New Delhi: Questions have begun to be raised over the plan to notify a new elephant reserve in the dense forests of north Chhattisgarh with no commitment forthcoming as to whether this will bring an end to coal mining in the region. Is the proposed Lemru Elephant Reserve, then, a ‘red herring’ for those opposed to coal mining in the dense jungles of Chhattisgarh? Public consultations are being conducted by the state government for setting up the reserve in Chhattisgarh’s Hasdeo Arand forests. Simultaneously, however, the process of diverting land for coal mining in Hasdeo Arand is also underway.
Hasdeo Arand, spread across Korba, Surguja and Surajpur districts of north Chhattisgarh, is a very dense and unfragmented stretch of natural forest that is rich in wildlife as well as coal reserves. The Lemru Elephant Reserve has been proposed over these forests ostensibly to protect native pachyderms of Chhattisgarh, other than protecting those that migrated into the state allegedly to escape largescale coal mining in the forests of neighbouring Jharkhand.
Will coal mining come to a halt – and pachyderms enjoy a safe habitat – once boundaries of the Lemru Elephant Reserve in Chhattisgarh are notified? Experts say elephant reserves in India enjoy no legal status, whatsoever, which could per se prohibit mining activities within their limits. On the contrary, mining and industrial activities are prohibited within tiger reserves under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. The Union government had amended this Act in 2006 to insert an entire chapter dedicated to the protection of tiger habitats.
Noted ecologist, Raman Sukumar, a member since 1989 of the Union government’s Project Elephant task force, told NewsClick that only ‘protected areas’ within an elephant reserve enjoy legal status.
“An elephant reserve was more of a management concept when it was first designed 30 years ago. Elephant reserves are landscapes which include areas much beyond protected areas. These reserves include private land too. You cannot legislate to declare all private land within an elephant reserve as protected areas. Therefore, there is no separate legal status for elephant reserves. However, a pragmatically designed combination of areas legally protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972, like wildlife sanctuaries and national parks, could offer protection to a good part of an elephant reserve. The remaining areas of the reserve can then be protected as ‘eco-sensitive zones’ of those protected areas under rules of the Environment Protection Act, 1986,” said Sukumar.
As per sources, the boundaries of the proposed Lemru Elephant Reserve include no Wildlife Sanctuaries or National Parks. When contacted by NewsClick for queries regarding the proposed elephant reserve, the Chief Wildlife Warden of Chhattisgarh PV Narsingh Rao expressed his unavailability for comments at the moment.
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The Congress government in Chhattisgarh had, in June last year, proposed an area of 1,995.48 square kilometres for the Lemru Elephant Reserve – an almost five-fold increase over the 450 square kilometres proposed earlier by the erstwhile BJP government. As per recent reports, the proposed area has been further increased to 3,827 square kilometres. These increases have been proposed notwithstanding the fact that a mechanism to protect the ecology of elephant reserves is yet to be legislated irrespective of their sizes.
Taking cognisance of the lack of a legal mechanism to protect elephant reserves, the National Green Tribunal had, three years ago, directed the central government to declare areas inhabited by elephants as conservation reserves. The central government was further directed to declare areas surrounding these conservation reserves as eco-sensitive zones. The directions had been issued in a case pertaining to industrial activities within the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve of Assam.
In its judgement delivered in December 2017, a tribunal bench headed by former Chairperson Justice Swatanter Kumar had also directed the central government to formulate a mechanism for obtaining mandatory clearance from the National Board of Wild Life before undertaking any developmental activity within an elephant reserve.
“Respondent No. 1 [Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change] to mandate before any proposed development within the established elephant habitat a prior wildlife clearance from the Standing Committee of the National Board of Wild Life is mandatory,” the bench had ordered.
At present, there is a stay imposed on this judgement by the Supreme Court of India.
However, it is pertinent to note here that public sector major North Eastern Coalfields, a subsidiary of Coal India Limited, has been mining coal for several decades in Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve in the dense rainforests of Assam.
There have been reports in the recent past about the central government’s plan to provide legal status to elephant reserves by amending the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. However, when contacted on behalf of NewsClick, senior officials at the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change did not commit to the veracity of any such information.
“Nothing is in a concrete stage now. Several issues will have to be considered before any concrete decision is taken in this regard. The present status of elephant reserves will continue till any change is brought about through legislation,” said Soumitra Dasgupta, Inspector-General of Forests (Wildlife).
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Similarly, Dr Prajna Paramita Panda, National Coordinator of the Elephant Cell at the ministry said:
“Singphan in Nagaland had been declared as the 30th elephant reserve of the country in the year 2018. If Lemru is notified as an elephant reserve it will be very good for the conservation of pachyderms.”
Nevertheless, the Congress government in Chhattisgarh has been holding public consultations with people living in Hasdeo Arand before going ahead with its plan to notify the Lemru Elephant Reserve. In the first week of October, public hearings were conducted through Gram Sabhas in as many as three dozen villages of Hasdeo Arand. As per locals, these Gram Sabhas have overwhelmingly voted for the elephant reserve as opposed to coal mining.
However, plans for largescale coal mining in Hasdeo Arand are simultaneously afoot as well. The Union Coal Ministry issued a notice on October 15 for acquisition of 1,760 hectares of land in Surguja district which falls under Hasdeo Arand for the purposes of mining. Similarly, the Chhattisgarh government also wrote to the central government on October 6 demanding forest clearance for an additional 30 hectares land in order to carry out open cast mining of the state-run power generation corporation’s captive coal block in Korba district.
“This approach puts a question mark on the intentions of the government as far as its plans for the Hasdeo Arand region is concerned,” said Alok Shukla, Convener of Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, a network of organisations and movements focusing on people’s issues.
In the last week of July, the central government excluded five coal blocks in Hasdeo Arand from the list of 41 coal blocks to be auctioned for commercial coal mining by private players. These blocks were excluded after a request by the Chhattisgarh state government on grounds of conserving the fragile ecology of Hasdeo Arand.
“But there are a few other coal blocks too that are still operational in Hasdeo Arand. Why is the state government not demanding their closure? The fact is that for several decades, locals have been fighting against coal mining in Hasdeo Arand. Several Gram Sabhas have outrightly rejected coal mining through their Constitutional rights. The concept of an elephant reserve in Hasdeo Arand can be successful only if coal mining comes to an end in the region,” added Shukla.
The writer is an independent journalist.