Dehing -Patkai: HC seeks affidavit on illegal mining by August 3
Gauhati High Court has asked the Sarbanda Sonowal-led Assam government to file an affidavit by August 3 about the inquiry it had ordered into allegations of illegal mining since 2003 at Dehing-Patkai wildlife sanctuary.
On July 20, a division bench, comprising Chief Justice Ajai Lamba and Justice Manish Choudhury, passed the order while hearing petitions challenging the April 7 permission by National Board for Wild Life (NBWL) for the use of 98.59 hectares of land from the proposed reserve forest at Saleki for mining by North Eastern Coalfields, a unit of Coal India Limited.
Sonowal had on July 18 announced an inquiry by Gauhati High Court’s Justice (retd) Brajendra Prasad Kataki into the allegations of illegal coal mining in the eco-sensitive zone from 2003. The one-man inquiry panel has been asked to submit its report within six months. Early this month, Sonowal had also announced the government’s decision to upgrade the Dehing-Patkai wildlife sanctuary into a national park.
The division bench also said other petitioners and parties to the proceedings can file their response by August 17 and the court has posted the next hearing for September 1.
A lawyer associated with the case said the court asked the government to file the affidavit so that it can bring the matter on record after appointing the one-man commission of inquiry, along with its terms of reference.
The lawyer also said that the North Eastern Coalfields (NEC), in its response, had opposed the PIL and sought its dismissal. The Centre and the state government have not responded to the petitions yet. However, the standing counsel informed the court about the one-man commission of inquiry headed by the retired high court judge.
Apart from setting up the inquiry panel, there has been another development related to the NBWL’s recommendation that triggered the protests and the court case.
The 58th meeting of the NBWL standing committee, chaired by the Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar on July 3, discussed the minutes of the 57th meeting held on April 7 pertaining to the use of 98.59 hectares from the proposed Saleki reserve forest for coal mining in Assam.
The standing committee recommended that mining activity be immediately stopped at the site and decided to defer the matter till further discussions with Coal India Limited.
The decision was taken because the standing committee was yet receive a site-specific mine reclamation plan to have been prepared by the Coal India in consultation with the Assam forest department. Nor it has received the feasibility report for underground mining for the unbroken land, compliance report regarding fulfilment of all other conditions as recommended at the January 21 NBWL meeting. Member-secretary Soumitra Dasgupta said at the meeting the “matter is sub-judice” in the Supreme Court and Gauhati High Court.
On June 4, the court took suo motu cognisance of a letter written by a citizen over the threat posed by illegal mining to the hotspot spread over Dibrugarh and Tinsukia districts, about 500km east of here.
The bench converted the letter into public interest litigation (PIL) while hearing a petition filed by advocate Mrinmoy Khataniar and mountaineer Amarjyoti Deka and another PIL by lawyers Vikram Rajkhowa and Santanu Borthakur.
After going through PILs, it issued notices to Coal India, NEC, the Assam and central government on the issues raised in the PILs, primarily illegal mining without approval from appropriate authorities.
Sources said July has seen several positive developments related to Dehing-Patkai such as the one-man inquiry panel, the move to upgrade Dehing Patkai wildlife sanctuary into a national park and the NBWL’s recommendation to stop mining activity at Seleki. “We feel this has been possible because of the judiciary’s intervention,” one of them said.