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How A People’s Movement Ensured Protection For Dehing Patkai

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The government of Assam recently upgraded the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary into the Dehing Patkai National Park (DPNP). It is not only the up-gradation of DPNP that we need to be happy about, but it’s also the complete inclusion of Joypur Reserve Forest as a part of the National Park. Joypur is the richest part of the DPNP with the highest biodiversity of flora and fauna.

The DPNP was formally inaugurated by the Forest Minister of Assam, Shri Parimal Suklabaidya, in the presence of various other dignitaries on 3 July, 2021. The final notification of DPNP, however, came out in June.

The current national park consists of 234.26 sq km, which falls under the forest divisions of Digboi and Tinsukia District. The unique thing about the DPNP is that it is the largest patch of legally protected rainforest in Assam.

The DPNP being a rainforest is a layered forest with four rainforest layers — Ground Layer, Understorey Layer, Canopy Layer and the topmost Emergent Layer. This layering of the rainforest makes it so unique, housing hundreds of species of flora and fauna. Every layer provides different environmental and habitat conditions for different species of wildlife.

Even after having such diverse conditions and micro-ecosystems, the forest, at last, falls under a unified system of beautiful rainforest which remains green throughout the year with intense rainfall and a mono-seasonal climatic system.

Birdwatching Training Programme for local youth. (Image provide by the author)

Important mammals such as the Chinese Pangolin, Flying Fox, Slow Loris, Elephant, Leopard Cat, Rhesus Macaque and Hoolock Gibbons can be found in the DPNP. The DPNP can also be called a birdwatcher’s paradise as it houses hundreds of birds such as the important white-winged wood duck, slender-billed vulture, great pied hornbill, black-brown leaf warbler, etc.

The National Park also houses important reptile species such as the king cobra, rock python, Asian leaf turtle, etc. The Medo Pit Viper is also found in the DPNP, which is perhaps the only known record in Assam.

Apart from the species mentioned above, there are hundreds of insects, plant species, microorganisms that the DPNP is currently housing. And maybe, there a thousand more species yet to be discovered. Researches will be gradually visiting the rainforest, which will keep opening up new secrets every time.

Another most unique part about the DPNP is that it has a history of its own. The National Park was born out of an Andolan, a people’s movement spearheaded by Nature’s Beckon that continued for 25 years. Nature’s Beckon, the environmental activists’ group which occupied a significant position as an influential civil society, started the baseline surveys of the last remaining rainforests back in the early 1990s.

It is worth mentioning that before Nature’s Beckon pointed it out, people in Assam were unaware of the presence of the rainforests of Assam. No books, even in our Universities before the materials published by Nature’s, mentions the presence and significance of the rainforests in the state.

After baseline surveys of the rainforests, the group found out that three reserve forests — Joypur, Dirak and the Upper Dehing — were a contiguous patch of the rainforest, which was kept separate for administrative ease. The contiguous patch consisted of 500 sq km, which were still pristine and undisturbed.

Dihing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary
Representative Image. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nature’s Beckon proposed and appealed to the then government to upgrade the contiguous patch of rainforest into one JoyDehing Wildlife Sanctuary. Multi-structural activism was taken up to achieve the goal. Awareness was an important aspect that was taken up. The local people, the schools and colleges needed not only awareness but also sensitisation so that they could come up to join the movement.

Hundreds of articles were written, speeches and lectures were given in various institutions, meetings were held with the village people and other sections of the society, street plays were performed, films and audio materials were made. Important and influential people joined in the movement.

The broadcasting of social institutions such as AIR Dibrugarh made a notable impact on the movement. The village people actively took part in the movement. The movement also involved various administrative, political lobbying and advocacy.

In 2001, the NGO organised the first-ever international Rainforest festival in Joypur. This rainforest festival was attended by the then Chief Minister of Assam, Shri Tarun Gogoi and representatives from 12 different nations worldwide. As a result, the world came to know about the proposed JoyDehing Wildlife Sanctuary.

Immense pressure was being built up. During these times, the movement also met with a lot of resistance which has been recorded in various books, research papers and articles.

On 13 June, 2004, the state government declared 119.19 sq km of the rainforest as a Wildlife Sanctuary. Although this can be considered a partial success, the best part of the rainforest — Joypur — was left outside the boundary of the protected area.

Even after the declaration of the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary, the organisation pleaded several times to the government and asked for support from various national and international bodies that the Joypur rain forest be included as a part of the Wildlife Sanctuary.

In 2003, U.K. based Premier Oil was permitted by the forest department to explore oil in the interior of the rainforests. However, it was later shut down due to the activism of Nature’s Beckon.

The street playgroup, Nature’s Beckon during the observation of Rainforest Week 17 November to 23 November 2002. (Source: Nature’s Beckon)

As the organisation, the people of Joypur and the Assamese people were seeking the inclusion of the Joypur as a part of the protected area; a discovery came to light recently. During the previous government, a corrupt minister and forest official gave the entire land of Joypur as a lease to Coal India Ltd (CIL). The lease was of the nature that it would be automatically renewed once the mining lease ended.

Nature’s Beckon, realising the gravity of the situation, sat with detailed discussions and held meetings with CIL. As a result, for the sake of the rainforests, CIL decided to surrender the mining lease of Joypur so that the area could be declared as a protected area (Wildlife Sanctuary or National Park). This can be considered as a noble initiative of CIL and the people of Assam should appreciate it.

Similarly, the land chunk area of Joypur was entitled to Oil India Limited (OIL) to carry out drilling operations. Here too, the NGO sat with detailed discussions and meetings with OIL in 2020. After everything, OIL in written form, declared that they would not carry out drilling activities in Joypur.

Declarations by CIL and OIL.

These two initiatives paved an easier way to include Joypur rain forest as a part of the Dehing Patkai Protected area. The movement to include Joypur into DPNP was intensified by Nature’s Beckon in 2020. Many well-known personalities/actors, writers, doctors, intellectuals, journalists, etc., joined the movement.

Shri Soumyadeep Datta, the founder-director of the organisation, met with the then CM of Assam, Shri Sarbananda Sonowal and resubmitted the proposal to include the Joypur into the Dehing Patkai protected area.

In 2020, under the Ex-CM Shri Sarbanada Sonowal, the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary was upgraded as DPNP. The long-awaited inclusion of Joypur into a legally protected premise became a reality. However, the final notification declaring the DPNP came out on 15 June, 2021, after scrutiny of human rights issues by the Deputy Commissioner of Dibrugarh and Tinsukia district and the National Park was formally inaugurated on 3 July, 2021.

The people of Assam need to be proud that it was through people’s participation; an unrecognised piece of rainforest left barren and projected towards destruction, with resources like coal and oil beneath, gained the status of a National Park. This is a proud example of how people, once empowered and ignited, can do wonders.

What’s Next

Since now Dehing Patkai is a National Park, it enjoys the highest conservation status. However, the management of such a large and rich National Park is never easy. It needs adequate infrastructure, a lot of human resources, vehicles, communication devices, check gates, etc.

The government must look into the matter so that DPNP gets good infrastructure and later becomes one of India’s top National Park. A lot of things are to be done to create and manage ecotourism in DPNP. Human skill development, homestays, tourist lodges, guides, etc., need to be developed so that ecotourism in and around the National Park develops.

A proper system needs to be built. This will showcase Assam’s pride and pave spiritual, mental and economic development for the people living near the National Park.

Created by Akashdeep Datta

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