Dibrugarh: The Patkai hills lost its glory due to unabated illegal coal mining in the Ledo-Margherita area of Assam’s Tinsukia district.
Ledo-Margherita is nearly 571 kms from capital Guwahati is naturally rich due to abundant coal found in the foothills of Patkai.
Earlier, the places was home to Singpo, Sema Nagas, Tangsa, Tai-Phake, Syam, Aitom, Nocte and other communities who have been impacted due to the mining and deforestation in the patkai hills.
They are the orginal inhabitants of Patkai hill region but they have to migrated to Arunachal Pradesh’s Tirap district due to mining.
“The illegal mining has destroying the ecology of the Patkai hills. It has disastrous impact on the environment of the region. Due to unbatted illegal mining the entire area the flora and fauna have lost. Last ten years ago the Patkai hills has been green but nowadays it has lost its greenery. Earlier, when we passed through the Margherita-Ledo area we found the green vegitation on the foothills of Patkai mountain but now it has lost all its glory. The rat-hole mining has also affected the entire region. The originally inhabitants has shifted from the pace,” said Rajiv Dutta, senior journalist, who has been working on environment for the last two decades.
Collieries in Ledo-Margherita began to be set up from 1885 and were placed under the administrative control of the Assam Railways and Trading Company.
The illegal coal mining in the area has been big issue because the locals are also involved in the racket of extraction coal from the patkai hills through illegal ways. Rat-hole mining is most common practice in the region, and the coal mafias engaged the coal thieves to extract coal from the rat-holes mines.
Extraction of coal in Ledo-Margherita is done along the foothills of the Namdang hills using a range of techniques.
Locals from the neighbouring villages and migrant daily labourers dig out coal with sharp tools which are carried in gunny bags and deposited at specific locations.
Migration due to illegal coal mining:
The communities have migrated to the neighboring Arunachal Pradesh due to illegal coal mining. They were depended on jhum cultivation but due to the coal mining in the Patkai region, they faced problem and their cultivation were affected and as a result they were forced to migrate in the safer place. Nearly 500 people have migrated to the Tirap district of Arunachal Pradesh.
“The Patkai hills region belongs to the tribal people because living in the area since decades. They are the original inhabitants of the area but they were forced to left their original home due to illegal mining. They were neglected and their rights were demean by the government,” said Raju Deori, tribal social activist.
He said, “The tribal communities who are living in the area since long have forced to migrate in Tirap. The mining has widened the income gap in communities between those who are dependent on forest. The illegal mining activities was done by the outsiders and after that they involved the poor people into illegal activities”.
Hekei Sema, from Sema Naga community says that his village have to shift several times due to the mining in the area. “We have shift to Tirap district of neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh due affect from illegal mining. Most of them in our Village have migrated but only six families were left in our Village,” he said
“The Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest next to Tikok has been mined illegally for more than a decade. The illegal mining has affected the entire greenery and biodiversity of the region,” Hekei Sema said.
He said, “The people who are living in the plains their cropland were destroyed due to the coal mining. The entire eco-system was badly affected due to the illegal mining in the particular areas,” Sema added.
Tikak and Tirap are the two main coal producing collieries in Ledo-Margherita, they lie in close proximity to some villages, which facilities the hiring of local residents for digging coal. The people from Adivasi community engaged in procuring coals because they get good money instead of working at tea garden.
“To earn more money the people from poor background in Ledo-Margherita area are engaging in illegal coal business. They are earning Rs 1200-1500 daily working in illegal coal mining. Due to lack of education most of the people in this region are involved in this trade. They are also working in rat-hole mines and some of them even die in the rat-hole mines during extracting coal and to cover up the incidents their bodies will be disposed and sometimes their family members will be compensate,” said Jargnel Minz, secretary Tinsukia district, All Adivasi Students’ Association(AASAA).
Rat-hole mining is the process of extracting coal and other minerals by digging narrow tunnels deep into the earth and sending down workers using trolleys and ladders to remove the minerals.
Due to rat-hole mining the entire biodiversity of the region was affected. The Patkai hills lost its greenery due to unabated illegal mining and deforestation. Few years ago, the area was greenery but now the green covers were completely cleared. The illegal mining is a threat to the entire biodiversity.
Recently, opposition party Assam Jatiya Parishad(AJP) alleged that the northeastern state is losing nearly Rs 2,000 crore revenue every month due to rampant illegal rat-hole coal mining in several places, particular in upper Assam Tinsukia district.
They have sent a memorandum to the President, Prime Minister, Supreme Court Chief Justice, Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, NHRC Chairman and National Green Tribunal Chairman highlighting the issue.
