Dehing Patkai – the inside story

# Save Dehing Patkai

A #Save Dehing Patkai campaign gained traction on social media in April this year. This was in response to the approval of the National Board of Wildlife for coal mining in Saleki PRF. The campaigners went on an overdrive to blame the Government. They alleged that the Government allowed coal mining inside Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary. But, one fails to understand how the two issues relate to each other. Dehing Patkai is a Wildlife Sanctuary. And Saleki is a colliery about ten kilometres away as the crow flies.
 
No government will dare to allow mining activities inside a Wildlife Sanctuary. Rather, the State Government decided to upgrade Dehing Patkai to a National Park. Following this decision, the same campaigners made a U-turn. They all clamoured to pat their own backs after the announcement. One of them claimed to have rung up the Chief Minister to declare the area a National Park. Another one claimed that their webinars led to this decision. Little do these social media campaigners know the ground reality of Dehing Patkai.

Does the status upgrade of Dehing Patkai to a National Park affect coal mining in Saleki?

Upgrading Dehing Patkai to a National Park does not have any relevance to coal mining in Saleki. The simple reason is that Saleki does not fall under Dehing Patkai WLS. But it does fall within the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve. Little do the campaigners know that elephant reserves have no legal sanctity. The Wildlife Protection Act of India does not recognise Forest Reserves. The NBWL is within their jurisdiction to allow mining inside a reserve forest. But they have to abide by the due processes laid down by the Ministry of Environment and Forests. 

It is important to understand the context of the Dehing Patkai elephant reserve. For that, we need to revisit the history of Dehing Patkai and the role of Nature’s Beckon in its protection.

History of Dehing Patkai and Nature's Beckon

The history of Dehing Patkai and Nature’s Beckon goes back to the early nineties. It was then that the term Rainforests buzzed a bell in the collective psyche in Assam. Before that, we were oblivious to the presence of rainforests in Assam. The term did not figure in any official communications, discourse, or literary pursuits. By the late eighties, Assam was on the verge of losing all its natural forests. Hundreds of sawmills, plywood industries and veneer units were mushrooming in Upper Assam. 

The gravity of the situation forced Nature’s Beckon – led by Soumyadeep Dutta to act. They conducted a baseline survey of the forests of Upper Assam from 1989 to 1992. In those days, there were no GPS, internet or Cell Phones. So the entire exercise was on foot. This arduous exercise led to the discovery of rainforests in Assam.

What did the survey reveal?

The survey revealed that anthropogenic impacts have already destroyed previously-contiguous rainforests. These impacts were due to deforestation, tea gardens, and human settlements. Oil, timber and coal exploration were the main causes of deforestation. Most of the surviving patches existed in isolation. Thus, they were losing the extraordinary characteristics that define a rainforest.
 
But a fresh glimmer of optimism emerged when they found a contiguous stretch of 500 Sq. Km of rainforests. This patch was in Joypur, Upper Dehing and Dirok, spread over Tinsukia and Dibrugarh. They realised that the floral and faunal diversity of the place was overwhelming. If left unprotected, this rainforest would also perish soon. And, the only possibility of protecting this rainforest was upgrading it to a WLS. So Nature’s Beckon documented the findings and chalked out a map. They then petitioned the Government for declaring this 500 sq km as Joydehing WLS in 1994.

Threat from Oil, Timber and Coal Mafia

But it was easier said than done. The petition threatened the very existence of a select few. These people thrived on exploiting the forest of coal, timber and oil. They had political support from the then Forest Minister and a few bureaucrats. So, the exploiters resorted to threats and bribery to derail the initiative. When threats and bribery failed, they started a vilification campaign. In short, they were hell-bent on dissuading Nature’s Beckon from their resolve. They campaigned that this area was not a rainforest. Later they announced that the Hoolock Gibbon was not an endangered species.
 
When all these failed, they even invited Premier Oil to drill for oil wells inside the rainforest. They did everything possible to ensure that their saga of exploitation continues unabated.

Multi-layered conservation activism of Nature's Beckon.

Undaunted, Nature’s Beckon persevered with a multi-layered movement to save Dehing Patkai. They used mass communication tools to popularise the rainforest movement among the masses. It included Street plays, photo exhibitions, radio programs, conservation orientation camps and workshops.
 
Many leading writers started writing on the relevance and biodiversity of rainforests. These articles appeared in leading journals, periodicals and newspapers in Assam. Nature’s Beckon published many books, leaflets, brochures, posters and stickers. These publications were both in Assamese and English to spread awareness. Thousands of students took part in protest marches and rallies across the state. The movement turned into a mass demand for the preservation of the rainforests.
 
Leading media houses from India and abroad started featuring articles on the movement. The issue thus began to garner international prominence. This culminated in the first-ever International Rainforest Festival in Joypur in 2001. This festival attracted resource persons, wildlife scientists, and biologists from all over. The then Chief Minister, Sri Tarun Gogoi was the Chief Guest of the festival. Prominent intellectuals like Homen Borgohain participated and expressed solidarity with the movement.

A conspiracy was hatched to derail the movement.

The presence of the Chief Minister and his support for the cause alarmed the exploiters. The corrupt Forest Minster and his Joint Secretary then hatched a conspiracy. To hoodwink the Chief Minister and the people of Assam, they announced an area of 937 sq. km as an elephant reserve in 2013. 

Such was their haste that they included Digboi and Saleki inside the reserve. Saleki was a colliery right from the British days and Digboi was the first oil refinery in India. This declaration was to dilute the demand for a Wildlife Sanctuary. They assumed that the public wouldn’t be able to differentiate between the two.

Elephant Reserve and Legal Sanctity

As per Wildlife Protection Act, only a National Park or a WLS enjoys legal sanctity. Reserved Forests or Elephant Reserves carry no legal sanctity. The Government, if they desire, can extract resources from these reserve forests. The resources include coal, timber, oil, boulders and sand. The recent NBWL clearance for coal mining in Saleki is a case in point. Being within an elephant reserve did not save Saleki from coal mining.
 
But Nature’s Beckon called their bluff. They resorted to aggressive moves including blocking highways and railway lines. The movement seemed to be veering towards violence. The Government then had no other option but to agree to the demands. They notified an area of 111.19 sq. km as a Wildlife Sanctuary in 2014. But they cleverly left out Joypore from the purview of protection.

Save Dehing Patkai

Social Media Campaigns are temporary and cannot sustain for long. Rather, it obfuscates the real issues. More often than not, these campaigns are nothing but political ploys. We have to remember that the exploiters are always on the lookout to restart their loot. It is high time the social media crusaders join the real movement on the ground. Only then will Dehing Patkai survive. Let us all join hands to ensure that the entire 500 sq km of rainforest survive. Only then can we leave behind a legacy for the future generation.

Bhaskar J Barua

An engineer by education, a Project Management Consultant by profession, a wildlife photographer by hobby and a passionate conservationists. Founded Agoratoli Resort and Kaziranga Foundation.