Guwahati: Despite a ban, illegal coal mining has been continuing unabated in upper Assam’s Tinsukia district, causing large-scale destruction of the forest. Thanks to the alleged nexus between the forest, police, and other government agencies with illegal coal mafias coal mining has been constantly threatening the ecology and biodiversity of the rich forest areas in the region.
The issue of rampant illegal coal mining in the Margherita, Ledo, and Lekaphani areas in the Tinsukia district came to light once again on Tuesday when a coal-laden truck met with an accident in the area.
Immediately, Sibsagar legislator and peasant leader Akhil Gogoi shot a letter to the state’s chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma asking the latter for quick action. In the letter, Gogoi alleged, “As per our sources, around 500 excavators, JCBs were engaged in illegal coal mining in Ledo and Margherita area. This is happening despite section 144 CrPC is in force to check such mining activities.”
Gogoi demanded immediate action from the chief minister and also lodged a police complaint. The Tinsukia Regional Committee of All Adivasi Students Association of Assam (AASAA) who also joined Gogoi in the police complaint alleged that the coal loaded in the truck which met with the accident was mined illegally.
“The state is losing its revenue and the damage to the environment is very serious in nature. Law enforcing agencies should not permit this type of illegal mining and transportation of our valuable natural resources,” the complaint added.
Last week, the Sub-Divisional Magistrate Margherita Preeti Kumari has promulgated 144 CrPC in Lekhapani Reserve Forest, Tirap Reserve Forest, and Tipong Reserve Forest under Lekhapani Range in Digboi Forest Division in Tinsukia district to check unauthorized entry into these forest areas and fearing deforestation.
The entry of unauthorized persons, outsiders, and the public and entry of vehicles like excavators, JCBs, dumpers, etc in Lekhapani, Tirap, and Tipong Reserve Forests besides clearing of jungles, damage to forest products, felling of trees, poaching, and encroachment were prohibited.
It’s needed to mention that the government-owned North Eastern Coalfields (NEC), which was given a lease to extract coal in the region, was found to have been engaging in the activity illicitly for many years after its mining rights had expired. The Justice (Retd) B P Katakey Commission mentioned in its report that the NEC had illegally mined coal worth Rs 48.72 billion ($650 million).
On December 25, 2020, the Katakey Commission noticed rat-hole mines during a field visit to the forest region adjacent to Namdung Colliery, which is included in Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest. Heaps of freshly dug coals were seen in the area and also at the homes of people living in the vicinity.
Meanwhile, the Assam Forest department has slapped a penalty of Rs 43.25 crore on Public Sector Undertakings (PSU) major Coal India Ltd for carrying out “illegal mining” inside a reserve forest for 16 years from 2003.
Besides, the forest department has also filed an FIR at the Sub-Divisional Chief Judicial Magistrate’s Court in Margherita in Tinsukia district against officials responsible for the alleged illegal activity in around 73 hectares of land inside the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve forest between 2003 and 2019.
Since last year, NEC has halted coal mining in Ledo-Margherita but the high demand for it has ensured the continuation of the illicit activities.
In the eye of controversy following allegations of illegal coal mining, on June 9, 2021, Assam’s Dehing Patkai wildlife sanctuary was notified as a national park. Dehing Patkai National Park is located in the Dibrugarh and Tinsukia districts of Assam and covers over 234 sq km. Known earlier as the Dihing Patkai rain forest, it used to have an area of 111 sq km and was considered the “last remaining stretches” of the Assam Valley tropical wet evergreen forests.
Earlier, on November 22, 2019, the government even accepted awareness of the situation on the ground when it stated before Parliament that the Assam government was aware of illegal coal mining at the Digboi Forest Division. The statement identified the forest zone of Tirap and Tipong as being impacted by illegal coal mining.
“If the government doesn’t act immediately, then we need to do it on our own. As an opposition party leader it’s my duty to inform the government and the chief minister,” asserted Akhil Gogoi in his letter.