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Environment

Draft EIA 2020: How it may impact North East The region, with eight per cent of India’s total geographical area, has 25 per cent of India’s forest cover

By Sayan Banerjee:

The north-eastern region continues to face a violent extractive regime by the Indian state. Photo: RK Srinivasan
India’s northeastern region — comprising Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura — is a unique biodiversity hotspot. The region, however, faces many environmental problems.

Successive Indian forest surveys in 2015, 2017 and 2019 reported net deforestation of 628, 630 and 765 square kilometres in the region respectively.

This gradual decline in general and decrease of very dense forests — with canopy cover greater than 70 per cent — is particularly alarming. During 2001-2018, 75 per cent of the total tree cover loss outside the recorded forest area in India occurred in this region.

The region is prone to multiple cycles of heavy floods, grade-V earthquakes and landslides due to hydrological and seismic fragility.

In 2020, almost 28 of 33 districts at the Barak and Brahmaputra valleys in Assam reeled under floods, 23 small-scale earthquakes hit Mizoram within five weeks and multiple causalities due to landslides occurred in Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and other hilly areas.

A recent government report presented in the climate summit at Katowice, Poland found the north-eastern states to be highly vulnerable to climate change due to low adaptive potential of demographic and livelihood factors.

The development of this region, thus, requires sound socio-ecological planning with proactive mitigation strategies to control the damage to the region’s ecology and society.

The environmental impact assessment (EIA), in this regard, becomes a mandatory exercise for ecologically sound development projects envisaged for the region.

Draft EIA notification 2020

In order to ensure ‘ease of doing business’, the draft EIA notification 2020 weakens the basic vision of EIA, that is, a proactive analysis of impacts on the environment by development projects and providing risk-mitigation strategies.

The proposed changes grant post-facto environmental clearance to industries that operate and pollute without consent from the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

The participation of affected communities and the public in general was further limited by reducing the notice period for public hearing to 20 days from 30 days.

Several large-scale projects were re-categorised as B2 (projects that do not require EIA) and thus exempted from it. Given the environmental fragility of the North East, these changes can usher irreversible damage to the region.

Development outlook at north-eastern states

The northeastern region continues to face a violent extractive regime by the Indian state. Following Dolly Kikon’s work on extractive regimes at the Assam-Nagaland border, the entire northeastern region can be described as a “militarised hydro / carbon frontier”.

Successive governments visualised Arunachal Pradesh as the cradle of India’s hydropower, with there being a plan to develop almost 170 hydro-electric projects that provide around 70,000 megawatts (MW) of power, more than a third of India’s total hydro potential.

Only five per cent of the proposed hydropower projects were established till now, with the ecological future of this state bleak if the remaining hydro-potential is realised. A recent campaign against the proposed 3,097 MW Etalin hydropower project showed such projects were cleared with a limited understanding of socio-ecological impacts.

Assam, Meghalaya and parts of other states have experienced extraction of coal, allied minerals and oil and gas since the occupation of the British. The current extraction by Coal India Ltd in Assam is at 465 million tonnes (MT), out of the total coal prospect of 525 MT.

A devastating blowout and fire at one of the gas wells owned by Oil India Ltd occurred at Baghjan, within the eco-sensitive zone of Dibru-Saikhowa. Photo: Vivek Menon / Twitter

The coal bearing region of Assam overlaps with the areas adjoining the Dihing-Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary and elephant reserve that harbour dense evergreen forests. Clearance for coal mining at the Saleki proposed reserve forest situated at the vicinity of the sanctuary recently caused a huge uproar from the state’s youth-led environmental groups.

Data from the Union Ministry of Coal suggested only 15 per cent and two per cent of the total coal prospect was established in Meghalaya and Nagaland respectively, with scope for further expansion. The total potential hydrocarbon reserve in the region was estimated to be around 5,040 MT, of which only 44 per cent was established, according to the Union Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas.

This left considerable scope for further extraction, with the Hydrocarbon Vision 2030 for the northeastern region aiming to double the production of oil and natural gas.

The present extraction is concentrated in the Upper Assam Shelf Basin. This basin is adjacent to the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and the Dihing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary.

A devastating blowout and fire at one of the gas wells owned by Oil India Ltd occurred at Baghjan, within the eco-sensitive zone of Dibru-Saikhowa. Future oil and gas exploration in the region aims to exploit the Assam-Arakan Basin that comprises of the hilly areas in Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland, according to the Hydrocarbon Vision.

Bleak socio-ecological future of the North East

The recent Baghjan blowout and fire incident provides the greatest example to show how poor or no EIA of extractive development projects can impact the local ecology and society in future.

