India’s ‘Amazon of the East’ Under Threat from Development

Public outcry stops development of open-face coal mine

By: Nava Thakuria

Public outcry has led to the suspension of an open-face coal mining operation in Northeast India’s Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve, a huge area of tropical rainforest on the south bank of the Brahmaputra River that is known as the Amazon of the East. It lies under the Eastern Himalaya mountain range, an Indo-Burma global biodiversity hotspot of virgin forest stretching over more than 575 square kilometers covering three districts.

Public demonstrations for saving the sanctuary have drawn environmentalists, celebrities, social activists and media personalities over the impact of the North Eastern Coalfields (NEC), a unit of Coal India Ltd, which temporarily halted operations following protests against the National Board for Wild Life’s decision to allow mining in  98.58 hectares of the Saleki Proposed Forest Reserve, near the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary. An office order signed by NEC’s general manager based in eastern Assam’s Margherita said all mining operations have been suspended with effect from June 3.

The decision to halt operations is a rare victory against an administration in New Delhi that has been committed to development over conservation since it came into office in 2014. As Asia Sentinel reported on May 30 the Modi government, in its rush for economic progress, has been intent on promoting infrastructure and other development at the expense of forests, rivers, and wildlife, a problem that has increased in the past year since the government’s second general election victory.

The pace of development has picked up under the cover of the Covid-19 coronavirus lockdown as the government has used the absence of face-to-face official regulatory meetings to speed up the environmental approval process with reduced scrutiny and with inadequate opportunity for plans to be questioned and discussed. Experts’ appraisal meetings usually last an entire day but have been packed into two hours. The spectacular Dibang Valley in Arunachal Pradesh, for instance, is to be covered by a massive hydroelectric scheme dealt with peremptorily in a virtual meeting.

Jairam Ramesh, chairman of the Indian parliament’s standing committee on the environment, has called for “an immediate review and moratorium” of all decisions taken during the meetings. The current health crisis “should be an opportunity to pause and reflect.”

The reason for the public outcry over Dehing Patkai wet evergreen forest is its astonishing diversity, which has remained untouched for centuries. It forms the largest stretch of lowland virgin rainforest in India, an area that includes – for instance – 310 butterfly species as well as macaques, langurs, Himalayan black bears, Asian elephants, Bengal tigers, red giant flying squirrels, pangolins, leopards, barking deer, gibbons and dozens of other mammal species. 

That is only part of the variety of animals, birds, reptiles, and forest species in the area. Some 293 bird species have been found in the rainforest, from vultures to eagles to partridges to hornbills, existing in a four-layered jungle forest laden with exotic species of orchids and bromeliads, ferns, wild bananas, Hollong trees, which are the state tree of Assam and which dominate the emergent layer of forest. 

The uproar started with the approval on April 7 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Union government coalition for mining in the Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest within the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve, an environmentally precious area although it hasn’t been designated under India’s wildlife protection acts.

The endorsement for the mining project was denounced by global bodies including the International Indigenous Peoples Movement for Self Determination and Liberalization, headquartered in the Philippines, which charged that Dehing Patkai’s delicate ecosystem would be destroyed, with a negative impact over dozens of ethnic groups including the Tai Phake, Khamyang, Khampti, Singpho, Nocte, Ahom, Koibarta, Moran & Motok – Tea-tribes brought by the British to work in tea plantations – Burmese and Nepali-speaking people, who have traditionally lived in coexistence with the forest and used its resources.

A citizen group has written to the federal government in New Delhi expressing concerns over the approval of the mine, which was agreed on April 7 under the chairmanship of Union environment, forest and climate change minister Prakash Javadekar by videoconference. Some advocates also contacted Guwahati High Court to protest the clearance for mining to begin.

Soumyadeep Datta, an environmental activist, argued that the Dehing Patkai sanctuary is safeguarded under India’s environmental protection laws. Now the founder-director of an NGO called Nature’s Beckon, Datta argues that the entire rainforest areas should be brought under the protected zone. Launching a public movement for the protection of rainforests a decade ago, the conservation group demanded that around 500 sq km of forest be preserved.

Datta is an Ashoka Fellow and belongs to a large group of social entrepreneurs who champion innovative new ideas that seek to transform society's systems. He has requested that state chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal include the remaining and adjoining area of contiguous rainforests under the domain of the Dehing Patkai sanctuary to safeguard the biodiversity hotspot from the clutches of corrupt politicians, greedy fossil fuel companies and biased activists.

An influential civil society group named the Patriotic People’s Front Assam has also urged that the authority declare the rainforest as a protected area. The forum, while supporting the conservation movement of Nature’s Beckon, endorsed the demand to expand the area of Dehing Patkai sanctuary to cover the entire elephant reserve.