At a time when social media in Assam is buzzing with campaigns against a green signal by the National Board of Wildlife for coal mining in a part of a wildlife sanctuary in the state's Tinsukia and Dibrugarh districts, an RTI reply had revealed that coal mining has been happening in that area even before the clearance was given by the wildlife body. The Dehing Patkai wildlife sanctuary and elephant reserve is known as the Amazon of the East.
Last month, the National Board of Wildlife had allowed coal mining in the area to Coal India Limited (CIL) to conduct opencast coal mining in 98.59 hectares of the reserve forest. to Coal India Limited had been carrying out mining in 57 hectares of the reserve forest and the fresh recommendation allowed it to do mining in another 41 hectares.
But a reply to an RTI (Right to Information) query by a noted RTI activist in Assam, Rohit Chaudhury, has opened a Pandora's Box.
In the RTI reply, it is cited that mining-related work has already begun in 17 of the 41 hectares (or nearly 39 per cent of the area) which Coal India Limited claimed to be untouched by them.
A report by the Shillong office of the Union Environment in November last November states that about a nine-hectare area out of 41.39 hectares 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 gotten the lease for mining over an area of four square miles in a part of the Dehing Patkai sanctuary for a period of 30 years, from 1973.
The lease expired in 2003, but North Eastern Coalfields continued with the mining activity there 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.
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 Limited for coal mining in the area.