Battle to Protect Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary, the Amazon of the East

In Pic: Elephants seen at Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary. (Twitter- @BaruahKrisanu)

by Suhail Mohammed 21 May 2020

“In those vernal seasons of the year, when the air is calm and pleasant, it were an injury and sullenness against Nature not to go out and see her riches, and partake in her rejoicing with heaven and earth” said John Milton once praising nature that heals even the excruciating pains and brings life to normal. These days the budding Assamese Nissim Ezekiels, Jayanta Mahapatras, Nilmani Phookans, Harekrishna Dekas and Syed Abdul Maliks of the north eastern state of Assam in India with people cutting across all walks of life are up against the The National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) that has recently given permission to a proposal recommending usage of 98.59 hectares of land belonging to the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve, also known as the Amazon of the East, a proposed reserve forest, for extraction of coal by Coal India Limited. With Covid_19 cases rapidly increasing everyday in the quarantine camps, turning them to hot beds of the pandemic and African Swine Flu killing tens of thousands pigs causing severe health hazards in the state, the agony of the Assamese people in recent times is in multiple folds.

Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary:

Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary is located in the Dibrugarh and Tinsukia Districts of Assam and covers an area of 111.19 sq. km (42.93 sq mi) rainforest. It is part of the Assam valley tropical wet evergreen forest and consists of three parts: Jeypore, upper Dihing River and Dirok rainforest. It was declared a sanctuary on 13 June 2004. This sanctuary is also a part of Dehing-Patkai Elephant Reserve. The rainforest stretches for more than 575 sq. km (222 sq mi) in the districts of Dibrugarh, Tinsukia and Sivasagar. A part of the forest was declared as a wildlife sanctuary by the Government of Assam, while another part falls under the Dibru-Deomali Elephant Reserve. The forest further spreads over in the Tirap and Changlang districts of Arunachal Pradesh. The Dehing Patkai forms the largest stretch of tropical lowland rainforests in India. The climate of the region is mostly tropical with an annual rainfall of more than 4,000 mm. Being a completely virgin rainforest, this sanctuary is very rich in biodiversity. It is an ideal habitat for non-human primates. Till date, 47 mammal species, 47 reptile species and 30 butterfly species have been recorded. The most common mammal species of this sanctuary are hoolock gibbon, slow loris, pig-tailed macaque, stump-tailed macaque, capped langur, Asian elephant, Bengal tiger, Indian leopard, gaur, Chinese pangolin, Himalayan black bear, Himalayan squirrel, leopard cat, clouded leopard, porcupine, crab eating mongoose, sambar, sun bear, binturong, barking deer, golden cat and marbled cat.

The Dehing Patkai Forest region has a rich cultural heritage. There are more than a dozen different ethnic groups living in the area including the indigenous Assamese communities, particularly Tai Phake, Khamyang, Khampti, Singpho, Nocte, Ahom, Kaibarta, Moran and Motok, Burmese, and non-indigenous Nepali people.

The proposed mining:

On April 24, 2020, National Board for Wildlife (NBWL),the apex body to review all wildlife-related matters, has permitted the use of 98.59 hectares of land at Saleki, a part of the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve in Assam for opencast coal mining project done by North-Easter Coal Field (NECF), a unit of Coal India Limited. While, the rest of the area may be used for underground coal mining. The decision was revealed by the minutes of the 57th Meeting of the Standing Committee of National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) chaired by Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), Prakash Javadekar on April 17, 2020 through video-conferencing.

Campaigns and protests:

