Close on the heels of protests against its operations in Assam’s Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve, the North Eastern Coalfields (NEC), a Coal India Limited (CIL) subsidiary, has said it is temporarily suspending all mining operations.
An order from the office of the General Manager, NEC, said: “All mining operations in North Eastern Coalfields, Coal India Limited, Margherita are hereby temporarily suspended w.e.f. 03.06.2020.”
The NEC has two existing open cast coal mining projects — one in Tirap Colliery in Arunachal Pradesh and the other in Tikok Colliery in Assam.
A series of virtual protests followed the National Board of Wildlife’s (NBWL) — a body under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change — “recommendation for approval” of a coal mining project by the NEC in the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve in April.
The Reserve — believed to be the last remaining contiguous patch of rainforest area in the region— spreads across the coal- and oil-rich districts of Upper Assam (Dibrugarh, Tinsukia and Sivasagar).
While NEC had a 30-year-lease to carry out operations in its Tikok project in the Saleki proposed reserve forest (under Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve), the contract expired in 2003. Between 2003 and 2012, the company mined land measuring 44.27 hectares (ha) without clearance. A response to an RTI query by green activist Rohit Choudhury later revealed that the agency had mined in the unbroken area of 41.59 ha too.
The NBWL’s conditional clearance in April came after CIL applied for post facto regularisation of open cast mining in the 98.5 hectares of the Saleki PRF. Since then, the campaign to save Dehing Patkai has intensified in Assam.
While operations in the Tikok colliery had been suspended in October 2019 after a directive from the Assam government, the Tirap Colliery was closed on June 3, post the order.
“We have had issues with clearances. And since Tikok was shut earlier, it was very hard for us to sustain with just one mine. We incurred huge losses,” said an official from NEC, on condition of anonymity. “So, operations have been temporarily suspended for these two reasons: issues with clearances and financial losses.”
As per the official, Tirap produces around 5 -6 lakh tonnes of coal per annum. In an earlier release, the NEC had said that it had an annual turnover of Rs 405 crore. The company supplies coal to power plants, cement and tea industries, brick kilns, and a host of other smaller industries in Assam.
The order also said that the “liquidation of present coal-stock will continue till existing coal stock is exhausted.” “We have a lot of coal which has already been produced — so we will liquidate that,” said the official.
According to the release, the agency has about 1,200 employees and “3,000 indirectly depend on employment opportunities provided by coal mining of NEC.”
“This is not a permanent stoppage, only temporary. Once we get clearances, we will start both mines together,” said the official, adding that if clearances did not come through, they would have to consider “shifting the workers to other subsidiaries of CIL.” “That call will be taken later,” he said.
Last week, the Gauhati High Court took suo-motu cognisance after hearing two Public Interest Litigations (PILs) regarding the permission to mine in the rainforest. The court has issued notices to the Assam government, the Centre, CIL and others, asking for a response. The next date for hearing is July 20.