DIGBOI/MARGHERITA, July 6 – North Eastern Coalfields (NEC) of Coal India Limited (CIL) had been illegally carrying out opencast mining operations in not just Saleki proposed reserve forest (PRF) but also in three other forests in the Dehing Patkai range. While the Saleki violation hogged media limelight and triggered public outrage, the illegalities committed in the other three forests – Tipong PRF and Jeypore reserve forest (RF) of Dibrugarh Division and Dilli RF of Sivasagar Division – were apparently not acted upon.
When asked about these violations, forest authorities were tight-lipped. “We will look into the matter,” a top official said. The forest department had earlier imposed a fine of Rs 43.25 crore on CIL for the Saleki violation. The CIL authorities also refused to comment on the issue. While a GM-ranked official declined from saying anything, e-mailed queries sent to another GM as was suggested remained unanswered.
According to official documents accessed by The Assam Tribune, the violations committed by Coal India in these four RFs and PRFs, which are part of Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve, were of a very serious nature, as they contravened provisions of both the Assam Forest Regulation, 1891 and the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.
“It is noticed that CIL has carried out coal mining in the forest areas mentioned therein (Saleki PRF and Tipong PRF of Digboi Division, Jeypore RF of Dibrugarh Division and Dilli RF of Sivasagar Division) without obtaining any approval/permission for mining under the Assam Forest Regulation, 1891 (for short ‘AFR’) or the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 (for short ‘FCA’),” a letter issued by the Office of the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Assam, dated September 6, 2019, states.
The document called for according top priority to the matter as it involves “rapacious damage to forests, audacious infringement of forest laws as also intentional contempt of the hon’ble Supreme Court.”
Rejecting CIL’s contention that it had started mining in those forests before the FCA came into force, the letter goes on to state that even if mining of coal was started by CIL in forest areas before the FCA came into force, i.e., 25.10.1980, “it was legally incumbent on CIL to take permission under the AFR which came into force on 1.4.1892 but it did not do so. Thus, CIL has committed offence under Section 24 and 25 of the AFR punishable under the aforesaid sections besides confiscation of vehicles, tools, equipment, etc., under Section 49(4) thereof.”
Further, the letter adds, after the enactment of the FCA, it was obligatory for CIL to obtain approval from the Central government for coal mining under the FCA. This has been reiterated by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change in its handbook on forest clearance (2019 edition) vide Chapter 1.
According to de-reservation orders made before 25.10.1980, the cases in which specific order for de-reservation or diversion of forestlands for any project has been issued by the State government prior to 25.10.1980, need not be referred to the Central government. However, in the cases where only administrative approval for the project was issued without specific order regarding de-reservation and/or diversion of forest lands, prior approval of the Central government under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 would be necessary.
Terming as ‘alibi’ the stand taken by CIL that some revenue officer had proposed to exclude the portion of forestland which was used by it for coal mining from the notification of PRF/RF, the letter says it was “untenable” in view of the provisions of the AFR and the FCA read with the Supreme Court’s order dated 12.12.1996 in WP(C) 202/1995.
“Further, CIL cannot carry out coal mining in any forest area even if they have been granted ‘In-principle Approval’ (Stage-I Approval) or the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) has recommended the forest diversion proposal. It may be noted that any forestland can be used for non-forest purpose (mining and related activities) only after obtaining prior approval (Final Approval/Stage-II Approval) from the Central government,” it points out.
The letter also called for detailing of FCA violation report in each of the four cases.
Another forest official wishing anonymity said that it was perplexing while no action was being initiated against CIL over the violations. “In the Saleki case, the forest department initiated legal proceedings against CIL and also imposed a hefty penalty but these three cases seem to have been overlooked,” he said.