DIGBOI/MARGHERITA, July 30 - Even as the issue of illegal mining in the Dehing Patkai rainforests � both by Coal India and the mafia � continues to rage, more forestlands comprising prime wildlife habitats are being brazenly handed over to the coal major for further mining.
Conservationists have questioned the rationale behind allotting such biodiversity-rich forests for highly-destructive opencast mining.
A case in point happens to be Coal India�s Lekhapani opencast project that was accorded Stage-I Forest Clearance by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest vide No. 8-5/2012-FC on March 28, 2013. The Tikak extension opencast project had also received Stage-I Forest Clearance vide No. 8-61/2012-FC on March 28, 2013.
The site in question in Lekhapani reserve forest, which forms part of Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve, comprises 235 hectares of core forestland with thick vegetation and varied wildlife.
The Union ministry, while granting in-principle clearance with a number of conditions for final clearance, itself acknowledges the varied wildlife of the area where opencast mining is proposed.
�The project is adjoining the State of Arunachal Pradesh. The entire lease falls in Lekhapani RF and forms a part of Elephant Reserve of Digboi Division. The forests in the study area support rich wildlife and many Schedule I and II mammals, butterflies and threatened orchids,� the ministry notes in a minute.
According to the Assam forest department, while no extensive scientific survey has been done in the Lekhapani area, a census conducted during 2009 found 12 hoolock gibbons and another census a year before had recorded 15 elephants.
Significantly, the Lekhapani river flows at a distance of just 500 metres from the mining area and joins the Tirap river.
It is apparent that together with the forest cover, these life-giving rivers will bear the brunt of mining-induced ravages. The Dehri river, too, flows along the northern side of the mine.
�We have seen the shocking devastations caused to these evergreen forests and their fauna by rampant opencast mining by Coal India besides illegal mining by the mafia. Many jungle streams and rivers that feed cropland below now stand highly polluted. Some people argue that the Ledo-Margherita belt has been used for coal mining since the British days,� environmental activist Surjya Kanta Dutta said.
�But Coal India is expanding its footprint in the area and several projects have already received in-principle clearance despite the fact that these are thick forests with hundreds of varieties of big and small trees and abundant wildlife. The rationale behind this must be questioned, as opencast mining will completely wipe out these wildlife habitats,� he added.
Dutta also pointed out that the British did underground mining which did not involve felling of trees and the coal overburden was much less in volume.
Terming the post-mining afforestation drives as complete eyewash, Dutta said that the entire Ledo-Margherita coalfields did not witness any such drive till date. Moreover, there is no effective effluent treatment by Coal India, resulting in widespread pollution in the streams and rivers in and around the mining areas.
During a field visit, this correspondent witnessed vast stretches of barren hills, deep pits and overburdens resembling hills in the mining areas of Tikak, Tipong, Ledo and Namdang. The streams, too, had been severely impacted due to deposition of coal and overburdens.
�The Union ministry needs to check what Coal India is doing to minimise damage to the environment. How many of the myriad preconditions have been fulfilled? Pristine forests have been wiped out for good and the once-sparkling streams are now flowing through coal leftovers and overburdens. Widespread cropland damage on the plains below corroborates this,� he said.
Admitting that little has been done in the name of forest reclamation in the abandoned mining areas, a retired Coal India official said that it was very tough to regrow vegetation in those areas dominated by dense rainforests.
The Union ministry imposed a host of conditions, 33 specific and ...general conditions, for handing over the Lekhapani core forest areas to Coal India. These include forest reclamation and specific wildlife conservation plans for elephants (including creation of corridors) and other Schedule I animals.
�This is an absolute farce that has been perpetrated for long. How can animals return to these forests when you have wiped out every single tree, polluted the water-bodies and ravaged the earth?� Dutta said.
A top forest official said that granting clearance to the Lekhapani project was �absolutely unethical and unjustified, given the horrendous damage being caused to biodiversity�.
Diversion of prime forestland for damaging industrial activities has gained more momentum in the past five years, he said, adding, �matters stand worsened due to poor monitoring of conditions, as has been the case in the Dehing Patkai range vis-�-vis coal mining.�
Ironically, it is the forest department itself which is primarily responsible for the lopsided monitoring of the conditions.