The Assam government claimed today that no "final approval" has been given to Coal India Limited for extraction of coal from the areas around the Dehing Patkai tropical rain forest in Upper Assam, famously known as the Amazon of the East.
This claim of the state government comes a day after the Gauhati High Court admitted a PIL challenging the National Board of Wildlife's (NBWL) approval for coal mining in an elephant reserve near the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary. For the past month, Assam has witnessed a massive online campaign against the recent decision by the NBWL to grant 'conditional' approval to coal mining in the area.
"The state government has not approved mining in the area since October 2019. Coal India Limited and the forest department would have to fulfill the 28 conditions laid down by the Environment Ministry and the compliance report will be placed before the centre for Stage II clearance. Only on the grant of Stage II clearance, mining can begin, only conditional clearance has been granted to them," State Forest Minister Parimal Suklabaidya said.
He added that the site however is not part of the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary, but a proposed forest reserve area.
After the controversy broke over the NBWL approval, Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal had asked the Forest Minister to rush to the area and conduct a field inspection.
Through a video conference on April 17, the National Board of Wildlife's standing committee, chaired by Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, had given permission to Coal India for coal mining in the area.
Earlier, an RTI reply had revealed that coal mining has continued in that area even before the clearance was given by the wildlife body.
Last month, the wildlife board had allowed coal mining in the area to Coal India to conduct opencast coal mining in 98.59 hectares of the reserve forest. Coal India Limited had been carrying out mining in 57 hectares of the reserve forest and the fresh recommendation allowed it to mine in another 41 hectares.
Mining-related work has already begun in 17 of the 41 hectares (or nearly 39 per cent of the area) which Coal India claimed to be untouched by them, the PIL states.
A report by the Shillong office of the Union Environment Ministry in last November states that about nine hectares out of 41.39 has already been broken up and operated, and that another area, of approximately seven hectares, has been cleared.
North Eastern Coalfields, a Coal India subsidiary, had got the lease for mining over an area of four square miles in a part of the Dehing Patkai sanctuary for 30 years since 1973.
The lease expired in 2003, but North Eastern Coalfields continued with the mining and approached the Assam government only in 2012 seeking a fresh lease.
Coal India mentioned that as of 2002, 12.93 hectares of the total area had been broken up, 44.27 hectares broken between 2003 and 2012 and 41.39 hectares were to be broken for coal mining after seeking approval.
According to the RTI reply, the inspection report had concluded that the North Eastern Coalfields had done illegal mining in the areas, which had been broken for years and also in areas it claimed to be unbroken.