A view of Dibru Saikhuwa National Park. Photo: Dhruba Jyoti Baruah/CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons.
Guwahati: The Gauhati high court has asked the Government of India to clarify its stand on the survival of Assam’s two eco-sensitive biodiversity hotspots: Dehing Patkai, a former wildlife sanctuary and now upgraded as a national park, and Dibru Saikhowa National Park (DSNP). The two are located at two remote but separate parts of upper Assam.
Their survival, tied to the survival of the several species of flora and fauna they host, has become a key issue in multiple petitions that lawyers, activists, a mountaineer and some others have filed at the high court. Both reserves are currently threatened by commercial mining, exploration, drilling and production of fossil fuel and coal by Oil India Limited (OIL) and Coal India Limited (CIL).
The Baghjan blowout incident that occurred in May 2020, at an oil and gas well operated by OIL just adjacent to the DSNP, triggered alarm among concerned citizens, resulting in the court being flooded with multiple petitions.
On February 9, the court heard a case related to drilling and exploration for hydrocarbons at seven locations inside DSNP by OIL, and said that if the government failed to file its response within six weeks, the secretaries of the environmental and petroleum ministries along and the member-secretary of the Central Pollution Control Board will have to be present in court.
In December 2020, the same court had stayed OIL’s drilling and exploration for hydrocarbon activities in these locations.
When the court asked whether the respondents – the Government of India and other state and central government departments – had responded, it was told no one but OIL and the Assam Forest Department had.
A petition filed against OIL in June 2020 had challenged the legality of a clearance the environment ministry had granted to OIL for drilling for oil inside DSNP.
Earlier, on February 5, the court had asked the Centre to inform the court as to the measures it had taken under Section 36 of Biological Diversity Act 2002 for the Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest (SPRF). This forest is located inside the Dehing-Patkai rainforest, and CIL has an open-cast coal mining operation here.
Section 36 of the Act states that the Centre must develop national plans or strategies for conservation, promotion and sustainable use of biological diversity and take measures to identify and monitor such areas. The Act also says that if the Centre believes such areas are in danger due to neglect or abuse, it will do the needful and assist the concerned state government as well.
The court also granted four weeks to the Assam Forest Department to finalise a one-man enquiry committee report under retired Gauhati high court judge Brajendra Prasad Katakey. The state government had constituted this one-man commission after a public uproar over alleged illegal coal-mining inside Dehing Patkai. The report, currently in progress, is required to investigate allegations of illegal mining inside the forest and whether such mining has destroyed the fragile ecosystem there.
The next hearing is scheduled for March 15.
The petitions against ‘illegal coal mining’ kept flowing after April 2020, when a standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife considered a proposal to divert 98.59 ha of SPRF. The committee had recommended approving the diversion of 57.20 ha and asked the CIL to submit a ‘feasibility report’.
In their petition number 29/2020, filed on May 25, 2020, petitioners Mrinmoy Khataniar and Amar Jyoti Deka said, “The standing committee proceeded on a factually incorrect premise that only 57.20 hectares of forest land was broken up but actually an additional 16 hectares out of the original 98.59 hectares has been broken up by CIL without seeking prior approval and mining operation being carried out.”
The Wire reached out to both Khataniar and Deka. “This factual error led to ex post approval in CIL’s favour,” they said. “To allow mining in the 98.59 ha sidelines provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, Forest (Conservation) Act 1980, etc. We believe CIL’s illegal mining inside Dehing Patkai also violates the right to life as enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.”
Deka, who has been a mountaineer for 30 years said, “It was a love for nature that led me to go ahead with the petition. I and Khataniar have also filed a petition against OIL for the drilling and exploration of hydrocarbon in DSNP. This was filed in June last year.”
The court was hearing five petitions, about illegal coal mining inside Dehing Patkai against CIL and several state and Centre departments, that had been clubbed together.
In another petition numbered 45/2020, petitioner Bibek Das said: “On December 26, 2019, the ministry of environment without any recommendations of the standing committee of NWBL and despite the illegalities committed by North Eastern Coalfields, a subsidiary of CIL, in an ecologically rich and sensitive area granted an In-principal approval/Stage-1 Clearance for diversion of 98.59 hectares of forest land for the Tikok Open Cast Project subjected to 28 prescribed conditions.”
Das and a team of prominent Assamese civil society members had visited Dehing Patkai last year, and subsequently filed his petition via the Human Rights Law Network.
“This goes back to 2013 – when, in a meeting of the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC), it was observed that mining has been going on since 2003 in violation of the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980. Despite this, the FAC arbitrarily recommended the proposal with general conditions, standard conditions and certain additional conditions,” Das said.
On Tuesday, after the court directed the government to respond, Rajya Sabha MP from Assam Ajit Kumar Bhuyan questioned Babul Supriyo, the minister of state in the environment ministry, “whether the eco-sensitive zones of both the national parks have been brought down to zero kilometres in the southern boundary of the said protected areas”, and whether this defeats of the purpose of creating and maintaining such zones?
The government responded that “the eco-sensitive zone around DSNP was notified in January 2020 with an area of 658.251 square km against 340 square km of DSNP, with [the zone’s] extent ranging from zero to 8.7 kilometres around the protected area, with zero kilometres in the southern boundary.”
For Dehing Patkai, Supriyo said, “The ministry has advised the state government to submit a revised proposal for ESZ notification for Dehing Patkai.” He also said the delineation of eco-sensitive zones around protected areas is site-specific, and is notified as a proposal of state governments and on the recommendations of expert committees set up for the purpose.