OIL was extracting oil and gas without proper environmental clearances and biodiversity impact assessment. It violated all environment-related acts and rules of the country during its operation.

The draft EIA 2020 aims to legalise such environmental violations through post-facto clearance without punitive action. Article 371 and the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution provides community ownership over resources in these states.

Each community has their own unique socio-political history, language, social structure and cultural belief system.

The draft EIA 2020 is subverting the Constitution by limiting the inclusion of local decision-making bodies and public participation in the region. The draft also takes away power from affected communities to report environmental violations.

These changes foreground an attitude of profit over people and wildlife, which treats the region only as an extraction frontier that will feed the ‘national interest’.

The draft aims to set up industries within 100 km of the international borders without public consultation. This would affect large sections of all the north-eastern states.

The massive land requirement will lead to large scale displacement and disruption of livelihood of already marginalised communities. Indigenous cultures that evolved by living in the local ecology will likely be lost with the displacement and destruction of the local environment.

The Hydrocarbon Vision from the region will lead to huge land conversion, especially forested areas, increasing the deforestation rate and carbon footprint of the national economy.

This region, with eight per cent of India’s total geographical area, has 25 per cent of India’s forest cover.

If the staggering number of mining and dam building projects get a nod, the resulting deforestation and earth removal may lead to increased hydro-seismic fragility of the region, causing more intense floods, earthquakes and landslides.

Oil and gas exploration and highway expansion was exempted from the purview of EIA. Without proper environment impact assessments, such developments will increase the vulnerability of the region to climatic shifts.

Land-levelling or securing land through erection of walls or fences and land conversion in general will destroy terrestrial and aquatic habitats that fall under the Himalaya and India-Burma biodiversity hotspots and Central Asian and East Asia-Australian Flyway.

It will exacerbate the survival of various endemic species and impede movement of long-ranging animals like Asian elephants and tigers.

Given the fragile ecology of the northeastern region, there is a massive gap between the requirement of ecologically sound development policy and the actual development outlook of the region.

A strong EIA can bridge this gap with mandatory identification of sustainable development initiatives.

The draft EIA 2020, however, brought forward changes that are both anti-environment and anti-people. It should, thus, be rejected to secure the socio-ecological future of the north-eastern states.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

Environment

Environmental hot potato: Current EIA process is defunct. Parliament must legislate a new law based on sound science

The Draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2020 has become a hot potato for the ministry of environment, forest & climate change (MoEF&CC). First, the Delhi high court overruled the ministry’s decision on the time limit for public comments and increased it till August 11. Then, in response to a formal complaint of the environment minister for spamming his email account, the cybercrime unit of the Delhi police invoked a terrorism-related law to shut down the website of young environmental campaigners, who were running an online campaign against the draft notification.

Though the police have now withdrawn the notice, the public uproar against the draft notification continues. Reportedly, lakhs of people have written to MoEF&CC to scrap the draft. So why is there such a hullabaloo around this subordinate legislation?

Chad Crowe

The draft EIA notification 2020 seeks to replace the existing law – the EIA notification 2006 – which grants Environment Clearance (EC) to projects. The major criticisms against the new draft are that it dilutes scope of public participation, legalises post-facto EC, removes the requirements of EIA study for several categories of projects, and weakens the provisions of reporting by companies. To understand the significance of these changes, let’s look at the 2006 law.

The EIA notification 2006 is possibly the most amended piece of environmental law. It has been amended 43 times, and at least 50 office memorandums (worth 350 pages) have been issued to tweak this law. Many of these changes have diluted the original version for some or other industry. The 2020 draft, in large part, brings together several of these revisions.

Therefore, effectively the 2020 version is a little worse than the existing one. So, while I appreciate the criticism of the proposed draft, keeping the 2006 version or even improving it is not going to solve the environmental problems in the country either. Let me explain why.

First, the approach of conducting EIA of individual projects is bad science. The environment is affected by the cumulative impacts of all activities, which project-specific EIAs fail to capture. Even if individual projects meet all benchmarks, their cumulative effects may still destroy the environment. This is evident in most mining and industrial areas of the country – from Singrauli to Korba and from Vapi to Patancheru.

Second, the EIA report, which forms the basis for EC decisions, is prepared by a consultant paid by the project proponent. This creates an apparent conflict of interest, and therefore most EIA reports are not worth the paper they are written on. I am yet to come across an EIA report that says that a project is likely to have significant ecological impacts.

