The Pulse | Environment | South Asia

The Hidden Cost of Mining Coal in Assam

What officials hid from public scrutiny about coal mining at the ‘Amazon of the East’

The Hidden Cost of Mining Coal in Assam
Credit: CC0 image via Pixabay

Officials investigated the impact of coal mining in an elephant reserve in the northeast Indian state of Assam, but have refused to disclose its preliminary findings. This correspondent got hold of the unclassified report, which suggests that authorities turned a blind eye to seemingly legitimate green concerns in allowing India’s national coal miner to extract coal from the region.

The standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) gave permission to the state-owned Coal India Limited (CIL) in April, when the nationwide lockdown to “flatten” the COVID-19 curve was at its peak, to undertake coal mining activities at Dehing-Patkai Elephant Reserve, the only rainforest in Assam.

Coal mining is reportedly carried out both legally and illegally in the region, which falls under the Digboi Forest Division in eastern Assam bordering the state of Arunachal Pradesh. The quantum of illicit extraction is estimated to be several times more than that of legal mining thanks to a syndicate involving politicians, bureaucrats, and traders, according to environmentalists.

The preliminary inquiry report, mentioned above and which was filed last year, suggested that these claims could be correct. Under the Right to Information Act, activist Rohit Choudhury sought access to the report, which was submitted by officers of Assam’s department of environment and forest after a field visit to the Digboi Forest Division on July 3 and 4, 2019. However, the activist’s application was rejected.

Citing Sec 8(h) of the RTI Act, the department claimed that disclosure of the preliminary report might impede the process of further inquiry. Choudhury, however, pointed out while speaking to the media that Section 8(j) clearly states that “the information, which cannot be denied to the Parliament or a State Legislature, shall not be denied to any person.”

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A query sent by this correspondent to Assam’s Minister of Environment and Forest Parimal Suklabaidya on whether the final inquiry had been ordered did not elicit any response.

‘Unabated and Unchecked Rampant Illegal Coal Mining’ 

On the first day, July 3, 2019, the investigating team, comprising senior officials K.S.P.V. Pavan Kumar, C. Muthukumaravel, and Anurag Singh, noticed a “large number” of encroachments and stumps of trees in the Namphai Reserve Forest, according to the 14-page report, which was replete with photographs.

The officials also found that the area was being cleared for mining.

Further ahead was a wide non-concrete road leading to the rainforest beside a river which showed signs of movement of heavy vehicles, indicating that trucks were frequenting the region.

“Along the way, the team also observed presence of elephant dung at many locations and also presence of food species of elephants indicating the forest area in question is a very rich elephant habitat apart from a biodiversity hotspot comprising a rare rainforest system. The forest area, soil formation and terrain appeared very fragile and sensitive.”

The team’s journey deeper into the region revealed an illegal opencast mine inside the forest showing destruction of the ecosystem of a “higher magnitude” as a result of the “ruthless means” of extracting coal.

The officials concluded that mining was being carried out with the use of heavy machinery, which was also spotted at the site. They found that the mining site had been opened during the last quarter of 2018. Their sources informed them that there were a few more locations in the Tinkopani Reserve Forest, where similar methods were being used for extracting coal.

At the end of the first day’s field visit, the officials concluded that the encroachments inside the Namphai Reserve Forest were of “recent origin,” which was evident from “fresh settlements” and felled trees on the ground. They felt that the encroachments were being encouraged to carry out illegal coal mining inside the reserve forest.

Many Government Departments Involved in Illegal Coal Mining

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On the second day, the trio was briefed by CIL officials about the leases received before Independence and their renewals. A majority of them, which were for mining inside the reserve forests, were not operational, they said. The inquiry team was informed that the CIL had applied for clearances for five sites within the Lekhapani Reserve Forest, Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest, and Tipong Reserve Forest. Further, the CIL officials admitted that the illegal mining of coal was rampant in the forest.

At the Tikak area under Saleki, the team observed that the proposed area for mining had already been “broken” and had been “under operation in recent times.” More illegal coal depots were seen at Lekhapani, and they said they were tipped off about illicit activities in the Tipong area as well.

While probing the modus operandi of the transportation of illegally extracted coal, the investigating officials learnt that coal was dumped at primary depots, mostly located in and around the forest areas, and then it was ferried by medium-sized vehicles to other collection-points and bigger depots that were maintained by “certain elements.” The next step, they added, was that coal was loaded onto bigger trucks and dumpers to be sent to destinations within and outside Assam with the help of fake documents.

The report admitted the possibility of these documents being “reused” with the “connivance of officials involved.” Mining challans (receipts or invoices) are not used in Assam – unlike in other Indian states – which facilitates the illegal transportation of coal.

The report made a case for declaring coal extracted from the region as a forest produce under Assam Forest Regulation of 1891, which would allow verification of the vehicles by the Department of Forest and Environment.

The report concluded that the illegal mining of coal through both the rat-hole and opencast methods could not have been possible without the “connivance and tacit involvement of forest personnel and other agencies/depts.” While indicting the Digboi Forest Division for its failure to check the devastation of the forest in the region, it suggested that the extent of the damage could be evaluated by a “detailed inquiry” involving other departments.

Also in eastern Assam, not too far away from this rainforest, is the Baghjan area where a natural gas well belonging to the government-owned Oil India Limited (OIL) caught fire on June 9, 14 days after a blowout.

Lawyers have filed public interest litigations at the Gauhati High Court against the permission given to the CIL for extraction of coal, and the court, too, has taken a suo motu case against it. The least that the people of Assam and elsewhere who are concerned over further damage to the region’s environment and biodiversity deserve, and have high stakes in it, can hope is greater transparency from the government.

Meanwhile, the “detailed onquiry” that Assam’s Department of Forest and Environment referred to while denying activist Choudhury’s RTI application is awaited.