The Gauhati High Court on Thursday issued notices to the Centre, state, Coal India and other stakeholders after taking up a suo motu case against coal mining in the Dehing Patkai forest.
Hearing two public interest litigations (PILs) filed by some advocates and a mountaineer, the bench comprising
Chief Justice Ajay Lamba and Justice Soumitra Saikia stated that a suo motu PIL has been registered on receiving a letter from a concerned citizen.
The court issued notices to various central and state government agencies and Coal India Ltd (CIL) and fixed July 20
as the next date of hearing for the suo motu and the other two PILs.
Advocates D K Das and Rakhee S Chowdhury, representing the PIL of lawyer Mrinmoy Khataniar and mountaineer Amar Jyoti Deka, told PTI that the court has not combined the three PILs as of now.
“The state counsel told the court that mining was stopped in 2019. But we argued that CIL mined without permission for 16 years. Besides, mining activity was carried out in 16 hectares more land in addition to the informed 57.2 hectares,” Chowdhury said.
“The chief justice informed us that he has registered a suo motu PIL on the matter. Taking up the three PILs, the bench issued notices to all those concerned from central and state agencies and fixed July 20 as the next date of hearing,”
Advocate Santanu Borthakur, who filed the other PIL along with colleague Vikram Rajkhowa, said their petition sought to declare Dehing Patkai, known as the ‘Amazon of the East’, as a heritage site under the Biological Diversity Act,
“Peasant leader Akhil Gogoi had written an open letter in a leading newspaper against illegal mining inside our
forests. Then a concerned citizen wrote a letter to the chief justice on the issue. I think these two have resulted in the
suo motu PIL by the high court,” Borthakur said.
The three petitions have made various respondents in the case — Government of India, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Assam government, the Chief Secretary, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest and Head of Forest Force, and the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (Wildlife).
The National Board of Wildlife, the State Board of Wildlife, the Coal India Ltd, the Chief General Manager of
CIL, the Arunachal Pradesh government, Assam director-general of police, Tinsukia deputy commissioner, superintendent of police and district forest officer, among others, have also been made parties to the case.
The petitions were filed against the Centre’s preliminary approval to Coal India for mining inside Dehing Patkai forest, stating that it violates the right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution. The PILs highlighted that the Dehing Patkai rainforest has a significant cultural and ecological importance in the lives of the people of Assam and it is home to several rare and endangered species of plants, animals, birds, insects and other biodiversities.
It was stated that a large number of Asiatic elephants also live there. Highlighting that several ethnic tribes also reside in the region, the PILs asserted that uncontrolled and rampant mining has not only damaged the natural resources, but at the same time also led to unimaginable air and water pollution.
Borthakur and Rajkhowa’s application pointed out that the Gauhati High Court is already seized with the issue of
illegal coal mining in Tinsukia district and Coal India, state government and others are parties in the suo motu case
registered in 2018. The petition by Khataniar and Deka stressed that the Stage-I clearance by the Centre for 57.2 hectares out of 98.59 hectares was given on the basis of wrong information provided by the CIL.
The petition stated that the PSU major was carrying out activities in another 16 hectares without any approval,
leaving only about 25 hectares as an unbroken area. Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary is spread across
111.42 sq km, while the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve with 937 sq km of area is surrounding the sanctuary in its
periphery across Dibrugarh and Tinsukia districts.
Though it was mining since 2003, CIL sought clearance only in 2012, but it was rejected then. It applied again in
2019 for clearance of 98.59 hectares, out of which CIL was carrying out mining activities in 73 hectares.
In May, North Eastern Coalfields, a unit of CIL, had accepted that mining was going on since 2003 and claimed it had applied for renewal of its lease in 2003, but the Assam government did not act upon this for a long time.
The Centre gave the Stage-I clearance to the PSU major for 57.20 hectares in December 2019 with 28 conditions,
including fines and action against responsible officers violating the Forest Conservation Act.
Accordingly, the Assam Forest Department last month slapped a penalty of Rs 43.25 crore on CIL for carrying out
illegal mining activity. In its last meeting in April, the Standing Committee of the National Board of Wild Life (NBWL) under the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change recommended approval of the CIL’s proposal for legalising the illegal mining provided it fulfills the 28 conditions.
The All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti and other civil society groups, besides
opposition parties, environmentalists, activists, teachers and students have been protesting on the issue since May,
threatening of bigger agitations if coal mining is allowed.
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