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Are humans the cause of the next Pandemic? A Dehing Patkai perspective

Updated: May 30, 2020

The growing demand for human progression and economic development of a country we are responsible for an exponentially greater damage to the environment. Its time to get together globally for a yet new challenge! The Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary has been approved to be open for coal mining which has unlimited scope for environmental destruction. If we do not learn now, then when?

by Gargi Baruah

With the world crying over a virus pandemic that hit mankind mercilessly, the human conscience somewhere accepts this as a cry call from the nature of this universe. Nature has been silently bearing all the harshness it is projected to for the mere reason of “development and civilization” of mankind over millons of years.  How many pandemics are we looking forward to for realizing what we have done to our surroundings?

A country’s administrative system often makes arrangements to “preserve and protect” the ecosystem of its motherland while carefully trying to drive economic benefits from it without harming and exploiting it altogether. In the same context, India has a union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC). But pretty ironically, recently, in the midst of the lockdown, the 57th meeting of the Standing Committee of National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) chaired by the Union Minister of MoEFCC over video conferencing granted approval to a proposal recommending usage of 98.59 hectares of land from the the Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest (PRF) for an open-cast coal mining project by North-Eastern Coal Field (NECL), a subsidiary of Coal India Limited(CIL). Saleki is a part of the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve which belongs to the Dihing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary.

The Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary covers 111.19 sq km of rainforest and several reserve forests in Dibrugarh, Tinsukia and Sivasagar districts of Assam. Dehing is the river that flows through this forest, and Patkai is the name of the hill on the foot of which it lies. Forming the largest stretch of tropical lowland rainforest in India, the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary, is also known as the ‘Amazon of the East”.

Coal India Limited was granted a mining lease for 30 years in the year 1973. Ever since, NECL has been mining in the area. The lease expired way back in 2003, but the CIL applied to the MoEFCC for lease renewal in 2012. To much surprise or maybe not, coal mining continued illegally in the area, and with no official data and revenue collection the entire profit was pocketed by the culprits. However no action was taken until recently when the Assam Forest Department levied a fine of Rs. 432.5 million on Coal India Limited for illegal mining in the reserve forest. In this context, NEC claims that it had applied for renewal of the mining leases in the year 2003 but Forest Advisory Committee in its meeting back in 2013 observed that no forest clearance was granted to the mining lease in 2003 or

later period but the mining operation was going on since 2003 in violation of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.

So much evidently the MoEFCC has turned around by approving the proposal of coal mining in Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary, severely affecting the future of the biodiversity of the virgin forestland. Out of the 98.59 hectares of forest land sought for mining, 12.93 hectares was broken up for mining by 2003 and 44.27 hectares was broken up between 2003 and 2012, then the Coal India Limited applied for lease renewal for mining 41.39 hectares in 2012.

Dehing Patkai is inhabited by a sizeable population of elephants which is under threat from the mining project. Moreover the area is already threatened by pollution due to industries and refineries nearby. The rainforest is also a loving home to 293 bird species. The towering Hollong tree which is also the state tree of Assam dominates the sanctuary. The Dehing Patkai forest region is the habitat of several ethnic groups including the indigenous Assamese communities, Tai Phake, Khamyang, Khamti, Moran, Ahom, Muttack, Nepali people and Tea-tribes to name a few.

It is very daunting to realize that the government even though promotes sustainable development without distressing the environment has taken such a drastic step to knock down such a beautiful and naturally rich region of the country. It is absolutely no secret as to how coal mining disrupts the entire ecosystem of a place with massive dust and noise pollution in the surrounding areas. Also, with no adequate guidelines around the mining activities, these regions are left as abandoned fields after the cutting of the coal seams are done.

The step by the MoEFCC is supposed to “economically strengthen India”. Does one’s development only come from putting another down?

When Amazon in Brazil was burning last year, the collective efforts of the people globally imposed immense pressure on Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to take effective steps to stop the forest fire. What is stopping us to protect our own this time? It is on an individual capacity as to promote awareness around it before it is too late. Ofcourse the current priority is to fight the virus, but what is a world with just human surviving after the pandemic is over. How far does mankind expect to live on without nature? May we ponder upon such thoughts. Let us learn the lessons we have been taught by the virus and stop believing that this earth belongs to only us. In this constant hustle to “progress” we have forgotten how to walk lightly on Earth like its other creatures do.

Let us remind ourselves what the Father of this nation had taught us many years ago. “What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and one another”- Mahatma Gandhi.

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