GUWAHATI, May 20 - The Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary and the larger Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve that constitute one of the last vestiges of the country�s rainforests have been faced with an unprecedented crisis, stemming ironically from the callous handling by the authorities mandated with the task of forest protection.
In a shocking instance of protectors turning predators, the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) under the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change had during the nationwide lockdown given the green signal to the Coal India Limited to use 98.59 hectares of land of a proposed reserve forest (PRF) belonging to the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve for coal mining.
Significantly, while a little more than half (57.02 hectares) of forest land has already been used for mining by Coal India Limited for years, albeit in violation of forest rules, it is the NBWL approval to allow the rest 41.39 hectares for coal extraction that has stunned conservation circles.
The unbroken area in Saleki PRF comprising a forested hill slope forms an elephant corridor linking it with the adjoining Deomali Elephant Reserve of Arunachal Pradesh.
Conservationists believe that matters stand worsened by the Assam forest department�s inertia on the issue, as it has failed to put up a strong stance opposing the Centre�s move.
�This could well mark the beginning of the end for the pristine elephant habitat, which also shelters wide-ranging flora and fauna, many endemic to the region. Being a rainforest, its biodiversity is fabulous and the services they provide are immeasurable,� a conservationist having a long association with the area said.
The forest department, however, argues that since it is only the stage-I clearance by the NBWL, there is still hope to scuttle the move. �For the new unbroken area Coal India is seeking, it will be considered only after the user agency submits a feasibility report for underground mining, together with submission of its compliance report regarding fulfilment of 28 stringent conditions,� a top forest official told The Assam Tribune.
The official added that the NBWL in allocating new areas of the forest for coal mining came as a shock for the department �as we have been trying hard to contain illegal mining in and around the area and had taken up the matter with the Centre much earlier.�
The forest authorities have also reasoned that the mining areas in question are some 15 km off the 111.19-sq km Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary, the core area of the Elephant Reserve, and not in the sanctuary as reported in a section of the media.
Conservationists are little enthused by the forest department�s argument.
�The department being mandated with forest protection should voice concern for the entire stretch of rain forests, i.e., the Elephant Reserve. Many animals, especially long-ranging ones such as elephants and tigers need vast areas for their survival and breeding. The mining area also falls on a critical elephant corridor linking it with the Arunachal forests and elephants have traditionally been using the path. At a time when rampant deforestation has taken roots, every bit of remaining forest needs to be preserved zealously. And we do not have any more rainforests other than this existing stretch,� a conservationist said.
The Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve � often referred to as the Amazon of the East � happens to be the largest rainforest in India, stretching for some 575 sq km in Tinsukia, Dibrugarh and Sivasagar districts and is a biodiversity hotspot.
Suklabaidya to visit sanctuary (STAFF REPORTER): In view of the public opposition to coal mining in Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary, Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal today directed Environment and Forest Minister Parimal Suklabaidya to visit the area for taking stock of the ground situation there.
Sonowal said the Government of Assam is committed to protect the environment and biodiversity of the State and will not compromise with its stand in the name of development initiatives. The government always underscored the need to sustain development in sync with its ecology, he said in a statement.