Dehing Patkai: India’s last lowland rainforest or a coalmine?


The Dehing Patkai wildlife sanctuary by Rofikul

The Dehing Patkai rainforests, covering an area of 937 sq. km, is situated in the districts of Tinsukia, Sivsagar and Dibrugarh in the state of Assam. The area includes multiple Proposed Reserve Forests (PRFs) and Reserve Forests (RFs), such as the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary and the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve. The Dehing Patkai rainforests form the largest stretch of lowland tropical rainforests in India and fall under the Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot. Naturally, it houses a great number of species, some which are endemic to just this region. The rainforests are dominated by towering Hollong and Mekai trees, with 107 species of orchids, making it one of the most important places for orchid diversity. It hosts 293 avian species, 40 plus reptile species and 30 butterfly species.  Nearly 47 mammalian species have been recorded in this area, including globally threatened and rare animals like the Hoolock gibbon, Gaur, Himalayan black bear, Clouded leopard, Chinese pangolin, Binturong, Barking deer and Asian elephant. It is one of the few forests that house seven species of the wildcat. The rainforests hold a sizeable population of the Asian elephant, which move between the adjoining forests of Arunachal Pradesh and Dehing Patkai. The rainforests form an integral abode for its wildlife residents and the tribal communities that live in close proximity.


The Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve has recently been in news due to the uproar against proposed coal mining within a part of the reserve. In the 57th meeting conducted last month, the Standing Committee of the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) granted the North-Eastern Coal Fields of CIL (Coal India Limited) approval for opencast coal mining in 57.20 hectares of forestland in Saleki PRF.  The Saleki PRF is part of the Dehing Patkai Elephant reserve and is located near the adjoining forests of Arunachal Pradesh, which includes the Deomali Elephant Reserve. The 57.20 hectares are part of a 98.59 hectare forestland in Saleki that is being directed towards mining. The remaining 41.39 hectares will be used for underground mining after the North Eastern Coalfields submits a feasibility report and ensures preservation of biodiversity in the area. The 41.39 hectares of land were claimed as ‘unbroken’ or ‘unmined’ by the NBWL, but a recent report stated that only 25 hectares remain unbroken. The CIL was given a mining lease in 1973 for 30 years in said area. The company applied for a mining lease in 2003, which received no forest clearance, thereby making the lease redundant. Regardless, the mining operation continued in violation to the Forest Conservation Act. The DFO and state government at that time took no action against the company. Apart from this, multiple mining sites were discovered in the vicinity, which are claimed to be made by illegal miners and not the CIL.


The National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) comes under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (Moefcc). The board is responsible for promoting conservation, development of forests and advising the government in policy making regarding conservation of wildlife. The Standing Committee of NBWL approves projects that fall within 10 km or inside protected wildlife areas. It is chaired by the Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. 


Coal mining in Dehing Patkai


The Northeast has observed an increase in number of proposed infrastructure projects, which are supposed to boost the socio-economy of the region. Such projects have gained momentum under the ‘Act East Policy’.  The state government of Assam approves the coal-mining operation on the grounds that it will provide revenue for the state and generate local employment. However, carrying out coal-mining operations within reserve forests can lead to habitat degradation and pose a threat to the local biodiversity.  Forest clearance in a fragile zone like Dehing Patkai will cause irreplaceable loss in flora and fauna. Noise and dust pollution will degrade the quality of adjoining forested areas. Open mines are dangerous to animals moving about, within and around the site. Carrying out mining within an Elephant reserve will affect the demographics of local elephant populations and lead to conflict with humans. Opening mining sites in eco-sensitive areas will only lead to the destruction of an ideal habitat and the loss of important species.


Students and environment activists in Assam and India are campaigning against the decision to approve coal mining in Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve through digital protests and by putting out art, videos, and photographs to create support for the green cause. Hashtags such as #IAMDEHINGPATKAI and #SAVEDEHINGPATKAI have been splashed across various social media platforms. In light of the on-going pandemic that is linked to habitat destruction, it is of utmost necessity to question the degradation of natural habitats in the name of economy and development. 


Illustration by Monsun Mout


Reference

  1. Dehing Patkai: Land Claimed by NBWL as ‘Unbroken’ Has Already Been Mined or Cleared, Reveals RTI, Science, The Wire

  2. Dehing Patkai coal mining: How many pandemics do we need to care for nature? Northeast News

  3. Assam students, environment activists launch online campaign to stop coal mining in elephant reserve, Hindustan times

  4. National Board for Wildlife Permits Coal Mining in Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve in Assam

  5. Cry for coal mining ban in Assam forest gets shriller, THE HINDU


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