Third, the process of the public hearing, which is mandated to take into account the concerns of the project-affected people, is a sham. Public hearing as practised in India is neither an informed consultation nor an informed consent. Most times, it is organised in the presence of police force, and physical violence is not uncommon.

Worse still, concerns of the community are most often dealt with in a cursory way by the expert appraisal committees (EACs). EACs typically ask companies to make some investments like building schools or providing drinking water to appease the community. MoEF&CC has even formalised this by calling these expenditures as ‘corporate environment responsibility’ (CER) and directing companies to earmark 0.125-2% of the capital investment on CER.

Finally, the environmental conditions imposed on the companies are rarely monitored by authorities. Monitoring is based on self-certified half-yearly reports submitted by companies; this has been reduced to yearly report in the 2020 draft.

The fact is that the current EIA and EC process in India is defunct. While it involves a lot of paperwork, there is little improvement on the ground. 99.9% of the projects are cleared, and non-compliance of the safeguards is rampant. The paperwork and transaction costs, on the other hand, gives legitimacy to industries to argue for watering down the process further.

It is, therefore, time that we demand a new EIA law based on sound science, and robust and transparent decision making processes to safeguard environment and community rights as well as to reduce investment risks of industries. This can be achieved by integrating three environmental concepts.

The first is the strategic environmental assessment (SEA). SEA will help to evaluate the ecological ramification of policies and plans and address concerns at the earliest stage of the decision making process. Many countries have adopted SEA to integrate environmental concerns in policy making.

The second is the regional planning approach. This involves conducting carrying capacity studies and developing regional plans based on them. This will allow us to take into account cumulative impacts and also provide information to project proponents to decide the location of the projects beforehand.

The third is project specific EIAs. In this, EIAs should be done for major projects and not for all. The focus here should be to improve environmental management plans and post-clearance monitoring. To ensure quality EIA reports, an environment information centre should be established to provide independent data to consultants and the EACs. In all the three processes, public participation should be ensured to improve assessment and scrutiny.

The EIA process is the most important piece of environmental law as it has the scope to decide the development trajectory of the country. But this powerful piece of legislation has never been discussed or legislated by the Parliament. Time to take the EIA discourse to the Parliament floor and develop a new law suitable for the 21st century.

AUTHOR
Chandra Bhushan:
The writer is CEO, International Forum for Environment, Sustainability and Technology (iFOREST)

Environment

Scientists Develop Artificial Intelligence to Identify Individual Birds So Humans Don’t Have to

The researchers trained the AI models to recognise images of individual birds in wild populations of great tits and sociable weavers and a captive population of zebra finches, some of the most commonly studied birds in behavioural ecology. After training, the AI models were tested with images of the individuals they had not seen before and had an accuracy of over 90 per cent for the wild species and 87 per cent for the captive zebra finches.

According to the researchers, for AI models to be able to accurately identify individuals they need to be trained with thousands of labelled images. Companies like Facebook are able to do this for human recognition because they have access to millions of pictures of different people that are voluntarily tagged by users. But, acquiring such labelled photographs of animals is difficult and has created a bottleneck in research.

The researchers were able to overcome this challenge by building feeders with camera traps and sensors. Most birds in the study populations carried a passive integrated transponder (PIT) tag, similar to the microchips implanted in pet cats and dogs. Antennae on the bird feeders were able to read the identity of the bird from these tags and trigger the cameras.

AI methods like the one shown in this study use a type of deep learning known as convolutional neural networks, these are optimal for solving image classification problems.

In ecology, these methods have previously been used to identify animals at a species levels and individual primates, pigs and elephants. However, until now it hasn’t been explored in smaller animals like birds. This model is able to identify birds from new pictures as long as the birds in those pictures are previously known to the models,” said the study authors wroteScientists Develop Artificial Intelligence to Identify Individual Birds So Humans Don’t Have to
In the study, published in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution, the research team describes the process of using AI to individually identify birds. This involves collecting thousands of labelled images of birds and then using this data to train and test AI models.

Scientists Develop Artificial Intelligence to Identify Individual Birds So Humans Don’t Have to
Researchers have demonstrated that artificial intelligence (AI) can be used to train computers to recognise individual birds, a task that humans are unable to do.

“We show that computers can consistently recognise dozens of individual birds, even though we cannot ourselves tell these individuals apart,” said study lead author Andre Ferreira from the Center for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology (CEFE) in France.

“Our study provides the means of overcoming one of the greatest limitations in the study of wild birds – reliably recognising individuals,” Ferreira added.

