The Assam government on Saturday ordered a judicial probe into allegations of illegal coal mining in Upper Assam’s Dehing Patkai rainforest region — in the eye of a controversy for the last few months.
A release from the Chief Minister’s Office on Saturday said that a one-man inquiry panel comprising retired Gauhati High Court Judge Brajendra Prasad Katakey would “investigate the allegations against coal mining in the sanctuary since 2003”. The panel is required to submit its report within six months.
In April, a conditional clearance by the National Board of Wildlife’s (NBWL) to a coal mining project by Coal India Limited (CIL) in the Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest (PRF) of the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve had sparked protests in the state.
The Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve spreads across the coal- and oil-rich districts of Upper Assam — Dibrugarh, Tinsukia and Sivasagar — and is believed to be the last remaining contiguous patch of lowland rainforest area in Assam.
Earlier this month, Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal had announced his government’s decision to upgrade the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary — which falls within the larger elephant reserve — to a national park.
“Noteworthy that several PILs were filed at Gauhati High Court in which allegations were raised on legal and illegal mining of coal at Dehing-Patkai wildlife sanctuary,” stated Saturday’s release by the government.
Katakey is currently the chairman of the Police Accountability Commission and is also heading the National Green Tribunal’s inquiry into the Baghjan blowout incident in Tinsukia district.
According to a notification from the Environment and Forest Department, Government of Assam, the inquiry committee on Saturday has been formed under section 3 of the Commissions of Inquiry Act, 1952. It is to enquire if any illegal activities had taken place in and around the Saleki PRF, including the Tikok Open Cast Project.
In June, the Gauhati High Court had taken suo motu cognizance of illegal coal mining in Dehing Patkai’s rainforest area after hearing two public interest litigations (PILs). Following that, the North Eastern Coalfields (NEC) — a CIL subsidiary — had temporarily suspended all mining operations in the region. In all, three PILs and two interlocutory applications have been filed in the court in connection with the case — the matters are listed for hearing on Monday.
The NBWL’s conditional clearance in April had come after CIL applied for post facto regularisation of open cast mining in 98.5 hectares of the Saleki PRF for its Tikok project.
NEC had a 30-year-lease to carry out operations in the area, which expired in 2003. Between 2003 and 2012, the company allegedly mined land measuring 44.27 hectares without clearance. A response to an RTI query by environmental activist Rohit Choudhury later revealed that the agency had also mined in an unbroken area of 41.59 hectares in the region as well.
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