-Bhaskar Barua |
The times they are a-changing, thus wrote Bob Dylan way back in 1964. Well, this covid induced times are indeed changing the ways of the world. While the NBWL approved coal mining in Saleki PRF in April this year by video conferencing, a #Save Dehing Patkai campaign gained traction in social media as a countermeasure to the decision. One fails to understand how the two issues are related to each other – Dehing Patkai being a Wildlife Sanctuary and Saleki a colliery about ten kilometers away as the crow flies. Any responsible government will not dare allow mining activities inside a Wildlife Sanctuary, and the subsequent tweet by the Chief Minister of the State to upgrade the status of Dehing Patkai to a National Park proves the point. Funnily, the same protagonists of the Save Dehing Patkai campaign (ostensibly to save it from coal mining) clamored to be instrumental in this decision of the state. One of them supposedly rang up the Chief Minister to convince him to save Dehing Patkai. Yet others claimed that their webinars led to this decision. The Times are a-changing.
How does the status upgrade of Dehing Patkai to a National park without expanding its area affect the coal mining in Saleki is a million-dollar question? However, Saleki falls inside the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve, and to understand the context of an elephant reserve vis-a-vis a Wildlife Sanctuary, we need to revisit the history of Dehing Patkai.
It was in the early nineties when the term “Rainforests” buzzed a bell in the collective psyche in Assam. Before that, we were oblivious to the existence of rainforests in Assam, since the term didn’t figure in any official communications or discourse, literary pursuits or scholarly debates. 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. Realizing the gravity of the situation, Nature’s Beckon – led by Soumyadeep Dutta, surveyed the forests of Upper Assam from 1989 to 1992, entirely on foot with no GPS, internet or Cell Phones for assistance. But this arduous exercise helped them to arrive at the exact status and individual characteristics of the surviving patches of forests. The survey revealed that anthropogenic impact of tea gardens, human settlements, deforestation, and oil and coal exploration had irreversibly destroyed previously contiguous rainforests. Most of the surviving patches existed in isolation from each other, therefore slowly and progressively losing the extraordinary characteristics that define a rainforest. But a fresh glimmer of optimism emerged when their investigations and explorations revealed a contiguous stretch of 500 Sq. Km of rainforests in Joypur, Upper Dehing and Dirok, spread over the two districts of Tinsukia and Dibrugarh. They realised that the floral and faunal diversity of the place was so overwhelming that, if left unprotected, this rainforest would soon perish. And that would be possible only if the Government upgrades the conservation status of these reserved forests into a Wildlife Sanctuary. They chalked out the map, documented their findings and petitioned the Government for Joydehing Wildlife Sanctuary in 1994.
But it was easier said than done. The petition threatened the very existence of a select few who thrived on exploiting the forest wealth including coal, timber and oil. This lobby resorted to threats and bribery and then a vilification campaign to dissuade Nature’s Beckon from their resolve. They started campaigning that Dehing Patkai was not a rainforest and that the Hoolock Gibbon is not an endangered species. They even went to the extent of welcoming Premier Oil to drill for oil-wells inside the rainforest so that their saga of exploitation continues.
Undaunted, Nature’s Beckon persevered with their multi-layered movement to save Dehing Patkai. To popularise the perception of rainforest among the masses, they used mass communication tools like street plays, photo exhibitions, slide projectors, radio programs, conservation orientation camps and workshops. They wrote columns on the relevance and biodiversity of rainforests in all leading journals, periodicals and newspapers in Assam. Simultaneously, leading media houses from the country and abroad featured articles on the movement, which brought international attention to the significance of the issue. They published numerous books, leaflets, brochures, posters and stickers in Assamese to spread awareness. Thousands of students took part in protest marches and rallies across the state to demand the preservation of the rainforests. They organized the first-ever International Rainforest Festival in Joypur in 2001, where resource persons and wildlife scientists and biologists from all across the world took part. The then Chief Minister of the State and a plethora of intellectuals including Homen Borgohain also participated in the festival. The Chief Minister expressed solidarity with the movement, which set the alarm bells ringing among the exploiter’s lobby. To hoodwink the people of Assam, the then Forest Minister with the aid of a Joint Secretary of the department in 2003 announced an area of 937 sq. km as an Elephant Reserve. This move was to dilute the rainforest movement and set the stage for its unabated exploitation in the days to come.
One needs to understand here that as per Indian law, a forest enjoys legal sanctity only when it is notified as a National Park or Wildlife Sanctuary. Reserved Forests or Elephant Reserves carry no relevance. The Government, if they desire, can extract resources like coal, timber, oil, boulders and sand etc. from these forests. The recent NBWL clearance for coal mining in Saleki proposed reserve forest, which is also a part of the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve is a case in point.
But Nature’s Beckon called the bluff and resorted to aggressive moves, including blocking highways and railway lines to press for their demand. Finally, the decade long movement culminated in 2004 when the Government notified an area of 111.19 sq. km as a Wildlife Sanctuary, with the assurance that they would upgrade the remaining areas shortly.
It is 2020 now, and we are yet to see the expansion of the sanctuary, and even the latest Government decision is mum on the issue. The Government has to secure our forest wealth for our future generations by notifying the entire 500 sq. km area as a protected area. Only then will Dehing Patkai survive. It is time for all crusaders on social media to join the movement on the ground if they really desire to save our last surviving patch of rainforest. Social media campaign does help, but not to the extent that the community of the area participates. And without community participation, no conservation story has been a success anywhere in the world.