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Call to cancel coal mining project at Saleki in Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve

By Abhijit Khataniar

DOOMDOOMA, May 10 - Nature lovers, environmentalists and green NGOs have intensified their protest against the decision of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) to allow coal mining at Saleki in Dehing Patkai Elephant Reseve.

The Dehing Patkai Elephant Reseve, of which Saleki is a part, is the largest rain forest in India. It stretches for 575 sq kms in Tinsukia, Dibrugarh and Sivasagar districts in Upper Assam. This virgin forest land is also referred to as the Amazon of the East. The biodiversity of this forest is very rich and unique.

Hoolock gibbon, slow loris, pig-tailed macaque, stump-tailed macaque, capped langur, Indian leopard, Asian elephant, Royal Bengal tiger, gaur, Chinese pangolin, Himalayan black bear, Himalayan squirrel, leopard cat, clouded leopard, porcupine, crab eating mongoose, sambar, sun bear, binturong, barking deer, golden cat and marbled cat are some of the animal species found here.

Further, Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve is also home to around 293 different species of birds, besides rock python, king cobra, Asian leaf turtle and monitor lizard are among the most common reptiles found here.

Moreover, the forest is also home to 30 different species of butterfly which thrive in the beautiful tropical vegetation along with over 100 species of orchids.

Amidst the nationwide lockdown in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) in its 56th annual meeting held on April 7 last through video conferencing under the chairmanship of Prakash Javedkar, Chairman of NBWL and Union Minister for Forest, Environment and Climate Change approved a coal mining project in the Saleki proposed reserve forest, which is a part of the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve.

The NBWL standing committee had discussed and subsequently approved a proposal for use of 98.59 hectares of Saleki land for a coal mining project by North Eastern Coal Field ( NECF), which is a unit of Coal India Limited. The NBWL, it may be pertinent to add here, is under the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoFCC).

It may be recalled that the NBWL had in its 54th meeting constituted a panel with Prof. R Sukumar, a member of NBWL as its head to visit the proposed Lekhapani open cast project under Lekhapani Range of Digboi Forest Division in Tinsukia district.

As per the report submitted by the panel, the Standing Committee of NBWL recommended the proposal for broken up area (57.20 hectares) for approval subject to submission of a rectified site-specific mine reclamation plan in consultation with the Forest Department of Assam.

On the other hand, for the unbroken area (41.39 hectares), the NBWL will consider the matter after the user agency submits a feasibility report for underground mining and compliance report regarding fulfilment of all the other conditions recommended by the NBWL.

This recommendation for coal mining in the forest by the NBWL has been strongly opposed by the nature lovers, environmental activists and NGOs.The protesters opined that while offering recommendation for coal mining in the forest, the NBWL has overlooked the fact that this is a Protected Area and �should be conserved and protected from any destructive activities in order to ensure the country�s ecological and environmental security�.

The protesters urged the Prime Minister, Union Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Chief Minister of Assam and the NBWL to stop any current or future coal mining project at Saleki and the whole of Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve, stating that coal extraction will have a catastrophic consequence for the entire ecosystem in the region.

Due to the ongoing lockdown, various NGOs and environmental activists have launched a protest campaign against this issue through social media. A few among them have also embarked on a signature collection drive too.

It may be mentioned here that the Dehing Patkai region is already threatened by high polluting industries such as coal mines, oil refineries and gas drilling adversely affecting the biodiversity in the region.

�Though the NBWL allowed the coal mining project on April 7, 2020, but illegal mining has been going on covertly by the coal mafia in the forest for long, thereby affecting the biodiversity of this virgin forest land,� alleged the environmental activists.

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