MAC: Mines and Communities

India's government caves in further to its pro-mining lobby

Published by MAC on 2011-02-14
Source: Times of India, Down to Earth, Moneylife

Recently, India's environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, abjectly capitulated to his government and the minerals industry by granting qualified permission for POSCO's integrated steel venture in Orissa. See: Scandalous Decision allows go-ahead for POSCO project

Now, Ramesh has given the go-ahead to iron mining in one of the country's most densely forested, ecologically rich, tribal areas.

Also threatened is the status of coal-rich "no-go areas" which the environment minister declared last year.

Meanwhile, a group of Gujarati farmers struggles to protect their vital water resources against the planned siting of a major cement factory.

Shame, shame, Jairam Ramesh! The Minister is changing his no-compromise stance

By Munira Dongre


10 February 2011

The minister seems to be in a tearing hurry to change his image as the saviour of all things -including the environment-and is handing out permissions to controversial projects left right and 'Centre'

Oh how righteousness crumbles in the face of pressure from the high command... and possibly greed... and a government facing a huge deficit.

The environment ministry which was the one shining untainted beacon in the sea of mess that the government has become (2G, Adarsh, now Devas) is now dusting off some of its holier-than-thou sheen, or so it seems.

In a shocking, shocking move, environment minister Jairam Ramesh today gave permission to the Steel Authority of India (SAIL) to divert 595 hectares of forest land for mining iron ore in the West Singhbhum district of Jharkhand, saying that it is crucial for SAIL's future demand of raw material.

CNBC TV 18 said that the environment ministry also admitted that "[The] Chiria decision expedited on upcoming SAIL FPO." This is just downright shameful.

In giving out this order, Jairam Ramesh (who had achieved a demi-god like status, especially with young management graduates and college students for taking industrialists and other ministries which had violated environment norms head on) has rejected the advice of his own Forest Advisory Committee (FAC).

The reason-"broader national interest"-and the importance of these mines to the future of SAIL, a 'Maharatna' public sector company "with a good track record of corporate social responsibility (CSR)" and thus, "deserving of special treatment".

Unbelievable, but true. The FAC had said that Chiria was home to Asia's largest and best sal forests and also an important elephant habitat and that mining in this area could not be allowed.

Overriding these conditions with one sweeping stroke, Mr Ramesh has told the press that "Chiria is essential to the future of SAIL. Over the next 50 years, around 40% of the iron  ore requirement of SAIL will be met from the Chiria mines... The existing steel plants at Bokaro, Burnpur, Durgapur and Rourkela will necessarily have to be run from iron ore coming from Chiria, once the mines presently feeding them are depleted in 10-12 years."

Therefore, economic concerns take precedence over environmental ones. Why not disband the environment ministry then, and ask the finance ministry to clear all pending permissions based on whether the project is going to make tonnes of money?

Every trend has a reversal and for now it seems that Jairam's benevolent star is no longer shining over India's hills and dales and has turned into a malevolent one.

Just a few weeks back, the minister had granted forest clearance to South Korean steel major POSCO's iron & steel plant in Jagatsinghpur district of Orissa-even in this case, the FAC had said that this will cause extensive damage and that permission should not be given.

The Saranda forests area is also home to tribal groups like the Ho - of course, now Jairam is singing a completely different tune as far as the destruction of their natural habitat is concerned - he now claims that the mines will create employment opportunities in the area and eventually benefit these tribals-why have rules to protect tribal environments in that case?

Why not just work for the economic uplifting of their lot and do away with their traditional ways once and for all? There is little doubt about the fact that the minister has changed his tack.

He is meeting Coal Minister Sriprakash Jaiswal today-this is his second meeting in three days-and the agenda is to iron out inter-ministerial differences over the controversial No-Go issue.

Last year, the environment ministry classified heavily forested regions into 'Go' and 'No-Go' areas and banned mining in 'No-Go' zones. This had put on hold projects of all three ministries-coal, power and steel-and had led to fierce inter-ministerial rows.

Clearly, Ramesh is trying to rebuild bridges. This process is likely to lead  many a forest, sanctuary, and water reservoir to the sacrificial altar.

Support 'No Go' forest zones for coal mining: Activists to PM

Times of India

4 February 2011

NEW DELHI: The classification of forests as 'No Go' zones for coal mining may have divided the government but it has united activist groups often opposed to each other.

In a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, 27 environmental groups, wildlife researchers and social activists have urged him to back the ministry of environment and forest's classification of areas in nine forests as 'No Go' zones for coal mining.

"Support the initiative as a first step towards protecting India's forests, forest dependent communities and wildlife..from the devastating consequences of coal mining," stated the letter, signed by members of National Alliance of People's Movements, WWF India, Greenpeace, Mines Mineral and People, Wildlife Protection Society of India, among others.

Last year, on the coal ministry's suggestion, the MoEF had undertaken an exercise of overlapping nine major coalfields over existing forest cover. It classified unfragmented forests with dense tree cover, 'average crown density more than 0.50', as 'No Go' zones, where mining clearances would not be given. Of 605 coal blocks, 222 blocks with more than 3 lakh hectares fell in this category, according to MoEF document dated April 2010.

The coal ministry objected to the classification, claiming it would adversely affect production and growth, since the barred blocks held more than 660 million tonnes of coal. In 2009-2010, India imported 73.25 million tonnes of coal.

