GUWAHATI, June 7 - Notwithstanding assertions by the Coal India Limited (CIL) authorities about land reclamation on abandoned mine areas through afforestation, the ground reality remains far from inspiring. Matters stand worsened by slack verification over compliance or prosecution of violations that are commonplace.
Questioning the actual implementation and also the efficacy of these reclamation drives in biodiversity-rich areas such as the Dehing Patkai rainforests, environmentalists have reasoned that it is impossible to restore such pristine forested stretches to their former glory once such forests are wiped out by opencast mining.
�It is ludicrous to say that these rainforests can be brought back to their earlier pristine status. The North Eastern Coalfields of CIL has done afforestation over a few patches but that is hardly any compensation for the green cover lost to opencast mining. It is also unscientific as they sought to replace the rainforest flora with some weeds and exotic tree species,� environmental activist SK Dutta, who has been battling opencast mining in the area for four decades, told The Assam Tribune.
Opencast mining not only destroys the vegetation but also degrades soil quality and weakens and alters soil structures, and therefore, it is impractical to restore such forestland lost through such activity. �Trees aside, opencast mining also causes irreversible damage to natural water channels that are buried under debris,� said Dutta, a septuagenarian.
�There is also the larger issue of allowing opencast mining in a biodiversity-rich rainforest, which is also an Elephant Reserve and provides buffer space to Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary. It is a complex web of varied flora and fauna that has evolved through the intricate interplay of natural phenomena over thousands of years. Opencast mining should be stopped in such areas,� he added.
Agrees senior forest officer Jatin Sarma who has studied in depth the floral wealth of Dehing Patkai and authored two volumes on its abundant medicinal plants, many endemic to the area. �Many plants like Nothapodytes nimmoniana, Amomum Pratistha a, Clerodendrum trichotomum, Pratisthana and the rare Garcinia atroviridis, among others, have been discovered from these areas. These forests need to be protected for all the times to come,� he said.
The exact status of reclamation as claimed by the North Eastern Coalfields, CIL could not be ascertained, as the �reclamation� head in its official website states that the figures �will be updated soon�. A CIL official, however, claimed that their reclamation percentage in Assam was better than those in several other mining regions of the country.
Countering it, Dutta said that not a single plant of original species could be grown by the CIL on the overburden dumps, not to speak of raising a natural forest as before and make it suitable for wildlife.
Under the Union Environment and Forest Ministry�s directive, mining companies are required to carry out re-grassing in the mined-out areas to make them suitable for the growth of flora and fauna once the mining activity is complete.
Environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta also questioned the rationale behind such reclamation drives in wildlife habitats. �It would have been good for the members of the State Wildlife Board to first find out one mine in India where the forest has become a �good forest� with native species that is good for wildlife after mining has happened,� he said.
The Supreme Court recently asked the Centre to devise appropriate methods to ensure compliance of the land reclamation condition after the mining activity is over at the cost of the mining leaseholders.
�This condition shall be in addition to those conditions which have already been imposed for achieving the same purpose under the mine closure plan. This condition shall not be imposed in derogation of any conditions which are already in force,� the SC order noted.
According to official data from 2018-19 regarding land restoration and reclamation of 52 CIL opencast coal mines projects, the total mine leasehold area is 671.44 sq km. Of that, the total excavated area is 255.43 sq km and of that, 60.8 sq km � 23.8 per cent � has been planted or biologically reclaimed, 99.99 sq km � 39.15 per cent � is under backfilling or technical reclamation, and 94.64 sq km � 37.05 per cent � is under active mining. CIL accounts for over 80 per cent of India�s total coal produced.
Following the SC order, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest had on January 14 last year came out with an order to add this condition to standard conditions imposed in the approvals accorded under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.
Correspondent adds from Doomdooma: NEC suspends mining operations
DOOMDOOMA, June 7 - Amid ongoing controversy over the approval for coal mining in Saleki PRF adjacent to Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve by the National Board of Wildlife, the North Eastern Coalfields of Coal India Limited has suspended mining operations temporarily from June 3. An office order ( No. NEC/GM/2020/34-I) by the General Manager of NEC, CIL, Margherita, however, stated that the liquidation of the present coal stock will continue till the existing stock is exhausted.