“The Northeast region was an ecological powerhouse as well as a political frontier. For instance, in most of the writings, the landscape of Assam Valley is understood through climate and polity as a part of the Northeastern Frontier. However, the recent scholarly works have undertaken ecological questions, mostly in relation to the state driven policies of development. What seems lacking is the anthropological understanding of these issues that would take into account different communities, the utilisation pattern of natural resources, and the ecological relations they share,” Simashree Bora writes.
‘Nature has introduced great variety into the landscape, but man has displayed a passion for simplifying it’,
– Rachel Carson (1962)
Amidst countrywide lockdown when the entire world was dealing with life-threatening pandemic and an uncertain future, a new challenge has silently engulfed the people of the Northeast. The National Board for Wild Life (NBWL) under the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change approved cold mining in the Saleki region which is a proposed Reserve Forest under Dehing Patkai Rain Forest. The Dehing Patkai is home to numerous endangered flora and fauna. In the beginning, several news papers and news channels of Assam reported the matter and highlighted on legalisation of coal mining, however without emphasising on environmental precarity. The possibility was bleak that this issue would attract the mainstream attention amidst the Pandemic scare. However, many concerned citizens started writing on various social media platforms opposing the government’s decision and demanded their withdrawal in order to preserve the natural habitat. It was only in the following weeks that students and activists carried out a much larger campaign on various social media platforms. A hashtag ‘I am Dehing Patkai, ‘Save Dehing Patkai’, ‘Save Dibang Valley’ surfaced on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Videos created by young activists and students have surfaced on YouTube in the last two months like never before. The protests in Assam have highlighted discontentment of a section of people and possibly calls for a Janagaran for the proper redressal of the issue.
Environmental Politics of Assam: Possibility of a New Narrative
Environmental concerns are structured by historical, political, cultural and social factors. Environmental movements got momentum in the late 1960s and early 1970s because of a worldwide crisis. The crisis was and continued to be multifaceted. Industrial growth and development unleashed a paradigm shift which allowed human beings to exploit the Nature and natural resources and thereby keep environment, livelihood and human survival at stake. Soon environmentalism and activism erupted, which proposed new principles of sustainability and to maintain balance between the human and the nature. The western discourse on environmentalism remained influential for a very long period of time. Political ecologists arguably emphasised on the wider influence of eco-political systems shaping everyday life and changes in the environment (Bryant and Bailey 1997). The discourse of political ecology explains the State sponsored activities affecting the ecological relationships shared by different communities. In Indian context, collective mobilisations for forest conservation, anti -commercialisation and legalisation of environmental rights gave rise to movements like Chipko and Narmada.
In the recent times, Assam has witnessed several crisis related to environmental degradation. The disastrous episode of Baghjan that destroyed an entire ecosystem and displaced many communities has evoked anger and helplessness. Similarly, the Anti-Dam protests in Assam are taking place for a long time. Historically, the vested interests of the British on the Northeast for tea, coal, and oil gave rise to an economy of exploitation and extraction which continue till date. The Northeast region was an ecological powerhouse as well as a political frontier. For instance, in most of the writings, the landscape of Assam Valley is understood through climate and polity as a part of the Northeastern Frontier. However, the recent scholarly works have undertaken ecological questions, mostly in relation to the state driven policies of development. What seems lacking is the anthropological understanding of these issues that would take into account different communities, the utilisation pattern of natural resources, and the ecological relations they share. Ramachandra Guha (1992) points out that ecological history of India should be construed around detailed regional studies, sharply bounded in time and space. In this context, it is pertinent to ask a specific question. What is the nature of environmental politics in the Northeast, especially in Assam?
Noted writer and critic Mayur Bora provides an insightful opinion when asked about the nature of environmental politics in Assam. In a telephonic conversation, he rightly pointed out that for decades, Assam along with many other NE states is over burdened with identity politics, ethnic conflicts and illegal immigration; and those have been the defining characteristics of our politics. Issues related to environment and environmental rights barely found a space in the mainstream politics and thus are obscured for the longest time. But we must acknowledge that environmental rights are located in the political and the legal arch and that has been a combat since India’s independence. It is noted that from 1973 to 2003, Coal India Limited (North Eastern Coalfield) was granted permission for coal mining. In 1989, Ministry of Environment and Forest issued directives to Coal India Limited to explore other options. Nonetheless, coal mining in the Valley continued till date. Along with mass social media protests against coal mining inside the rain forest, petitions were filed against government’s initial approval to the same. While accepting the Public Interests Litigations (PIL), Guwahati High Court issued a notice to the Centre, the state and Coal India along with other stakeholders.
Locating Dehing Patkai
The Assam Valley Tropical Rain Forest, commonly known as Dehing Patkai Rain Forest covers a total of 500 square kilometres spread across three districts of Dibrugarh, Tinsukia and Sivasagar. Part of the rain forest is the 111 square kilometres Dihing Patkai Wild Life Sanctuary (WLS). The WLS is a ‘protected’ area of the rain forest. Thus the entire rainforest is divided into three parts, i.e. the WLS, the Reserve Forest and the Proposed Reserved Forest. It should be noted that only one third of the entire forest is declared as protected zone.
Sivasish Thakur, a senior journalist of The Assam Tribune has been writing on Dihing Patkai since the issue came into public discourse. In an interview with the journalist, Thakur emphasised that one should avail correct information about the Rain Forest before choosing the political battle. Although it started with Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest and illegal mining in the area, the matter is more complex and entrenched. The ongoing coal mining in this vast area, whether legally or illegally, remains a fact. What needs immediate attention is to stop Open cast mining which is extremely damaging the environment. The logical protest and demand should to be to expand the area of the Wild Life Sanctuary and convert to National Park. The distance between the WLS and the Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest, which is a proposed mining site, is less than 10 kilometres. Moreover, “the mining area also falls on a critical elephant corridor linking it with Arunachal forests and elephants have traditionally been using the path” (Thakur, 2020). Recently, we also witnessed the environmental impact of the Baghjan tragedy. The site of oil drilling is very close to the Dibru Saikhuwa Forest and it is illegal to conduct any drilling because it falls under ecological sensitive zone.
Generally, environmentalism is associated with the idea of conservation. However, over time, it heralded new sets of meanings and practices which is sharply distinct from environmentalism in its purest form. The new developments in this area identify ‘rights’ belonging to the nature and the humans. Environmental laws and legal experts have given new perspectives to many environmental movements worldwide, from protecting natural habitat to granting rights to those who inhabit. If we look carefully, it was evident from movements in Latin America to Narmada Bacho Andolan of India which represented the rights of indigenous, tribal and the nature. In the Northeast, anti-dam protests in states like Assam, Arunachal and Sikkim started new debates and provided means to political mobilisations. Similarly, the mass campaign for Dihing Patkai Rain Forest highlights the voice of the people against the unabated resource exploitation and decade long damage done to the ecosystem. The protest is symptomatic of the opportunity to garner political attention, to demand changes in environmental policies and most importantly to create new narratives of environmental politics in the Northeast.
(Simashree Bora teaches Sociology at Cotton University. Views are personal.)