In the study, published in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution, the research team describes the process of using AI to individually identify birds. This involves collecting thousands of labelled images of birds and then using this data to train and test AI models.
The researchers trained the AI models to recognise images of individual birds in wild populations of great tits and sociable weavers and a captive population of zebra finches, some of the most commonly studied birds in behavioural ecology. After training, the AI models were tested with images of the individuals they had not seen before and had an accuracy of over 90 per cent for the wild species and 87 per cent for the captive zebra finches.

According to the researchers, for AI models to be able to accurately identify individuals they need to be trained with thousands of labelled images. Companies like Facebook are able to do this for human recognition because they have access to millions of pictures of different people that are voluntarily tagged by users. But, acquiring such labelled photographs of animals is difficult and has created a bottleneck in research.

The researchers were able to overcome this challenge by building feeders with camera traps and sensors. Most birds in the study populations carried a passive integrated transponder (PIT) tag, similar to the microchips implanted in pet cats and dogs. Antennae on the bird feeders were able to read the identity of the bird from these tags and trigger the cameras.

AI methods like the one shown in this study use a type of deep learning known as convolutional neural networks, these are optimal for solving image classification problems.

In ecology, these methods have previously been used to identify animals at a species levels and individual primates, pigs and elephants. However, until now it hasn’t been explored in smaller animals like birds. This model is able to identify birds from new pictures as long as the birds in those pictures are previously known to the models,” said the study authors wrote.

Environment

Assam Flood: Surging Brahmaputra Takes Heavy Toll on State’s Wildlife

MUBINA AKHTAR:

One-horned rhinoceroses move to higher ground in the flood-affected area of Kaziranga National Park in Nagaon district, Assam, July 16, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Anuwar Hazarika.

Guwahati: Prabin Saikia’s family couldn’t believe what it saw last week. A juvenile tigress was resting inside their warm home at Baghmari, in the Bagori range of Kaziranga National Park (KNP). The family stayed out of the house while a team from the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation tranquilised the tiger and transported her to the centre, to be released in the wild two days later. The team had also moved another tiger a few days earlier, from a goat shed in Kandulimari village in the park’s Agoratoli range.

On July 18, a rhinoceros had been spotted trying to cross National Highway 37 near KNP, but it moved slowly, probably exhausted after many days of navigating surging waters and hunger. At one time it sat down on the road, stalling traffic for hours.

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“I found it has seeing difficulties that made it extremely difficult for the animal to find safe refuge,” K.K. Sarma, a veterinarian and wildlife expert, said. “When ultimately it climbed [back up], it was not willing to move away.” Fearing the animal might collapse, park authorities treated it near the highway instead of risking its life with transportation.

Rare and endangered wildlife strayed out of the protected area to escape the floodwaters and were also seen taking refuge in tea plantations.

Heavy monsoon rains lashed Assam since the third week of June, leaving most protected areas in the state inundated.

According to KNP authorities, about 120 animals, including 11 one-horned rhinoceroses, have died in the current flood. However, according to Hari Gogoi, a member of a local NGO, “There can be no full count of the animals until floodwaters have receded,” he said, adding that the final count may thus be higher.

The Central Water Commission had issued a severe flood alert at 11 pm on July 20 for the Brahmaputra near Tezpur, which lies across the river from the park.

On June 29, forest guards in KNP’s Bagori range reported the first rhinoceros casualty in this year’s floods, to be followed hours later with a report of another death from Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary. Pobitora has Assam’s highest density of rhinoceroses, and currently about 90% of its land is under water, according to authorities.

Toll on wildlife

The situation isn’t very different at KNP, especially since the Brahmaputra river rose past the danger level at Dhansirimukh on July 12. With most highlands submerged as well, animals attempted to cross NH 37 to take shelter on the Karbi Anglong hills. NH 37 cuts through KNP, and the district administration has imposed a speed limit of 40 km/hr to try and keep animals from being run over. Even so, there were reports that dozens of hog deer have been run over by speeding vehicles.

As the floods push many animals closer or into safer ground, they become easy targets for poachers. Authorities in charge of protected areas had set up camps to look out for the animals, but the floods didn’t spare many of them either. Camps on KNP’s northern boundary, said to be most vulnerable to poachers, remained unmanned. In previous years, authorities have often spotted rhinoceros carcasses with their horns hacked, off after floodwaters receded.

Three weeks ago, the flood swept an elephant away from her calf. People in the area noticed her on July 2 near the Rajiv Gandhi Orang National Park, and reported she seemed tired and unwilling to move. The pachyderm, tired, weak and partially blind, had been tranquilised before it was moved to a forest nearby.

