Green warriors of the Garo hills

Meghalaya’s South Garo Hills are under serious threat from illegal coal mining. The Garo Students Union, and its dynamic leader Prosper S Marak, have been battling to preserve the biodiversity of this region.
Feb. 9, 2010 - PRLog -- In Meghalaya’s inaccessible South Garo Hills, an ‘eco-mutiny’ went virtually unnoticed. Except for the fact that eco-warrior Prosper S Marak, president of the southern zone of the powerful student body, the Garo Students Union (GSU), was declared one of the Earth Heroes of 2009 by Sanctuary Asia and the Royal Bank of Scotland, and was awarded the prestigious ‘Young Naturalist Award’ in December 2009.   The award statement read: “The Young Naturalist Award is presented to the 24-year-old emerging green warrior Prosper S Marak for his work to protect the biodiversity of the rich Garo hills of Meghalaya, and who continues to inspire young men and women in the state to protect their natural heritage.” Prosper Marak grew up just outside the forests of Balpakram National Park and Siju Wildlife Sanctuary. He learnt to love and respect nature at a very young age.  

Marak was instrumental in leading a youth uprising in five hamlets in Gongrot, in South Garo Hills, taking the ‘illegal’ miners completely by surprise. In his acceptance speech, he said: “I accept this award on behalf of my colleagues in GSU who have fought tooth-and-nail to preserve Balpakram National Park and the amazing wildlife of the Garo Hills.”  

The story goes back to November 2008 when an attempt was made to open up a new coal mine on the periphery of Balpakram National Park. Like all coal mining in Meghalaya, no environmental clearance or related permissions had been taken for the mine. There are approximately seven laws under which clearance has to be sought by state and central bodies before any mining activity can be initiated. In any case, coal mining cannot be undertaken by private individuals as all coal (including that in Meghalaya) was nationalised in 1967.   In blatant violation of the law of the land, ‘illegal’ coal mines continue to flourish all over Meghalaya. Local people in the Garo hills and other parts of the state operate the mines on their lands without any mining leases by the state government, under the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957, and the Coal Mines (Nationalisation) Act, 1973, that was amended in 1976.  

The disputed mine was being planned in an aking called Gongrot (tracts of community land in the Garo hills are called aking). Since Gongrot is a remote aking, a road has first to be built to connect the mining area to the existing PWD road. This connecting road would have passed partly through Gongrot and partly through another aking called Halwa Atong. In order to build the road, standing forests in both akings would have had to be cut down.  

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