Featured image: The Dehing Patkai elephant reserve. Photo taken by Ratna Bharali Talukdar in 2005.
Guwahati: The 57th meeting of the Standing Committee of National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) granted post-facto approval for opencast coal mining in 57.20 hectares of forest land already broken up and mined by North Eastern Coalfields of Coal India Limited in Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest (PRF) under Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve in Assam.
The Committee, however, seems to have hushed up the actual status on the ground.
While the remaining 41.39 hectares (of a total 98.59 hectares forestland in the PRF) is proposed to be diverted for the Tikok open cast coal mining project, an application filed under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005 by environment activist Rohit Choudhury has brought to light that actual unbroken forest area is approximately 25 hectares.
Official reports say that the Tikok open cast mining project area falls within an Eco Sensitive Zone and the southernmost tip of the project site is located just on the boundary of the 10 km radius of Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary.
The NBWL meeting described the remaining 41.39 hectares as “unbroken land” and decided that with respect to that portion, the matter would be decided after the North Eastern Coalfields submits a feasibility report for underground mining, and also submits compliance report regarding fulfilment of all other conditions.
Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate change Prakash Javadekar chaired the meeting held on April 7, 2020 through a video conference during the countrywide lockdown due to COVID-19 pandemic.
However, nearly four months prior to the NBWL meeting, W.I. Yatbon, Deputy Inspector General of Forests (C) Regional Office, Shillong in his Site Inspection Report on November 25, 2019 submitted to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) revealed that:
“the area of 41.39 hectares claimed to be unworked/fresh area has also been broken of which 9 ha was mined and another 7 ha was cleared perhaps for further mining.”
Choudhury shared with nezine.com (and The Wire Science), a copy of this report and other documents obtained by him through the RTI application.
“The current status of clearing and breaking up of land in the proposed area was also cross-verified through DSS facility available in the Regional Office and it is confirmed that as on date the area of unbroken area stands at approximately 25 hectares (i.e. 49.39-9 hectares mined or broken and 7 hectares cleared) which agrees with reports of CF/DFO (Annexure V),” states the Site Inspection Report.
The report also states:
“The officers from the state government including the CF (Conservator of Forest), North Assam Circle and the DFO seem to be aware of the fact that work was going on. Thus, coal mining was carried out in gross violation of the Assam Forest Regulation, 1891, and FCA, 1980.
Accordingly, the CF, EAC and the DFO, Digboi Division present during the discussion, were instructed to take action against as per law for violation of the aforesaid forest laws.”
Quoting from a report of the expert committee for site inspection submitted on October 22, 2019 the minutes of the 57th NBWL meeting uploaded on Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change states:
“Prof. R. Sukumar, Member stated that 57.20 hectares of forestland has already been broken up by the user agency and the balance area of 41.39 ha unbroken land, cautious approach needs to be adopted in the light of the rich biodiversity.
“The proposed area is on a steep hill slope that is part of the Dehing Patkai Elephant reserve adjoining good forest area in the neighbouring State of Arunachal Pradesh which includes Deomali Elephant Reserve with a sizeable population of elephants. He also stated that it would be prudent to preserve the basic integrity of this forested hill slope.”
Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve notified on April 17, 2003 has 937 sq. km. Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary with 111.19 sq. km located in Dibrugarh. Sivasagar and Tinsukia district and famous for Assam Valley Tropical Wet Evergreen Forests is part of the Elephant Reserve.
In a letter to the Chief Conservator of Forests and Nodal Officer (FC Act) on November 22, 2019, Conservator of Forests, Eastern Assam Circle, Jorhat wrote:
“The FC Act, 1980 has so far not authorised any Forest Officer of Eastern Assam Circle to draw up legal proceeding for violation of the FC Act, 1980. This matter was also discussed with the DIGF, Regional Office, MoEF, Shillong, who opined that ‘Legal proceeding under the AFR, 1891′ is sufficient to book the accused for trespassing into Saleki PRF, clearing of vegetation and illegal mining in a formally notified Proposed Reserve Forest area.
