Assam’s tribal communities lose home to mining

Pollution, health hazards & human-animal conflict in Dehing Patkai

Environment

May 9, 2021

/ By Richa Nigam / New Delhi

Assam’s tribal communities lose home to mining

Industrial activity had been going on for over a century in Dehing Patkai (Image Credits: Northeast Now)

One of India’s most important rainforests, Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam, has become a battleground for the local tribes trying to save their habitat from the coal mining that has led to environmental degradation & displacement.

The foothills of Dehing Patkai on the eastern fringes of Assam are home to the Khamti, Singpho, Sema Nagas, Tangsa, Tai-Phake, Syam, Aitom, Nocte, and other communities who have been impacted by mining and deforestation that displaced them from lands that traditionally belonged to them for generations.

“Many of the people from here have migrated to Tirap district in the bordering state of Arunachal Pradesh,” says Raju Deori, a legal advisor to the Tirap Autonomous District Council. He estimates that at least 500 villages in the Dehing Patkai foothills are facing the threat of mining and deforestation.

Some of these tribes are very small, with less than 5000 members, says Deori who also campaigns for tribal rights. He says mining has widened the income gap in communities between those dependent on the forests and those lured by illegal mining and logging activities, which are mainly done by outsiders as the local population has been dwindling.

If the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve and more than a dozen patches of reserve forests and proposed reserve forests are added, the total area of the rainforest would be more than 900 sq km. The wildlife sanctuary alone, however, is spread over 111.9 sq km with two narrow elephant corridors and fragmented patches of forests surrounded by coal mines and tea gardens.

Before this globally endangered lowland evergreen forest and its biodiversity was officially protected as a sanctuary in 2004, industrial activity had been going on for over a century in these parts.

Deori says that the coal mining started in the land held by indigenous tribes. “Forest department claims that they have leased their land to the mines. That is false. The foothills of Dehing Patkai were never surveyed. The land ownership always remained with the communities,” Deori claims.

Hekei Sema, a tribal elder from nearby Tikok village says that the village had to shift three times as the mine expanded. “We were compensated a couple of times. But there are only six families left in our village. Most have migrated,” adds Sema. He said that the Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest next to Tikok has been mined illegally for more than a decade.

Reluctance of administration

Anwaruddin Chowdhury, an ornithologist from Assam whose conservation efforts led to the creation of Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary is, however, worried about the unprecedented increase of illegal coal mining in the last few years. “During my time as a civil servant in the Tinsukia district, mining was restricted to Coal India mines. However, in the last five to six years, illegal mining has increased manifold,” he adds.

According to Chowdhury, the increase in mining activity is due to Assam’s forest and wildlife department’s reluctance to define the forests. Tinsukia district has the highest number of proposed reserve forests in all of Assam. “Usually it takes about five years to settle the claims in a proposed reserve forest. However, this process seems to drag on for years which makes these forests vulnerable,” Chowdhury says.

Studies reveal hazardous impact

Kishore Mech, a member of Sanjeevani Northeast Socio-economic Society, a non-profit organisation working for the conservation of native trees such as Hollong (Dipterocarpus retusus), considered sacred by the local Moran community, says that miners even built a road inside the Dirok Reserve Forest, a part of the sanctuary, to transport the coal. “The community informed us about illegal mining in this area last year. We informed the local DFO about these activities. The mining has stopped for now but no culprits were arrested,” explains Mech.

In 2010, Kashmira Kakati, an Assam-based wildlife biologist discovered seven new species of endangered wildcats in Dehing-Jeypore Forest, a reserve forest adjoining the wildlife sanctuary.

With rampant illegal mining in these areas, Kakati approached the National Green Tribunal in 2015 highlighting its devastating impacts. She cited experts from the Institute of Advanced Study in Science and Technology (IASST) under the Ministry of Science and Technology who found that the soil and water quality around Tipong, Tirap, and Tikok collieries outside the sanctuary had heavily deteriorated. The deteriorated water pollutes Buri Dehing, a tributary of the Brahmaputra river, that flows through the sanctuary. The study linked the low pH, indicating acidity in the soil and reduced nutrient status such as lack of phosphorus, nitrogen, and organic carbon leading to heavy degradation.

The IASST researchers found cadmium and zinc levels in the water samples of Tipong colliery which were above permissible levels set by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

A soil texture analysis as part of a preliminary study published in 2013, on soil and water quality of Makum coalfield, also showed high sand content in the areas close to the mines, including the forest patches, caused due to indiscriminate dumping which in turn thwarted the growth of plants.

Another study on the impact of Dehing Patkai coal mining on the health of the people was done between 2008 and 2011 by the Manohari Devi Kanoi Girls (MDKG) College in Dibrugarh. Data from two villages and their study found that a large section of the population suffered from airborne and waterborne diseases.

Indiscriminate mining leading to human-animal conflict

Along with smaller communities, even the bigger communities such as Moran-Motok have been impacted by indiscriminate coal mining and led to an increase in human-animal conflict cases.

The east and the west block of the upper Dehing Reserve is connected by a seven km stretch of land called the Golai Corridor and is used by about 300 elephants, according to a census done by Elephant Task Force in 2015.

Paanbari, a forest village close to the Digboi town on the southwestern end of Dehing Patkai has been facing conflict with herds of elephants that are trying to cross from one end of the sanctuary to another.

Trinayan Gogoi, the founder of a nature conservation NGO, Green Bud Society, told says that elephants have been damaging farms during the cropping seasons. “We have also recorded six deaths in the area last year. These deaths are related to the tree felling and mining in the elephant corridors,” Gogoi says. Paanbari is one of the dozen forest villages which primarily consists of lands given to the flood-affected people.

He goes on to say that while movement against coal mining in Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary has intensified over the last two years but there is barely any effect on illegal mining. “In the last five years, the NECL filed 80 cases in Ledo and Margherita Police Station stating that illegal mining syndicates have been pilfering coal from its mines as well as areas which are inside the forests,” he says.

However, neither the NECL officials nor Assam government, has so far estimated the amount of coal being illicitly mined from the foothills of Dehing Patkai. According to the locals, last year in November about 3,000 trucks were ferrying coal from the area in one week. “They did not even stop during the lockdown for Covid-19. We are still waiting for the state government to do something about it,” says activist Gogoi.

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