Devojit Moran, an environmentalist said, “Around 1000 rat-hole mining are functioning in the Ledo-Margherita region of the Patkai hills. The coal mafias are illegally extract the coals through rat-hole mining. The illegal rat-hole mining has been causing extensive damage to the entire biodiversity of the region. Earlier, many birds species were found near Saleki reserve forest are not found in that area due to deforestation and illegal mining,”.
“Due to illegal mining the Dehing river has also started drying because it has started creating silt in the river. The waterfalls which was earlier easily spotted in the Patkai hills was not seen nowadays. The illegal mining has also affected the elephant movement and as a result man-elephant has been rising in the Tinsukia district,” Moran added.
He further added, “The National Green Tribunal of India banned Rat-hole mining in 2014, but it has continued unbatted in the Tinsukia and Karbi-Anglong districts of Assam. Everyday 100 coal laden trucks ply on the roads in Ledo-Margherita area. It was big nexus which has been going on under the political patronage. The coal mafias are managing everyone to run the business smoothly,”.
BK Kakoty Comission on illegal mining:
The Assam government constituted a one man comission under Justice (Retd) BK Kakoty Comission,” and the commission categorically reported the continuation of the illegal “Rat-Hole Mining” in the state. The report also highlighted the serious impact and danger of the de-forestation and it’s impact to ecological imbalance.
In December 25, 2020, Katakey Commission noticed rat-hole mines during a field visit to the forest region adjacent to Namdang Colliery under Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest. Heaps of freshly dug coal were seen in the area and also at the homes of people living in the vicinity.
The Justice (Retd) BP Katakey Commission reportedly mentioned in its report that the NEC had illegally mined coal worth Rs 48.72 billion.
Study on coal mining
Dr Dipali Borpujari, head of the department of Botany Department in Margherita College has done a research on “Restoration of vegitation and soil in coal mines spoil at Tikok open cast mining” from 1999-2004. In her research paper she didn’t found true soil in the dumping site.
In her research paper, Dr Dipali Borpujari had mentioned how the open cast mining has affected the vegitation of the particular area. The plant species and the crop field was destroyed due to the open cast mining because the they dumped the coal in the crop field which affected the vegitation.
“The soil of the particular area was affected due to the open cast mining. The coal mining has affected the entire biodiversity of the area,” Dr Borpujari highlighted in her study.
Another study on impact of Dehing Patkai coal mining on health of the people was done between 2008 and 2012 by the Manohari Devi Kanoi Girls (MDKG) College in Dibrugarh. Data from two villages and their study found that a large section of the population suffered from airborne and waterborne diseases.
Gauhati High Court direction on illegal mining:
Recently, Gauhati High Court has directed the Centre and the state government to take steps to stop all illegal coal mining activities in the Tikok open cast project in the Saleki reserve forest.
The bench of Chief Justice Sandeep Mehata and Justice Suman Shyam, while hearing a petition filed by Mrinmoy Khataniar and Amar Jyoti Deka stated “Undisputedly it is the obligation of ministry of environment, forest and climate change in collaboration with the state government to ensure that illegal mining activities are not carried out within the state of Assam which is home to the pristine forests which are virtually the lungs of the earth”.
Illegal coke industries causing pollution:
Many illegal coke coal bhattas(kilns or over plants) industries are operating illegally in Ledo-Margherita region causing air polution in the area. The people are facing adverse health hazard due to the air pollution comes out from the Coke industries. More than 92 coke industries are operating in Ledo-Margherita area and most of them are functioning without proper licenced.
An RTI activist of Borgolai Sanju Chetri has revealed that in 2017 there were 52 coke coal bhattas in the area. While 25 of them were registered, the rest 27 were not registered with the District Industries and Commerce Centre, Tinsukia.
“The Cooke industries are causing air pollution in the entire area. People are having skin disease due to the pollution. Recently, many Coke industries are come up into the area which causes massive air pollution. People are having skin and breathing problems. We have already informed it to the district administration and to the higher levels but still nothing has been done to stop such illegal activities,” said Ranjan Choudhury, secretary AITUC, Assam state committee.
On January 4, 2023, Ranjan Choudhury sent a letter to National Green Tribunal(NGT) regarding pollution caused by 56 numbers of Cook Coal product industries in Ledo-Margherita region of Tinsukia district.
“It is worth mentioning that under North East Coal Fields of Coal India Limited only the Tikok West mining site is producing coal and the rest remain closed till date. It is mystery how this Cook Coal Product Industries in bulk numbers of 56 are running and as a result pollution increasing day by day out of the uncontrolled smoke are came out from those Cook Coal Product Industries, resulting destroying the production of Paddy fields destroying the growth of Natural Forest, polluted all the River that is running nearby locality, it also a threat to the human beings and the Forest animals and causing threat to Dihing Patkai Forest Range,” Choudhury stated in the letter.
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