CIL Coal Mining has Always Been Legal: Former Margherita MLA
The coal mining activities carried out at the Patkai Hill mines by Coal India Limited (CIL) after 2003 was basically legal. This was stated by former Margherita MLA, Pradyut Bordoloi who was also the forest and power minister in separate terms in the erstwhile Congress government led by chief minister Tarun Gogoi. Bordoloi is currently a Congress member of parliament (MP) from the Nagaon constituency.
Talking exclusively to G Plus, Bordoloi said, “As per Ministry of Coal, Government of India (GoI), mining lease is to be given for a period of 30 years and renewed for every 30 years thereafter. When CIL got the lease in 1973, the same was valid till 2003. From 2003, the GoI issued the next lease for mining to CIL in the area for another 30 years, i.e. till 2033. Now, when the first lease was given in 1973, there was no concept of taking a clearance from the Forest Department of the state. In 1980, the Forest Conservation Act was enacted by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. So when the lease was renewed in 2003, the concept of taking a clearance from the Forest Department came in.”
Lately, a lot of hue and cry has been raised in the media about the “illegal” mining activities by CIL post the expiry of its lease in 2003. In his attempt to clear the confusion, Bordoloi added, “So the confusion is, the mining done by CIL since 2003 is legal, with permission from GoI. But what they did not do is apply for the clearance certificate from the Forest Department as per rules. That is the violation or ‘hitch’ on their part.”
“Further, Saleki where coal mining has been permitted to CIL recently,illegal coal mining has been going on at the same spot since years. And its rat-hole coal mining.Now GOI has permitted CIL to do so legally in the same spot," said Pradyut Bordoloi
Notably, CIL was slapped with a hefty penalty of Rs 43.25 crores for this after they had applied finally for the Forest Department’s clearance in 2012 from the Assam government.
History of coal mining in Margherita Ledo
A peek into the history of coal mining in the Margherita-Ledo area would give a better picture of the coal mining activities that have been going on over the last 170 odd years.
The advent of coal mining industry of Margherita region is directly related to the tea industry. Tea was first discovered by a Scottish adventurer and businessman Robert Bruce, amongst the Singpho tribesmen in 1823. After detailed examination of the tea plants in Calcutta, the first commercial tea gardens of Assam were planted by the British East India Company under the charge of Charles Alexander Bruce around 1834. Charles was Robert’s brother.
With the gardens came in the factories where the tea leaves were further processed. These factories initially used wood logs for the tea manufacturing process. The logs were later replaced by coal as the more feasible substitute for heating. This black diamond – coal - was discovered in the Patkai hills around 1834.
Systematic mining was started in the Ledo region by the erstwhile Assam Railways and Trading Company (AR&T Co). This company was later incorporated in London in 1881. As mining began on a commercial scale, a railway track was laid between Brahmaputra River steamer ghat in Dibrugarh and Ledo in 1883. The main purpose of the railway track was to bring coal from the mines to the river bank from where it was transported further by river ways.
The AR&T Co did scientific opencast as well as underground mining in Ledo and the nearby areas. The company exploited the natural resources of the region till 1973. In 1971, the Government of India nationalised all coal mines in the country and the lease of colleries in Margherita-Ledo region was given to Coal India Limited.
The coal mining activities at the North Eastern Coal Fields of Coal India Limited have snowballed into a major controversy on social media recently and gathered further momentum after Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had, on 16th May last said, “Nearly 50 coal blocks will be offered immediately for auctions and any party could bid for the blocks and sell in the open market.” This was said while the finance minister was announcing the fourth tranche of the Aatma Nirbhar Bharat Scheme.
The movement against coal mining in the region was sparked off when Soumyadeep Datta, an environmentalist and director of the NGO, Nature’s Beckon, who was a strong voice in demanding for the wildlife sanctuary status for Dehing Patkai since 1995, had stated that his organisation would be standing in strong opposition to any kind of coal mining activities in Dehing Patkai. This was done through an update on the Facebook page of Nature’s Beckon, Northeast India, on 6th May last. Datta was joined by a number of university students’ unions including the Post Graduate Students’ Union of Gauhati University which started its own online campaign. Hashtag campaigns like #SaveDehingPatkai, #IamDehingPatkai, #I_Am_Dehing_Patkai, #AmazonOfEast and other such went viral on social media. They continue to do so as the momentum has been strong and prolonged.
While the opposition to coal mining in the region continues to remain strong on social media, a bit of a falter was noticed when on 19th May, Datta released a video on his NGO’s Facebook page saying that campaigners were confused about the area and that the area of mining is not located in the rainforest area and he had no problems with the coal mining continuing since such activities would not harm the distantly located rain forests of Dehing-Patkai wildlife sanctuary.
G Plus tried to contact Soumyadeep Dutta on phone to take further clarifications.
However, Datta said that he would sticking by his last video that he had aired and had nothing more to add to it.
Latest Development: Dispur claims coal mining is possible if done legally
The Assam government has hinted that it will back the Centre’s decision claiming that coal mining in the Dehing-Patkai reserve will be allowed only if it is sanctioned to be legal.
The state forest and environment minister, Parimal Suklabaidya, talking to G Plus exclusively said, “It is during our BJP government that we identified the illegal mining going on in Dehing-Patkai and accordingly action was taken.” He further added that this government is only trying to make things legal, and it is the illegal nexus which had benefitted all this while that is creating the controversy now. Explaining further he said that illegal mining has been continuing in the area since 2003.
Moreover, it has never been reported that a single elephant has fallen victim to the illegal coal mining or its transportation in the area. “Is it really an elephant corridor where mining is taking place?” questioned the minister indicating that the “Amazon of the East,” i.e. the rain forest and the elephant reserve contained within it are far off from the actual area where mining of coal takes place. The forest minister further said that the state government has not yet given the approval, and it can happen only after proper scrutiny of the area.