A Right to Information (RTI) application into the Tikok coal mining project in Dehing Patkai Elephant reserve in eastern Assam has revealed that a substantial chunk of "unbroken" forest land has already been mined and cleared.
According to a report by The Hindu, the Standing Committee of the Environment Ministry's National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) had held a discussion on April 7 regarding a proposal for transferring 98.59 hectares of land from the Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest (PRF) for an open-cast coal mining project by North-Easter Coal Field (NECL) which is a unit of Coal India Limited. The meeting was chaired by Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate change Prakash Javadekar through a video conference due to the nationwide lockdown.
An application filed under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005 by eastern Assam-based environmental activist Rohit Choudhury has revealed that the NBWL had not stated the ground reality of Saleki PRF, 98.59 hectares of which has been proposed to be diverted for the Tikok open-cast coal mining project.
Post facto approval for 57.20 ha of forest land was granted by the NBWL which the NECL had already mined while demarcating the rest of the 41.39 ha as unbroken, or untouched.
However, the response that Choudhury received revealed that 16 ha or the "unbroken" forest land has already undergone mining and have been cleared of trees. The Tikok project falls within the eco-sensitive zone (10 km radius) of the 111.19 sq km Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary.
"...the area of 41.39 ha claimed to be unworked/fresh area has also been broken of which 9 ha was mined and another 7 ha was cleared perhaps for further mining... it is confirmed that as on date the area of the unbroken area stands at approximately 25 ha," reads the site inspection report which was submitted by the regional office of the Environment Ministry four months prior to the NBWL meeting.
The Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve of which Saleki is a part includes 111.19 sq. km is a sub-tropical rainforest often compared to Amazon.
Conservation NGO Aaranyak on May 23 had appealed to the state government of Assam to opt for phase-wise scrapping of coal mining in the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve as notified in 2003. This includes creating alternative employment for indigenous people depending on legal coal mining.
Since the elephant reserve had already been severely damaged, the Assam Environmental NGO Forum, comprising 20 other groups, sought a complete ban.
"It no longer matters if the ongoing mining is legal or illegal in view of clear evidence of habitat destruction," read their statement. A drone video shot by one of the green NGOs showed large-scale denudation of the Naphai Reserve Forest within the elephant reserve.