior allottees, powers of central in the mining procedures. During this Act, total 31 coal mines in India allocated to private and public companies through auctions and generated Rs. 2500 crores by 2017 (Sarkar, 2019). Later part of the years, again declining in mining growth has been reported against government for its aggressive bidding; weak demand expectation of power; sharing with increased output of public sector and delays in statutory clearances; and pending legal cases. Again in January 2020, Coal Ministry announced the possibility of mining coal and other minerals following to section 11A Mines and Minerals Development and Regulation (MMDR) Act for the engagement of mining sector. The Economic Times report, government is planning to open up more than 200 coal blocks for commercial mining and produce at least 400 million tones by 2024 (ET, Jan 02, 2020). These are the main contradiction of center’s policy, mining agencies and the ground reality on mining issues in India. This issues also knocked the Dehing-Patkai protected area. Over the period of mining in Dehing-Patkai, it found illegal for not fulfilling the national policy and negligence of local authority.
The importance of Dehing-Patkai:
The unstable 17 years of center’s policy has directly affected to the Assam and Arunachal Pradesh in Northeast India. There was always mining contradiction among central government, state government and the local mining groups at Dehing-Patkai conservation area. Coal mining in Dehing and Patkai is now a matter of violation of Forest (Conservation) Act 1980 and Coal Mines Act (Special Provisions) 2015. It is also a matter of Biological Diversity Act 2002 and Wildlife Protection Act 1972. Dehing-Patkai conservation area is known as Amazon of east, Rain Forest and elephant reserve (575 sq km) adjoining with Deomali Elephant Reserve with Arunachal Pradesh. This vast area spread in Dibrugarh, Sivasagar and Tinsukia district in Assam. A portion of this lowland tropical rain forest declared as Wildlife Sanctuary in 2004 (111.19 sq km). There are 16 reserved forest and 4 proposed reserved forest in the landscape. India has 4 ‘Biodiversity Hotspots’ among 34 in the globe declared by an organization call Conservation International for its biological richness in 2006. Dehing-Patkai landscape comes under Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot for its rich flora and fauna diversity. This landscape is home to various IUCN listed species like- Asian Elephant, Royal Bengal Tigers, Indian Leopard, Clouded Leopard, Himalayan Beer, Pangolin, Wild Cat, Barking Deer, Hoolock Gibbon, Slow Loris, Pig-Tailed Macaque, Stump-Tailed Macaque and Capped Langur. Apart from these, there are 293 species of bird, 30 species of butterflies, 47 species of reptiles, 24 species of amphibians including around 100 species of orchids.
Coal mining in Dehing and Patkai conservation area is not only destruction to the environment and Biodiversity. It is also destruction of socio-culture and socio-economic for the habitat communities. People surrounding this area are- Bengali, Nepali, Bihari, Tai-Phake, Tai-Ahom, Nocte, Singpho, Kachari fallowing the majority of Tea Tribes and Ahom community. Most of the local community are not aware of future destruction from the government’s decision on mining. Among these communities few individuals are also involved in the mining activities. But most of the powers are with coal mafias.
Oral Notes of Dehing and Patkai Landscape
The Margherita, Assam to Kharsang, Arunachal Pradesh is almost 40 km through Patkai hills. This area contains large amount of coals in northeast India. Coal mining in this area was started in 1882 by Assam Railways and Trading Company (ARTC) (Bora, 2020). Eventually, the natural destruction of Assam was benign with tea cultivation. A large number of laborers were required for tea cultivation which Britishers brought from Southern part of India. They cultivate tea and send it to the riverside of river Brahmaputra from which they are exported to other parts of the country.
During that time the only way for traveling or exporting materials from Assam to other parts of country was by ship through the river Brahmaputra. When cultivation increased Britishers realized that for transfer of tea from tea estate to the riverside a railway track is needed. To build the railway track a coal was brought from Kolkata to Dibrugarh through Ship by water ways. Britishers later on, found it to be very expensive so few British Geologist was brought for discovering any available coal nearby Dibrugarh, and surprisingly the Patkai hill was found to have coal.