The state has most recently witnessed a new wave of people’s participations in social media platforms, with masks a common sight in the lanes and streets and physical distancing extensively visible to battle the invisible ghosts, nitizens of the state are up with many innovative online protests and campaigns including webinars to chalk out further means and ways with students of Gauhati University leading the campaigns. “We launched the campaign last week through social media because it was not possible to bring out rallies or hold processions because of the ongoing lockdown restrictions that have been enforced by the government to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (Covid-19),” said Farny Ahmed, social service secretary of Gauhati University (GU) post-graduate students’ union. She said that the proposed coal mining would grossly impact the Assamese community adding that the students of Gauhati University and also the members of eco-club would organise a series of events and that would include twitter storm, campaigning through art, organise webinars and debate among college and university students in the state and write postcards and letters to the The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC). “Illegal coal mining in Dehing Patkai has been going on for many years, but the NBWL’s move to allow coal mining in the Saleki area will erase the reserve from the country’s map. We won’t allow this to happen,” warned Lakhyajit Das, vice-president of GU students union, in a social media post. College and University students are seen on Facebook and Twitter holding banners, slogans, placards, nature songs and poems, graphics, videos, and photographs to highlight the cause. #SAVEDEHINGPATKAI, #MoiProkriti and #IAMDEHINGPATKAI are trending on Facebook and Twitter. “We, the students of Tezpur University strongly oppose the approval given by NBWL for coal mining in Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary to Coal India. Please stop abuse of Amazon of the East”, tweeted Abhishek Barah, General Secretary, Tezpur University Students’ Council.

People have been demanding a blanket ban in the proposed mining inside the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve, which is spread over Dibrugarh and Tinsukia districts that can adversely affect the performance ecological balance in the entire area. Various organizations and NGOs are running signature campaigns online and one such has over 65,000 signatories. “The clearance was given hurriedly via video conference without any proper discussion. The Assam government should have objected to the move, but it seems they’re adamant on destroying the state’s environment and forests,” alleged Rohit Choudhury, a Right to Information (RTI) and environment activist. The Gauhati University’s eco-club has on thursday night submitted a memorandum to the Prime Minister demanding that the decision of NBWL be withdrawn immediately in order to conserve the bio-diversity of the region and has also demanded a high level enquiry committee be set to investigate the alleged illegal mining in the area.

In Pic: Farney Ahmed, Gauhati University’s social service secretary has been vocal against the proposed mining at Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary and is leading the online campaign.

The Congress, All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) and environmental activist Jadav Payeng said coal mining inside Dehing Patkai forest will harm its ecological balance and warned of strong protests if any such move is initiated. The Coal India Limited (CIL), which has allegedly been carrying out mining activity inside the forest for 16 years since 2003, may get an official licence to resume it if the PSU major fulfils a set of 28 conditions. “Coal mining should be stopped to protect our climate and environment. I appeal to the central and state governments to ban mining inside Dehing Patkai,” environmental activist Jadav Payeng, who is known as the ‘Forest Man of India’, said. Assam sons Angaraag Papon Mahanta and Adil Hussain also took to their twitter handles and have raised concerns against the proposed mining and more celebrities are expected to join the campaign soon.

In Pic: Though used as a source of energy, mining pose a widespread threat to the nature. (Twitter- @kaustubhdeka, Assistant Professor at Dibrugarh University)

Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal on Wednesday ordered Environment and Forests Minister Parimal Suklabaidya to visit Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary to conduct a field survey in the backdrop of a huge outrage against coal mining inside the forest. Sonowal said the government is committed to protect the environment and believes in sustained development with ecology, an official statement said.

The North Eastern (NE) region of the India is a biodiversity hotspot and represents one of the highest avian biodiversity of the Indian subcontinent. The region is ecologically represented by the Eastern Himalayan biome and is rich in a number of endemic flora and fauna. Several avian species inhabiting this unique ecosystem are not found or reported anywhere else in the world. The unique ecosystem provides multiple species with adequate opportunity to feed and forage as well as nest, breed and raise their chicks successfully with relatively little anthropogenic pressures and carbon foot prints.

The ever extending lockdown could not deter the campaign to protect the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary  and is at full swing now. In days to come this would only intensify with the Save Dehing activists set to take over social media platforms and try to replicate similar social media uproar that we witnessed few months back during the ‘Save Aarey’ campaign. This has been a people’s campaign with students leading from the front who despite having to submit a heap of assignments and projects, attend online lecture sessions, cope with the psychological disturbances during the lockdown and are just as worried that their own land would implode and the greeny for which the state is known would turn charcoal black one day.

Suhail Mohammed is pursuing his Master’s degree in English at the department of English, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh.

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