SHILLONG:

“Invest in our Planet” is this year’s theme of World Earth Day observed every year on April 22 to demonstrate support for environmental protection. From the look of it, one would draw the conclusion that this phrase is but a set of words for a naturally-blessed state like Meghalaya where rampant destruction of the environment is quite noticeable.

Meghalaya comprises 76 per cent forest cover, out of which 94 per cent is owned by communities and individuals, and only 6 per cent of reserved and protected forests are under the direct control of the State Forest Department.

This 94 per cent owned by communities and individuals is subjected to many changes as population increases. This is one of the factors that has led to a decline in the forest cover as trees were being fell to expand human settlements, not to forget the continuous race to tap the natural resources at the expense of the environment.

Undoubtedly, Meghalaya has a proud history of protected forests under the control of traditional Himas like the Mawphlang Sacred Grove that ensures that whatever is inside the forest stays in the forest. But then again, such forests are located in only a few areas under the jurisdiction of the respective Himas.

The remaining lots, aside from human settlement areas, are up to the respective individual(s) to use, misuse and sell it off – and the vicious cycle continues until the land is no longer suitable for any purposes and is abandoned.

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UNCHECKED, UNREGULATED MINING/QUARRYING

The unchecked and unabated mining activities, haphazard dumping of garbage into the water bodies are a cause of concern and the state will lose its lungs if no concrete steps are taken to right the wrongs.

The recent landslide at Rngain near Pynursla in East Khasi Hills that led to the death of two people has raised many questions as concerned citizens pointed towards rampant stone quarrying (legal and illegal) all along the stretch from Umtyngar till Pynursla.

This stretch, that once captivated the mood and provided a breath-taking panorama with its rolling hills and deep gorge, coupled with a pleasant weather, now exudes an unpleasant and gloomy impression as the hills are being stripped off their greenery to make way for mining activities.

An official from the State Forest Department informed that there are a total of nine mining leases that were granted along the Umtyngar–Pynursla stretch, though of course illegal quarrying was (or even are) being carried out. Last year, there were 10 illegalities detected and these had been closed and an offence report drawn; seven mines along the stretch were given closure notices.

It may be mentioned that the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2021 imposed a fine of over Rs 150 crore as environmental compensation to be recovered from 133 units of stone quarry/crushers/miners for illegally operating in the state. Over the past many years, the respective district administrations had also issued many orders restricting quarrying near the river beds as unchecked mining activities could have a devastating effect on the environment as evident from the Lukha and Myntdu rivers in Jaintia Hills and the Wah Umtyngar in East Khasi Hills – all of which were victims to exploitation.

Though coal mining and limestone mining (except for captive mines aka mining of limestone as a major mineral) have been stopped in the state, reports of illegal mining have surfaced from time to time. As far as stone quarrying is concerned, officials claimed that the Forest Department is on high alert to check illegal quarrying.

“Mining leases are given in accordance with Meghalaya Minor Minerals Concession Rules, 2016. Among them include a provision that specifies on the minimum distance of the mining operation from the road/highway and water bodies,” said Meghalaya’s Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) RS Gill.

With regards to reports of illegal quarrying along the Umtyngar-Pynursla stretch, Gill said that officials from the Forest Department are patrolling the area frequently. “As and when we receive complaints of illegal mining taking place, actions have been initiated,” he added.

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STEPS TAKEN TO RECOVER THE LOST/DYING FORESTS

The Government of Meghalaya has come up with Green Meghalaya scheme – Grassroot level Response towards Ecosystem Enhancement and Nurturing – that aims to build the capacities of communities to manage natural resources productively and effectively through training, exposure and learning from best practices, innovations, and traditional knowledge.

Chief Minister Conrad K Sangma had said that individuals and communities, being the custodians of natural resources, are being provided financial incentives for the conservation of forests and natural resources under this scheme.

The scheme is being co-funded by the World Bank through the Community-Led Landscape Management Program and forest owners with a minimum of 5 hectares of natural forest will be given financial support for a period of 5 years based on the size of their forest landholding.

The government is trying to restore the green cover by launching several programmes, such as afforestation, multi-purpose reservoir, spring shed rejuvenation, cleaning drives, to restore and rehabilitate the lost biodiversity and ecosystem.