DIGBOI/MARGHERITA, July 18 - There is much more than what meets the eye vis-�-vis illegalities perpetrated in the Dehing Patkai rainforests. Contrary to the claims of the forest department, large-scale illegal opencast coal mining using heavy machinery has been taking place inside Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve with all the authorities concerned looking the other way.
Following a series of reports in The Assam Tribune, the forest department reluctantly acknowledges that only illegal rat-hole mining had been on in the elephant reserve and Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary but things are far worse than what the department claims.
According to an internal inquiry by the forest department itself � which has not yet been made public � a three-member inquiry team during their field visit on July 3 and 4, 2019 to Namphai reserve forest (RF) detected a large opencast mining site together with the presence of heavy machinery. Tinkopani and Lekhapani RFs are other areas where similar large-scale coal extraction had been going on.
Disclosing this, official sources told The Assam Tribune that the probe revealed a shocking picture of opencast mining-induced ravages, with a large area of Namphai being cleared and mined � and a wide non-concrete road leading to the site, allowing passage for big vehicles.
A subsequent order by the Government of Assam dated July 10, 2019, takes serious note of the illegal developments. �...a team of senior forest officers, upon field inspection of Lekhapani RF, Namphai RF, Tinkopani RF and Saleki PRF under Digboi Division on 3 and 4 July, 2019, has detected large-scale rampant illegal coal mining,� the order stated and called for stringent follow-up action on the illegalities. A copy of the order was also addressed to DGP, Assam.
The order also mentions rampant illegal mining in forests under Digboi and Dibrugarh forest divisions.
Sources added that the area at Namphai was cleared for mining and the road by a river leading to the rainforest showed signs of movement of heavy vehicles, indicating that trucks were frequenting the region.
�The area is also a prime elephant habitat, as corroborated by the presence of elephant dung at many locations � besides being a biodiversity hotspot comprising rare rainforests,� sources said.
The investigating team witnessed rich forested areas ravaged by opencast mining. According to the report, the destruction of the ecosystem is of a �higher magnitude� caused by the �ruthless means� applied for mining using heavy machinery which were also found at the site.
The report goes on to state that the mining site had been opened during the last quarter of 2018 and that there were some more locations in Tinkopani RF which were being destroyed by similar opencast mining.
The report further suggested that the mining was preceded by illegal logging and encroachment, apparently for facilitating illegal mining activities.
A Coal India official wishing anonymity said that illegal mining, including mechanized opencast extraction involving excavators and chained proclaim vehicles, had been rampant in the Dehing Patkai range.
�Not just rat-hole, illegal opencast mining is a reality and it is thriving due to the lack of enforcement by the government authorities, including the police,� he said.
Shockingly, Coal India had been illegally mining in four forests � Jeypore RF, Tipong PRF, Dill RF and Saleki PRF � in the Dehing Patkai range.
Environmental activist Surjya Kanta Dutta, who has been campaigning against opencast mining by Coal India for four decades, said that illegal mining by the coal mafia had also been rampant in the area for a long time.
�This is possible only due to the tacit patronage of various government agencies which, ironically, are supposed to check such illegalities. The government must take matters seriously and intervene strongly,� he said.
It may be recalled that an eviction drive at Namphai RF on August 3, 2017 had removed 150 temporary huts from a 25-hectare illegal settlement. Illegal logging and encroachment have been a persisting issue there, with vast forested tracts lost in the last few years.
Namphai RF spreading over 2,117 hectares falls under Upper Dehing rainforest within Jagun forest range.