Dibrugarh/Guwahati, May 6 (PTI) The Assam forest department has slapped a penalty of Rs 43.25 crore on PSU major Coal India Ltd for carrying out 'illegal mining' inside a reserve forest for 16 years from 2003, officials said on Wednesday.
The forest department has also filed an FIR at the Sub-Divisional Chief Judicial Magistrate's Court in Margherita in Tinsukia district against officials responsible for the alleged illegal activity in around 73 hectares of land inside the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve forest between 2003 and 2019.
Accepting that the mining was going on since 2003 without a renewed lease, the North Eastern Coalfields, a unit of the Maharatna PSU, claimed that it had applied for renewal of the lease when the agreement had expired, but the Assam government did not act upon it for a 'long time'.
Taking up the issue at its latest meeting last month, the Standing Committee of the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL), under the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, refused to accord permission to the miner to commence operations unless it fulfils a set of 28 conditions, including payment of the penalty amount.
A campaign with hashtag '#SaveAmazonOfEast from Coal Mafias' has also gathered steam on social media, with leading environmentalists, activists, teachers and students demanding a complete ban on mining inside the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve, which is straddles Dibrugarh and Tinsukia districts.
'From 2003 to the first half of 2019, mining activity was going on without any clearance certificate. A mining lease was given to CIL in 1973 for 30 years. After its expiry, CIL was supposed to apply for forest clearance but they applied only in 2012,' a senior forest department official told PTI.
The mining was going on using all equipment with forest areas being opened up by cutting some trees, he said.
After the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, came into force in 2003, any activity for non-forest purposes in a protected area requires prior approval from the central government.
'No clearance was given by the central government under the FC Act. Any mining activity inside a forest can take place only after the final nod, which is Stage-II, not the Stage-I, that is in-principle approval. CIL did not get even the Stage-I clearance at that time,' the official said.
The department had sought clarification from the company about this issue in July 2019, and its officials had also seized 5,297 cubic metres of coal lying at the Ledo railway yard in October last year, he said.
'CIL had applied for clearance of 98.59 hectares. Out of which, 73 hectares they had already broken. Initially, it was 57.2 hectares, but finally we found that the figure was 73 hectares. It was a clear violation of forest laws,' the official said.
The DFO was asked to file an FIR against CIL general manager concerned and others, and it was done in a Margherita court in December 2019, he said.
Meanwhile, the Stage-I clearance was given to CIL for 57.20 hectares in December 2019 with 28 conditions, including payment of fine and action against officers responsible for violating the FC Act, he said.
'The Centre clearly said that the Stage-II clearance, which allows starting of mining work, will be given only after fulfilment of these conditions. Accordingly, the DFO has placed a demand note of Rs 43.25 crore to CIL in April 2020,' the official said.
He, however, claimed that the company is yet to initiate any action regarding payment of the penalty amount.
The government has asked the Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forest to draft charges against DFOs and Range Officers concerned since 2003 onwards for initiating departmental disciplinary action against them, he said.
The state government has also been requested by the Centre to approach the Coal Ministry for asking it to take disciplinary action against the errant CIL officials.
The NBWL, at the 57th Meeting of the Standing Committee, recommended that cautious approach should be adopted in the light of the rich biodiversity of the area in Saleki, a proposed reserve forest, which is a part of the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve.
Citing a report of the committee comprising NBWL member Prof R Sukumar, representative from the Wildlife Division and the State Chief Wildlife Warden, the minutes of the meeting stated that it would be prudent to preserve the basic integrity of the forested hill slope.
'The proposed area is on a steep hill slope that is part of the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve, adjoining good forest area in the neighbouring state of Arunachal Pradesh, which includes Deomali Elephant Reserve with a sizeable population of elephants,' it added.
Declining to give permission to begin coal mining immediately, the Standing Committee asked the CIL to submit two sets of documents of 'the broken up and unbroken areas' of the forest for further consideration.
When contacted, North Eastern Coalfields General Manager J K Borah said the company had an old lease till 2003 and it was not covered under the FC Act.
'After 2003, the NEC and CIL management had applied for approval from the Assam government. But the state government did not act upon that till 2013, and probably there was no follow-up from the NEC also,' he said.
Borah said that coal mining in the Tikok area was going on for over 130 years since 1884 and that the 98.59 hectares within the minefield did not require any forest clearance till 2003.
Asked why the company started mining inside the forest in 2003 without the necessary approvals, he said, 'The work was going on because it was a continuous mine and it was anticipated that permission would be given. Till 2012, only 57 hectares were broken.
'We had applied in 2003 for forest clearance for 98.59 hectares as a project. It was not done till 2012. Then, we have further applied. In 2013, the Forest Advisory Committee recommended work with certain conditions, including some to be fulfilled by the Assam government.' The NEC official alleged that the Assam government had 'delayed the process' and the company had to follow it up again in 2019 to expedite the grant of permission.
'The state gave clearance with certain conditions and forwarded it to the NBWL which has given us the permission in the broken area only. In the rest of the area, a feasibility report has been sought on the possibility of underground mining,' he said.
Borah also claimed that the elephant corridor is almost 20-25 km away from the project site.
'We are regularising the area, which has already been broken. The land was part of our lease land. Except this area, the rest of our mining area falls outside the forest area. At present, no mining is going on in the entire area,' he added.
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