GUWAHATI, June 18 - Welcoming the Supreme Court�s directive to the Centre to seek an alternative site for coal mining in place of Saleki proposed reserve forest (PRF), conservation groups and environmental activists have made a strong pitch for expanding the area of Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary and upgrading it to a national park for saving the last remaining stretches of rainforests in Assam.
The Supreme Court had on June 11 directed the Centre to come out with a proposal for an alternative site in three weeks. The standing committee of National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) had earlier on April 7 accorded in-principle approval to North Eastern Coalfields of Coal India Limited for mining in the Saleki PRF � something that was widely criticised by wildlife activists. Saleki�s total lease area of 98.59 hectares is situated within the 10-km eco-sensitive zone of the 111.19-sq km Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary and also near to an elephant corridor.
The sanctuary comprises around one-fifth of the State�s last vestiges of rainforests spread over some 500 sq km, much of which lies fragmented and degraded today. But conservationists assert it is still possible to expand the sanctuary considerably before further damage is done to its surrounding forests.
Welcoming the apex court�s ruling, environmental activist SK Dutta, who has been campaigning against opencast mining in the area for four decades, said that with successive governments turning a blind eye to the massive mining-induced destruction suffered by the rainforests, people were hoping for some positive and lasting intervention by the judiciary.
�Apart from Saleki, vast stretches of pristine rainforests are undergoing rampant degradation due to opencast mining, including rampant illegal mining. The entire stretch of the last remaining rainforests needs to be accorded strong legal protection by upgrading those to wildlife sanctuary or national park. Or else, those will be lost forever,� he said, adding that opencast mining should also be banned.
Echoing a similar vein, the Assam Environmental NGOs Forum emphasised on bringing the rainforests under a protective legal mechanism by expanding the sanctuary�s area and stopping opencast mining � legal as well as illegal.
�We welcome the Supreme Court�s directive asking the government to seek an alternative site and spare Saleki PRF of coal mining. But a lasting mechanism is urgently needed to save the remaining rainforests in and around Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary. The best option would be to expand its area and upgrade it to a national park besides banning opencast mining,� Jayanta Kumar Das, member of the Forum and honorary Wildlife Warden said.
According to an assessment by the forest department, it is still possible to expand the area of Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary to 267 sq km.
Speaking in a similar vein, Moloy Baruah of Early Birds said that a large part (around 90 sq km) of Jeypore reserve forest was still intact and that could be declared a sanctuary. The Saleki PRF should also be added to the sanctuary immediately, he added. According to Baruah, Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary could be expanded to cover a total area of 360 sq km by incorporating some of the surrounding forests.
�This alone can ensure that our rainforests are saved for posterity. If these forests are lost, the loss cannot be calculated in terms of money. The government must be sensitive to the pressing need for protecting these priceless forests before it is too late. The ongoing large-scale illegal mining must also be stopped once and for all,� he said.