The rescue team with the rescued elephant (centre). Photo: Bhaskar Choudhury
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“Forest officials kept track and ultimately we could manage to dart it with tranquilisers at Dakhola, under the Palasbari revenue circle, some 200 km from where she was first seen,” Bhaskar Choudhury, who led a rescue team of veterinarians and forest officials from Kamrup district, said.

Similarly, in Majuli, a juvenile elephant had become separated from its herd and was spotted in Harmuti, near Lakhimpur, some 50 km away.

Almost every year, the number of animals that perish in the floods is much higher than the number of animals that are rescued and/or rehabilitated.

The riparian flats typically flooded by the Brahmaputra are largely grassland, savannah and swamp forest, and these lands are home to many of the world’s great one-horned rhinoceroses, elephants, tigers, swamp deer and Asiatic buffaloes.

(Mubina Akhtar is a journalist and activist based in Guwahati.The report first puublished in the Wire)

Environment

Jharkhand moves SC against govt’s coal block auction move

The Jharkhand government has moved the Supreme Court challenging the central government’s decision to auction coal blocks for commercial mining, chief minister Hemant Soren said on Saturday.

Soren said the state government has moved SC as it is a huge policy decision and the respective state governments needed to be taken into confidence.

“Mining has always been a contentious issue in the state. ..This will take us back to the old system which we came out of. I think the Centre took this decision in a rush…There are several issues related to land and displacement in the state,” Soren said. “Several trade unions are out on the street against the decision,” he added.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday launched the auction of 41 coal blocks under the new regime, under which the private miners would be sharing revenues with the government. The blocks are located in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha and Maharashtra.

Environment

Supreme Court calls for finding middle path between ecology, development

In the past, action taken by the court to protect the environment has faced criticism, for instance its decision to ban diesel vehicles to curb air pollution.

Saving the environment should not come at the cost of economic development, the Supreme Court said on Friday, adding that a balance should be struck between the two.

The observation by the top court came on a plea filed by a lawyer, Abir Phukan, seeking a ban on mining in the Saleki forest reserve, situated close to the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam.

The area falls in the elephant corridor and in this region, state-owned Coal Indian Limited (CIL) has obtained approval for mining from the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) in April this year.

The Centre, represented by additional solicitor general (ASG) Vikramjeet Banerjee, opposed the plea ,claiming that the environmental impact had already been assessed by the NBWL.

Faced with conflicting positions, the bench of Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde and justices AS Bopanna and Hrishikesh Roy said, “We are conscious of the fact that our orders in favour of environment affect economic development adversely. There has to be some method by which economic development is not retarded as this has a direct impact on poverty in the country.”

In the past, action taken by the court to protect the environment has faced criticism, for instance its decision to ban diesel vehicles to curb air pollution.

Walking the tightrope, the bench said that it was aware of the constitutional duty to protect the environment but at the same time, it cannot be oblivious to the economic impact.

The court issued notice on the application moved by Phukan and directed ASG Banerjee to come out with a proposal for an alternative site in three weeks.

The petitioner was asked to add North Eastern Coalfields,a unit of Coal India, as a party to the case. The standing committee of NBWL gave approval to North Eastern Coalfields on April 7 at a meeting conducted through videoconferencing. The total lease area of 98.59 hectares is situated within a 10-kilometre radius from the boundary of Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary.

The petition pointed out that on August 29, 2019, the standing committee of NBWL had advised a cautious approach, suggesting that the views of wildlife experts be to sought to assess the impact of the proposed mining in the elephant corridor, considering the area’s rich biodiversity.

The petitioner claimed: “While several measures would be warranted to create jobs and lift the economy, it is submitted that all such measures should be premised on principles of sustainable development highlighted time and again by this Court.”


Thousands protest closure of North Eastern Coalfield

On the other hand housands gathered at Margherita town in Assam’s Tinsukia district and demanded to protect North Eastern Coalfields (NEC), Coal India and Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary.

The North Eastern Coalfields (NEC), a Coal India Limited (CIL) subsidiary, has announced the temporary suspension of all its mining operations. This comes following the ongoing protests against the Centre’s decision to allow coal mining in Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary.

In an order issued by the office of the General Manager, NEC said, “All mining operations in North Eastern Coalfields, Coal India Limited, Margherita are hereby temporarily suspended with effect from June 3″.

Opposing the decision, NEC employees and thousands of locals staged protests on Friday in front of the NEC office in Margherita.

The protesters raised slogans against the NEC, demanding that it resume its operations. They also called for the government to protect Dehin Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary.