He further advised that the case of seizure of 5,297 CuM (4800 MT) of coal and unauthorised breaking/clearing up of 16 hectares of PRF area within the proposed lease area of 41.29 hectares, will be a single case under the AFR, 1891, within the jurisdiction of the SDJM, Margherita.”
The letter also states:
“The executive staff of Lekhapani Range are regularly patrolling over the area and it is informed that the miscreants are making preliminary arrangement for illegal mining,”
The Site Inspection Report states:
“During inspection, it was also observed that illegal coal mining was carried out at several places in the vicinity of the project area, which was done by illegal miners and not by the CIL as informed by accompanying CIL and forest officials.
Numerous stockpiles of coal mines and rat-hole mines were also noticed beside 3 huts (2 persons found inside them) which were dismantled by the accompanying staff. This area was near Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border. Thereafter, inspected the CIL’s Tikok Stock Yard adjacent to Ledo Railway station where large quantity of coal from Tikok OCP inside Saleki PRF was stocked.”
North Eastern Coalfields had applied for renewal of the mining leases in the year 2003. It submitted a fresh proposal in 2012 for prior approval for a period of 20 years between 2003 to 2023 including post facto approval from 2003 to 2013 for opencast mining of 0.20 MMT of coal per year. The application also mentioned that the Ministry had granted environment clearance for the same quantity in 1996.
The project estimated a total mineable reserve of 8.166 million tonne.
In 2011-12, the Tikok open cast project generated a profit of Rs 165.66 crores while the average value for previous 10 years was Rs 58.31 crore.
The profitability per tonne of coal raised in 2011-12 has been Rs 6,004 whereas for the previous 10 years it was Rs 1,568. The sales turnover value in 2011-12 was Rs 180.90 crore while the average turnover for the previous ten years was Rs 90.21 crore.
Sources in the North Eastern Coalfields claim that they have been regularly paying the royalty, land tax, Value Added Tax, Goods and Services Tax to Assam government ever since it has been mining and producing coal in Tikok opencast mining project.
Tikok Production & Stock: Month-wise during 2019-20 (in tonnes)
|Opening stock||Production/Transportation||Offtake||Closing Stock|
(Source: Information obtained by Rohit Choudhury in response to his RTI application)
The Assam government during the previous Tarun Gogoi-led Congress regime forwarded the proposal (vide letter No FRS. 108/2012/320 dated 02.04.2013) seeking prior approval of the Central government under Section 2 of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.
It was considered by the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) in its meeting held on June 10 and 11, 2013, and the FAC observed that “no forest clearance was granted to the mining lease in 2003 or later period but the mining operation is going on since 2003 in violation of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.”
The proposal was placed before the State Board for Wildlife in the seventh meeting of the board on October 21, 2014. The SBWL requested the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) and the Chief Wildlife Warden to constitute an expert committee. They constituted the expert committee on July 6, 2015.
The Committee submitted its report in 2016, which was placed before the ninth SBWL meeting. The expert committee recommended the proposal subject to implementation of a set of mitigation measures.
The 10th meeting of the SBWL chaired by chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal recommended the proposal in 2018. The minutes say:
“The physical verification report conducted by, CF, EAC, Jorhat was discussed in the meeting and as the site was found to be located just on the boundary of the 10-km radius from the Dehing Patkai WLS it was considered falling within the Eco-Sensitive Zone.
“After deliberation on the matter the board recommended the proposal subject to compliance to a set of mitigation measures as suggested by the expert committee.”
After recommendation of the SBWL, Assam government forwarded the proposal to the MoEF&CC on August 21, 2018 (Letter No. FRS.171/2018/14) with a request to “place the matter before the National Board for Wildlife for necessary clearance.”
In September 2019, the MoEF&CC requested the Assam government as to why the information regarding “violation done by the user agency” as sought on recommendation of the FAC by Ministry in 2013 had not yet been provided for six years.
The state government has no answer. Ever since 2012, the state forest department has been recommending the proposal on the ground that “production of coal is of primary importance for both the state as well as central government contributing substantial amount of royalty as well as revenue to the state exchequer in terms of royalty, cess, etc. inclusive of generating large local employment and as well as coal-based industries.”