AS PROTESTS intensify over the prospect of a Coal India subsidiary getting clearance to mine inside Assam’s Dihing Patkai elephant reserve, an expert member who inspected the site on behalf of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) has asked the environment ministry to amend the minutes of the last NBWL meeting so that the Board’s decision is not distorted.
In a letter to Environment minister Prakash Javadekar, Raman Sukumar, eminent elephant expert and NBWL member, also sought action against North Eastern Coalfields for suppressing from the NBWL the extent of violations at the project site.
Examining NEC’s proposal to mine 98.59 hectares of forestland, the NBWL on April 7 recommended approval for 57.20 hectares of already illegally broken up area subject to the submission of a plan for mine reclamation with local tree species.
The minutes uploaded on the ministry’s website say the Board further decided to consider an underground mining plan for the remaining 41.39 hectares — a claim that Sukumar has contested.
“As 57.20 hectares were already broken, the unanimous decision taken in two meetings in the presence of the Environment Minister was against allowing mining in the remaining areas with standing forest. I have already written to the ministry to amend the minutes to make it clear that mining would not be allowed in the unbroken area,” Sukumar told The Indian Express.
Sukumar was referring to two meetings chaired by Environment Minister Javadekar — the NBWL on April 7 and another meeting with officials of Coal India Limited on January 21 — on the issue.
Sukumar said “some general remarks” were made during the meeting “on the advantages of underground mining over opencast but not specifically” in the project’s context. “Underground mining is anyway not feasible on such a steep slope in the proposed area,” he explained.
“Dr Sukumar has pointed out certain drafting issues which will be sorted out. The Board confirms the minutes of the previous meeting at the beginning of every meeting, with amendments whenever necessary,” said a senior official in the environment ministry who did not wish to be named.
The NBWL is a statutory body under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Its standing committee meets periodically to evaluate projects proposed in and around national parks and sanctuaries for their impact on wildlife.
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In 1973, the Coal India subsidiary had obtained a 30-year lease to mine in Dihing Patkai. Once the lease expired in 2003, the company required the statutory clearance under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. However, it illegally expanded operations from 13 hectares to 57.20 hectares between 2003 and 2012 before seeking forest clearance for 98.59 hectares, including an unbroken area of 41.39 hectares.
In 2013, the ministry’s Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) asked the state to penalise the company for mining without approval. The state forest department dragged its feet and a penalty of Rs 43.25 crore was imposed only last month.
Meanwhile, North Eastern Coalfields continued with mining without approval and, according to a site inspection report filed in November 2019 by the ministry’s regional office in Shillong, destroyed another 16 hectares of forest in the process since 2013.
“This reduces the unbroken area from 41.39 to 25.39 hectare and this fact was never revealed by the company in their presentation to the NBWL site inspection committee. It was not possible to get a precise measure of the extent of mining in a few hours when we visited the area. I have written to the Environment minister about this serious breach of trust and seek appropriate action,” said Sukumar, who inspected the project site in October 2019.
When contacted, JK Borah, General Manager, North Eastern Coalfields said, “We stopped mining operation in October 2019. There has to be a joint survey to determine how much area was in use as some patches may have lost green cover due to landslides. Anyway, the state forest department has billed us Rs 43 crore in CA (compensatory afforestation) and NPV (net present value of forests) for 73 hectares which includes the additional 16 hectares.”
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