Various industries in the region are severely hit following the suspension of operations in coalfields.

In a statement, NEC said, “Coal mining operations in Tikak Open Cast Project (OCP), falling under Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest of Digboi, have been suspended since October 2019 on the directive of Department of Forest, Government of Assam and it is awaiting the Stage II clearance from Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC). Currently, production is on hold in Tikak OCP”.

It further said, “…Final clearance, which is Stage II for this project is to be granted by MoEF&CC after fulfillment of certain conditions by the project proponent, North Eastern Coalfields, and only then extraction of coal can be done. Following a meeting in April 2020, the principal conditions were that a site-specific mine reclamation plan in consultation with Assam Forest Department has to be submitted by NEC for whatever forest area has been broken up- of around 57 Hectares out of a total 98.59 Hectares. The other condition being- for the rest of the unbroken area for the user agency, NEC needs to submit a feasibility report for exploring underground mining”.

“North Eastern Coalfields has not yet submitted the report for consideration of MoEF&CC. Green signal from NBWL and Forest Clearance for the project is yet to be received for starting coal mining activity in Tikak OCP. It is clarified that the nearest distance of Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary from the project is 9.19 km and the nearest Elephant Corridor, Golai-Powai is located at a distance of more than 10 km from the project,” NEC said.

Environment

BJP’s minister exposes anti-coservation attitude regarding Dihing Patkai

GUWAHATI: Coal mining has forever remained a controversial business across India. In upper Assam the modus operandi of mining coal has always been alleged to be illegal and so, controversial.

The Assam government today hinted that it will back the Centre’s decision claiming that coal mining in the Dehing-Patkai reserve will be allowed only if it is sanctioned to be legal.

BJP’s promoinent leader , the state forest and environment minister, Parimal Suklabaidya, talking to media said, “It is during our BJP government that we identified the illegal mining going on in Dehing-Patkai and accordingly action was taken.” He further added that this government is only trying to make things legal, and it is the illegal nexus which had benefitted all this while that is creating the controversy now. Explaining further he said that illegal mining has been continuing in the area since 2003.

Moreover, it has never been reported that a single elephant has fallen victim to the illegal coal mining or its transportation in the area. “Is it really an elephant corridor where mining is taking place?” questioned the minister indicating that the “Amazon of the East,” i.e. the rain forest and the elephant reserve contained within it are far off from the actual area where mining of coal takes place. The forest minister further said that the state government has not yet given the approval, and it can happen only after proper scrutiny of the area.

For the record, a mining lease of 30 years was given to Coal India Limited (CIL) – a central government PSU – in 1973. After its expiry, CIL was supposed to apply for clearance from the forest department which it did only in 2012. However, coal mining had continued there always without the lease being renewed.

The Assam Forest Department had slapped a penalty of Rs 43.25 crores on CIL for this illegal mining activity inside the forest for 16 years since 2003; the department is yet to recover this amount. The forest department had also filed FIRs against officials responsible for alleged illegal activity on around 73 hectares of land inside the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve between 2003 and 2019. (Source: G Plus)

Environment

Amid Covid-19, African Swine Fever kills over 13,000 pigs in Assam

Guwahati: When India continues an all-out fight against the dreaded Covid-19 pandemic, Assam is battling on an additional front as the outbreak of African Swine Fever (ASF) has killed over 13,000 pigs in the state, affecting the livelihood of thousands of already economically distressed people in the animal resource trade, Ministers and officials said on Sunday.

Terming the situation as “serious”, Animal Husbandry, Veterinary and Agriculture Minister Atul Bora said that 13,033 pigs died in nine districts of Assam during the past several weeks.

“The Kaziranga National Park authority has dug a two-km long and six-feet deep trench to protect its wild boars (also known as ”wild swine”) from the outbreak of the contagious ASF,” Bora told the media here.

The Minister visited the Kaziranga National Park and adjoining villages and reviewed the steps taken to protect the wild boars from the deadly disease.

Bora said his department has been working for several weeks to deal with the highly infectious ASF disease, whose mortality rate is very high — 90 to 100 per cent.

“We have already taken a series of steps, including creation of containment zones, within one km radius of an infected area and surveillance zone within 10 km, to prevent spread of the virus to other adjoining districts. We have formed a committee with officials, experts, specialists and pig farmers and are working according to their advice,” he said.

Despite the Central government”s advice, the Minister said as of now, the department did not have any plans to cull the pigs.

