The Gauhati High Court on Thursday asked the Centre, the Assam government, Coal India Limited and other parties to respond after taking up a suo motu case against illegal coal mining in the Dehing Patkai forest, PTI reported.

The bench comprised of Chief Justice Ajay Lamba and Justice Soumitra Saiki issued the notices after hearing two public interest litigations filed by advocates Santanu Borthakur, Vikram Rajkhowa and Mrinmoy Khataniar and mountaineer Amarjyoti Deka. The court fixed July 20 as the next date of hearing for the suo motu plea and the other two petitions, according to NorthEast Now.

Advocates DK Das and Rakhee S Chowdhury, representing Khataniar and Deka, said that the court had not combined the three PILs. The pleas filed by Khataniar and Deka said that Coal India Limited had been mining without permission for more than a decade. “The state counsel told the court that mining was stopped in 2019. But we argued that CIL [Coal India Limited] mined without permission for 16 years,” he said. “Besides, mining activity was carried out in 16 hectares more land in addition to the informed 57.2 hectares.”

Advocate Santanu Borthakur, who filed the other PIL along with Rajkhowa, said their petition asked for the declaration of Dehing Patkai as a heritage site under the Biological Diversity Act, 2002. “Peasant leader Akhil Gogoi had written an open letter in a leading newspaper against illegal mining inside our forests,” Borthakur said. He added that a concerned citizen wrote to Lamba, resulting in the court’s PIL.

The pleas were filed against the Centre’s preliminary approval to Coal India Limited for mining inside the forest. The petitions stated that it violated the right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution. It added that the Dehing Patkai forest has a significant cultural and ecological importance in the lives of the people of Assam and is home to rare and endangered species of flora and fauna.

Coal India Limited has been mining since 2003, but sought clearance only in 2012, which was rejected. In 2019, it again applied for clearance of 98.59 hectares, out of which CIL was carrying out mining activities in 73 hectares.

In May, a unit of Coal India Limited, North Eastern Coalfields, admitted that mining was going on since 2003. The unit said that it had applied for a renewal of the lease in 2003, but the Assam government did not act upon it for a long time. In December 2019, the Centre gave Stage-1 clearance to the firm for 57.20 hectares with 28 conditions that included penalties and action against responsible officials violating the Forest Conservation Act. Khataniar and Deka’s petition claimed that this clearance was given on the basis of incorrect information provided by Coal India Limited.

Last month, the Assam Forest Department imposed a fine of Rs 43.25 crore on Coal India Limited for carrying out illegal mining activity. In April, the Standing Committee of the National Board of Wild Life under the Union environment ministry suggested the approval of Coal India Limited’s proposal to legalise the illegal mining, if it fulfills the 28 conditions.

The All Assam Students’ Union, Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti and other civil society groups, besides Opposition parties and environmentalists, have been protesting against the illegal mining since May.