Save Dehing Patkai

# Save Dehing Patkai

#Save Dehing Patkai campaign gained traction on social media in April this year, targeting the authorities for allowing coal mining inside the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary after the National Board of Wildlife approved coal mining in the Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest. Orchestrated by some politically motivated forces, the campaign tried to blur the distinction between a reserved forest and a wildlife sanctuary. However, the authorities acted swiftly and dampened the negativity by upgrading the status of Dehing Patkai from a Wildlife Sanctuary to a National Park and including the Joypore Forest Reserve in the jurisdiction. Immediately many of these campaigners did a volta face and claimed credit for the decision. One campaigner claimed to have advised the Chief Minister, and another claimed that his webinars led to this decision. 

But why did the orchestrators resort to such a campaign?

The answer lies in some historical misdeeds of a select few politicians and bureaucrats. Saleki was a colliery right from the British days and is about 10 km away from Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary. However, Saleki falls under the jurisdiction of Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve. Elephant reserves have no legal sanctity, and the Wildlife Protection Act of India does not recognise Forest Reserves. The National Board of Wildlife is within their jurisdiction to allow mining inside a reserve forest following due processes laid down by the Ministry of Environment and Forests. The campaign tried to obfuscate the difference between an elephant reserve and a wildlife sanctuary to hide their past deeds. For the uninitiated, we need to revisit the history of Dehing Patkai, the notification for an elephant reserve, and the activities of the environment protection group called 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 when 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 not figuring in official communications, discourse, or literary pursuits. By the late eighties, Assam was on the verge of losing all its natural forests – with hundreds of sawmills, plywood industries and veneer units mushrooming in Upper Assam. Concerned with the state of affairs, Nature’s Beckon – led by Soumyadeep Dutta, 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, and the entire exercise was on foot. This arduous survey led to the discovery of this patch of rainforests in Assam – the Dehing Patkai National Park.

What did the survey reveal?

The survey revealed that anthropogenic impacts,  including deforestation for oil, timber and coal exploration, tea gardens, and human settlements, have already destroyed previously-contiguous rainforests. The surviving patches existed in isolation, thus gradually losing the extraordinary characteristics that define a rainforest.

Fortunately, the survey also revealed a contiguous stretch of 500 Sq. Km of rainforest in Joypur, Upper Dehing and Dirok, spread over Tinsukia and Dibrugarh. They realised that the floral and faunal diversity of the place was overwhelming, and if left unprotected, this would perish in no time. The only remedy for protecting this pristine forest was upgrading it to a Wild Life Sanctuary. So, Nature’s Beckon documented their findings, chalked out the map, and petitioned the Government to notify this 500 sq km as Joydehing Wild Life Sanctuary 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 who thrived on exploiting the forest for coal, timber and oil. Armed with political support from the then Forest Minister and a few bureaucrats, the exploiters resorted to threats and bribery to derail the initiative. When threats and bribery failed, they started a vilification campaign. In short, they left no stone unturned to derail the initiative of Nature’s Beckon. They campaigned that this area was not a rainforest and tried to mislead everyone that the highly endangered Hoolock Gibbon was not under threat. 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 like street plays, photo exhibitions, radio programs, conservation orientation camps and workshops to popularise the rainforest movement among the masses.

Many leading writers started writing about the relevance and biodiversity of rainforests in leading journals, periodicals and newspapers of Assam. Nature’s Beckon published many books, leaflets, brochures, posters and stickers 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.

International Exposure and Rainforest Festival

Leading media houses from India and abroad started featuring articles on the movement, and the issue thus began to garner international prominence. These efforts culminated in the first-ever International Rainforest Festival in Joypur in 2001, attended by resource persons, wildlife scientists, and biologists from all over. The then Chief Minister, Sri Tarun Gogoi was the Chief Guest of the festival, and prominent intellectuals like Homen Borgohain participated and expressed solidarity with the movement.

A conspiracy was hatched to derail the movement.

The success of the festival 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 (the first oil refinery in India) and Saleki( a colliery from the British days) inside the reserve. This declaration was to dilute the demand for a Wildlife Sanctuary, assuming that the public would not 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 must remember that the exploiters are always looking 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 survives. 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.