According to the officials of Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Department, the infection spread initially in six districts — Dhemaji, North Lakhimpur, Biswanath, Dibrugarh, Sivasagar and Jorhat in February but in the last few weeks, has also been detected in three more districts — Majuli, Golaghat and Kamrup (Metro).

According to the 2019 census, Assam”s pig population was around 21 lakh, which by now according to the officials, has increased to around 30 lakh.

Due to the ASF, hundreds of pigs” deaths were also reported from the nine districts of neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh.

Because of the outbreak of ASF in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, all the state governments in the northeast have sounded a high alert and asked people, especially owners of piggeries, to refrain from bringing pigs from other states.

Animal resource experts in northeast India suspect that the highly contagious ASF came to the region from Tibet through Arunachal Pradesh.

The annual pork business of the northeast is worth around Rs 8,000-10,000 crore with Assam being the largest supplier. Pork is one of the most common and popular meats consumed by both tribals and non-tribals in the northeastern states.

According to the animal resource experts, the pigs generally are affected by the Classical Fever, Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome besides the ASF. The ASF was first detected in 1921 in Kenya. No vaccines or medicines have been discovered so far. According to some experts, human beings do not get infected by the ASF, but they could be the carriers of the virus.

–IANS

Environment

Overfishing Drives West Bengal’s Hilsa Fishers Up the Creek

On the eve of Maghi Purnima, while marine fishers were preparing for Ganga puja at West Bengal’s Sagar Island, everyone was talking with a sense of foreboding. Abdar Mallik, secretary of Sagar Marine Matsya Khuti Cooperative Society, said, “Bajar bhalo na, Goto teen bochor ilish aschhena,” (Translated: The market is not in a good state. As a result, we haven’t been receiving any hilsa here for the last three years).

The decline in the production of hilsa on the Indian side (West Bengal) of Bay of Bengal has been a rising concern in the recent past. Researchers claim hilsa is destroyed by over-exploitation in northern Bay of Bengal, which has threatened the livelihoods of over 26,000 fishers in West Bengal.

Unsustainable Fishing Practices
In a recent study, scientists questioning the sustainability of hilsa fishing practices in the northern Bay of Bengal region. They suggested that excess of licensed fishing trawlers are responsible for declining hilsa stock. From the estuary of the Ganga to deep in the Bay of Bengal, about 15,000 trawlers are hovering in the migratory path of the hilsa as the fish approaches the river to spawn, and on its way out.

The study revealed that between 2002 and 2015, even though the number of boats engaged in fishing increased by 25%, the hilsa catch dipped by 13%. “In spite of the ban on nets with mesh holes less than 90 mm, such nets are used most of the time. A very large number of juvenile hilsa are caught regularly. Apart from this hundreds of nets, each around 1-2km long, block the mouth of the estuary. How will the fish enter the river?” asked Debasish Shyamal, district president of Dakhhinbongo Matsajibi Forum.

The damage is twofold – the possibility of getting mature hilsa in the future is reduced, and it also hampers the reproduction of the fish. Shyamal further explained, “West Bengal has 158km coast line, comparatively smaller coast line than others but production rate is higher than other coastal states. Government is always pushing to increase production numbers without thinking the environmental consequences. In 2012 hilsa production in the state was 8510 tonnes. According to fisheries department data 14203 tonnes hilsa caught in 2016. As result trawlers involved in destructive fishing practices to increase production numbers.”

Bottom trawling is prohibited up to 12 nautical miles from the coastline but small fishers alleged that trawlers start trawling just 1km from the coastline that threatened life of traditional small fishers. Moreover, trawler owners claim they do mid-level water trawling but in reality it is similar to bottom trawling.

Professor Sugata Hazra, director of School of Oceanographic Studies, Jadavpur University further elaborated:

“In case of Tamil Nadu, after 12 nautical miles from coastline you will get deep sea but in northern Bay of Bengal after 12 nautical miles water level is shallow as this area fall under delta region. So, trawler shouldn’t do fishing within 30 nautical miles from Bengal coastline to stop habitat destruction of marine biodiversity.”
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Ban Without Surveillance
In order to increase production of hilsa and other fishes, every year Fisheries Department of Government of West Bengal issues notifications to control fishing. According to circular, from 15 April to 31 May, fishing is prohibited in the sea and adjoining areas.

Moreover, a special ban is imposed specifically for the conservation of the hilsa during 15 September to 24 October. This system was initiated for the undisturbed breeding of hilsa. Besides fishing, selling, transporting and hoarding of hilsa, less than 23 cm long hilsa is prohibited.

However, Debasish Shyamal of Dakhhinbongo Matsajibi Forum said, “This is just an eyewash from state fisheries department.”