At first Britishers mined Safrai and Naginimara. Later on in the southern part of Makum at Patkai Hill was found as largest coal area and it was named as Makum Koilakhetra. It was the later part of the 19th century from where underground coal mining begins at Makum Koilakhetra. Later the name of Makum Koilakhetra was changed to Margherita after the name of an Italian queen for appreciation of railway line construction. Soon after independence, the Coal India Limited (CIL) was formed and started mining projects with the support of local people in Margherita. That was the beginning of paradigm shift to coal mining from development to its environmental degradation and losing local rights. In 90’s, some powerful people started illegal mining and rest of the people of Margherita have been shouting against it at the same time. Few of them lost their lives in conspiracies due to shouting against mining. But the illegal mining remains unseen. The area Kharseng in east and Sanglang in the south of Patkai rainforest was proceeded illegal mining in front of the government authority since last ten years. The eco sensitive zone of the Patkai hills and rainforest of the area also destroyed by the owner of this illegal mining. Local people understand the matter but cannot go beyond powerful man behind the activities. The ground reality reviles the governmental mining policies, forest laws and other protected measures.
The illegal mining of the area was increasing last few months. These mining activities are total destruction of the vegetation as well as fauna in that region. It increases the massive dust and pollutions in the surround area. Also the area becomes muddy road during monsoon after mining season. The chance of the land subsidence also increased due to illegal mining. The old rat hole minds are found uncover and abandoned at the mining side that are open to nature and increases the possibility to harm wildlife.
Wildlife Conservation Community:
Environmentalist, climatologist, ecologist, conservationists, naturalists and many scientists working in different conservation field are seen little happy for producing less pollution during coronavirus lockdown in worldwide. In various places wildlife were moving freely without human’s disturbance. At the same time, Indian Ministry of Environment and Climate Change (MoECC) took the decision of mining at Dehing-Patkai conservation area through NBWF. This reality is a question about science and non-science in conservation. Scientists are working hard for the conservation of biodiversity and wildlife. But non-scientific activities are affecting beyond conservation activities. Conservation idea is a tool for business that conservation community has to reveal for the rational of conservation. For example, few national conservation NGO’s are in the favor of mining activities though more are opposing. Scientific knowledge production from protected areas does not mean conservation happens. The scientific knowledge and active involvement in conservation policy is also an immediate need for the conservation community. Often it is found that scientific community of conservation run away from the conservation controversies when it became political. Such characteristics does not fulfil the broader objective of wildlife conservation science. Scientific community also need to work along with non-scientific actors for the cause of effective conservation.
The holistic approach in conservation project is collaboration of different organisations or individuals so far. The collaboration between various actors in conservation activities has to depend on each other. Such organizational or individual characteristics of involvements in conservation has lots of problem. Also the system loses the democratic rights to work on wildlife conservation. This collaborative approach in conservation is dangerous for both environment and society. Because the government allow a scientist to work at protected area when they want. Scientists cannot go beyond the authority. Scientific community must need a freedom of working at protected area whenever they want to work. There are many scientific papers on Dehing and Patkai protected area. Unfortunately, when the effective conservation demand raised in the time of need scientific knowledge producers cannot go beyond the government authority. There is something wrong in the idea of scientific conservation that has to be change for the scientists to put the value of wildlife.
The mining issues are becoming more complex day by day nationwide. Dehing-Patkai mining cases are opened up application filing under Right to Information (RTI) Act 2005 by environmental activist. More things are on the way to clear in coming days. Evidence and information will provide a mechanism to reviewing back the government policies for the nature conservation. It seems State government will not able to go beyond the central government’s decision. If there will be change in national development policies; possibly regional mining may stop but it will be again a barrier for the dream of USD 5 trillion Indian economy by 2024.
IEA (2019): Coal 2019 ‘Analysis and Forecast to 2024’.
The Economic Times. (January 02, 2020): Coal mining may be opened up to all sectors before next auction.
Sarkar., B. (2019). Auctions, Negotiations and Winner’s Curse in Coal Mining in India. International Journal of Management Practice.
Bora., B. (2020). An Incomplete Biography of a Rainforest: Dehing-Patkai Across the Centuries. The Cross Current.
Rachan Daimary is a doctoral candidate in Centre for Studies in Science, Technology and Innovation Policy at Central University of Gujarat, Gandhinagar. He works on biodiversity and wildlife conservation from the perspective of science and technology studies (STS). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org