GUWAHATI, June 4 - The Union Ministry of Environment and Forest had way back on June 7, 1989 asked Coal India Limited (CIL) and its North Eastern Coalfields (NEC) to stop opencast coal mining in the Dehing Patkai range that harbours the region�s last vestiges of rainforests together with wide-ranging and endemic wildlife.
This followed recommendations by an expert panel on rampant degradation of the environment, including loss of forest cover, pollution of water bodies and cropland, etc., in the area.
This is in sharp contrast with the functioning of the present Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) which recently took a shockingly lenient view of coal mining ravaging the rich rainforests close to the vicinity of Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary. The Assam forest department, too, has been found to be toeing the lines of the Central authorities without batting an eyelid.
Official documents (dated June 7, 1989 and signed by then Union Environment and Forest Minister ZR Ansari) placed in Parliament and now accessed by The Assam Tribune show that the then Union Ministry of Environment and Forest took a serious view of opencast mining at Dehing Patkai and called for a stop to such activities.
In another official communication dated August 26, 1987, the ministry had earlier asked Coal India to continue with opencast mining only if other alternatives were unavailable.
�CIL/NEC) must stop mining operation in Tikok Opencast Mines within the next six months. CIL/NEC must make arrangements for providing settling tanks preceded by neutralization pits at every mine before 31st May. It must bring the pH value and concentration of suspended solids in the mine water within the prescribed standards under the Environment (Protection) Act 1986 and standards prescribed under the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974,� the official order read.
It further asked CIL/NEC to assess the damage caused to agricultural land, homesteads and other lands by silt, scree and coal dust by June 10, 1989, besides preparing environment management plans (EMPs) for each of the working mines whether opencast or underground for submission to the ministry within six months for examination and approval.
The official communication was in response to the issue of coal mining-triggered deforestation and pollution in the Dehing Patkai area raised in Parliament by then Rajya Sabha member Dr Nagen Saikia on March 31, 1989.
Commenting on the developments, septuagenarian activist SK Dutta, who studied in depth the region�s mining issues and had been vocal against opencast mining for decades, told this correspondent that CIL/NEC had done irreparable damage to the region�s last stretches of the rainforests and its fauna through opencast mining.
�The British had opted for underground mining without damaging the thickly forested surface of the evergreen hills, without disturbing the wildlife habitat and also allowing the tribal communities to live in the hills peacefully. Coal India has done incalculable damage and such atrocities on the environment must stop forthwith,� he said.
Pointing out that the dense Dehing Patkai forests regulate the climate of the region, maintain its ecological balance, and provide clean air and water to both wildlife and the local inhabitants, Dutta said opencast coal mining had completely destroyed the evergreen hills, causing disappearance of hills one after the other and �converting the forested hills into huge pits 300-400 ft deep below the ground level and replacing them by tall and stiff heaps of overburdens removed from operated sites which are nothing but rocky subsoil mixed with coal.�
These loose overburdens, he said, are highly acidic and infertile, and unsuitable for plant growth. �In this high rainfall zone, the highly acidic and harmful overburdens are washed down by rain waters, silting and polluting all the natural water sources such as rivers, streams, channels, lakes, and cropland,� he added.