Accepting that the ban is not obeyed by some fishers, a fisher working in trawler at Diamond Harbour in South 24 Parganas district, who wished to maintain anonymity, claimed, “A mature hilsa weighing between 700 grams and a kg but we don’t obey any rule once we get large number of fish in sea. If 500 kg of hilsa is caught, large portion of that weighing below 200 grams, all juvenile fish, even we catch 50 gm hilsa which also has a good market.”

In the absence of government surveillance, juvenile hilsa fishing goes on. Shyamsundar Das, Secretary of the trawler owners’ association – United Fishermen’s Association denied all allegations against trawlers and dismissed the claim of overfishing. He told, “How do you define overfishing while government has not yet put any limitation per trawler. We catch fish according to act and beyond 12 nautical miles which is not state subject.” Das further questioned the act regarding mesh size, “The act says 90mm mesh for hilsa and 40mm for other fishes, then how could one use 90mm while others are using 40mm mesh to catch fish.”

They claimed that they are trying to observe the fishing ban and prohibition on mesh size and urged government to exempt taxes from diesel.

Chandranath Sinha, Minister of Fisheries, Government of West Bengal, claimed, “Overall fisheries department has successfully implemented the fishing ban during the spawning period across the coast. Few fishers from Odisha used to catch juvenile fishes and then export it to West Bengal market.” He further explained that state government continuously conducting awareness campaign among fishers about ill impact of overfishing.

“State has notified the ban but there’s no surveillance on ground. Bangladesh has a strict winter ban during September-October. There’re many instances that they (Bangladesh) burnt nets and all fishing equipment those ventured into fishing during this period. Our government must take such steps to minimise the destruction,” said Professor Hazra.

Traditional fishers alleged fishing space is gradually occupied by those from other livelihood background. Nowadays most labours working in trawlers came from Jhargram, West Medinipur district.
Traditional fishers alleged fishing space is gradually occupied by those from other livelihood background. Nowadays most labours working in trawlers came from Jhargram, West Medinipur district.

With the fishing space so crowded and the catch uncertain, respecting restrictions on the size of the fishing net or the ban on catching small-sized hilsa becomes a real challenge. State fisheries department has started a livelihood scheme in 2013-14, there are several difficulties in implementation. Abdar Mallik, member of small fishers’ union of Sagar Island alleged, “Department has started data collection about the number of fishers who depend on hilsa for a livelihood but the data is not yet available. Even vending units given to the panchayats were distributed to those who are not engaged in hilsa fishing at all. ”

Earlier, there was a savings cum relief schemes for fishers where a fisher contributes Rs 900 and state fisheries department and National Fisheries Development Board (NFDB) also contribute same amount.

“This scheme is not active anymore. State says central government isn’t giving their share,” said Debasish Shyamal of small fishers’ union – Dakhhinbongo Matsajibi Forum. Moreover, there is no subsidy available for small fishers in the state. “Trawlers get modernised jetty, toilets and free ice inside harbour but there’s nothing for Khuti (fish landing centres) fishers. How we’ll (small fishers) survive during ban period?” asked Shyamal.

Huge quantities of hilsa fish have reached Kolkata market. Demand for hilsa in Bengali cuisine is always high.
Huge quantities of hilsa fish have reached Kolkata market. Demand for hilsa in Bengali cuisine is always high.
(Photo: Tanmoy Bhaduri/ The Quint)
State fisheries minister claimed, “All fishers in the state get Rs 2 per kg rice throughout the year. If anyone left out of the list we will definitely include them.” Many fishers in South 24 Parganas alleged that benefits announced by the government does not reach all sections. “The trend that we are seeing is most fishermen migrate out of Bengal to Andhra Pradesh and Kerala for better livelihood,” Abdar Mallik claimed.

Moreover, researchers claim there has been an overall decline in natural fish stock in all of the major river transboundary river systems across India and Bangladesh that impacted traditional small fishers. The Bangladesh government has introduced an extensive hilsa management action plan to increase hilsa production not only by conserving the juveniles but also by protecting the brood fish during breeding seasons by imposing a ban on fishing and restricting the mesh size. The Bangladesh Government also offers vulnerable group feeding programmes for underprivileged fishers during the ban period. “If state government support fishers with alternative scheme during ban period like Bangladesh do, we can successfully conserve hilsa as well as livelihoods of fishers,” said Professor Hazra.

(Tanmoy Bhaduri is Kolkata-based independent journalist who focuses on social, cultural and environmental issues. This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.)

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