Under pressure from various ministries, the MoEF halved the forest area under 'No Go' classification, bringing it down to just 105 coal blocks covering 1 lakh 40 thousand hectares, according to recent cabinet note accessed by Greenpeace.

In the note, the MoEF pointed out that this was just 8% of India's potential coal bearing area, and 11.5% of the explored area.

But the coal ministry insisted that the classification itself be withdrawn. As mitigating measures, it offered to step up afforestation efforts, planting trees in areas exhausted by mining.

This would not help, claim the activists and researchers. "Afforestation/plantations in mined-over areas yield neither the biodiversity nor livelihood benefits that natural forests do, and as such they are not an adequate compensation for the destruction of natural forests to facilitate mining," the letter said.

It emphasised the need to protect forests as "important watersheds, repositories of biodiversity and wildlife, and a critical survival resource for thousands of forest dependent communities across India".

The letter also asked the Prime Minister to initiate wider public and expert consultation "to ensure environmental and social concerns are truly reflected in government decisions on the issue".

Conservation groups have often been in conflict with those espousing the rights of forest dwelling tribal communities. But the letter reflects the view that coal mining is a threat to both the livelihood of vulnerable communities and forests and wildlife. "Coal is a finite and non-renewable resource, whereas natural forests yield benefits in perpetuity," the letter said.

In January, intervening in the dispute over 'No Go' zones, the Prime Minister reportedly said that ecological concerns are as serious as the need to drive economic growth. He has instituted a group of ministers (GoM) to resolve the deadlock.

Water v industry: where is the question?

By Sunita Narain

Down To Earth (Delhi)

15 February 2011

Some hundred people, men and women, were gathered on the hill. Many more, I could see, were trudging up. Their faces were resolute. I asked why they were opposing the cement plant. Their answer was simple: "We cannot eat cement." "But the plant will bring you employment and prosperity," I said.

The reply this time, with a touch of irritation, was: "We have our fields and now with the water in the tank we have good produce. We are not rich like you but we have food to eat." I persisted, "But your land is not being taken away to build the plant. The government says it has only allocated village grazing land and wasteland to build the factory." Their anger spilled out.

"Can you see the water in front of you?" I looked at the vast body of water stretching as far as the eye could see. "This Samadhiyala bhandara (reservoir) was built a few years ago by the government. It changed our lives as our fields, which gave us one crop, now give us two, even three. Now government has given this water body to the actory. We will not allow this." Soon cries filled the air: "We will give up our lives but this factory cannot be built."

From the hill, I could see the factory foundations being laid. It was in the middle of the lake, its boundary walls stretching into the water. How could this happen?

The 1.91-million-tonne-per annum cement factory with coke oven and captive power plants, being built by detergent major Nirma, is in Bhavnagar district of Gujarat. The land allocated to the factory by the state government is categorised as grazing and wasteland in revenue records. It is for this reason, when the Gujarat High Court was hearing the petition of the farmers, government argued that since the land was not listed as a water body it had the right to allocate it to industry. No protection was needed because technically there was no water body on this land.

Why? Some 10 years ago, this region at the edge of the Arabian Sea was in trouble; agriculture was in distress and farmers impoverished. Each year as farmers drilled into the ground for water the seawater would enter the water below the land. Soon wells turned saline. Crops withered and even the size of coconut shrunk. The then state government came up with a big idea. Why not embank the rivers that bring freshwater into the sea, creating reservoirs, which would check advance of salinity and also provide irrigation for crops.

In 1999, the district collector of Bhavnagar allotted the land classified as grazing and wasteland to the executive engineer of the salinity control division of the district to build the Samadhiyala bandhara on the Shensuri river. In 2000, the earthen dam of 1,630 metres was built. It submerged 319 hectares (ha). A reservoir was built but its land use in government records was not changed.

The reservoir changed lives. After it three more such water bodies-Kalsar, Nikol and Malan-have been built. The water stretches some 40 km along the coast, providing a barrier between the land and the sea.

The structures are so important to people that they have invested personal funds in their repair and strengthening. Earlier this year people paid voluntarily to lay a pipeline over a kilometre to connect the water bodies so that the overflow of one lake can be channelised to another. They protect the catchment and have also built check dams on streams that bring water to the reservoir. The result is for all to see. During my visit in mid- December, well after the monsoons, the reservoir was brimming. Now battle lines have been drawn to protect this source.

First the state government and industry denied the very presence of the water body. The environmental impact assessment, used to grant clearance to the project, says the plant is on barren land. It does not mention the rivers that surround the site, bringing water to the reservoir. It does not even acknowledge the check dams, which the company has vandalised.

Later, when the truth of the water body was established using satellite imagery, the push was to find a compromise solution. In the High Court the farmers were told their water body would remain but only if they agreed to a partition-some 100 ha of the lake would be returned for irrigation. But they would have to agree to give away the rest, where the factory would be built.

Now farmers are running from pillar to post, explaining that a water body is a structure with a head in its catchment and body in the water. It will die if it is taken apart. Farmers also say the cement factory will get its raw material of limestone from the catchment of the same water bodies. Nobody asked for an impact assessment of this mining when giving permission to the factory.

Who will listen to their call? Will we allow the desecration of water and the life it gives? Will we allow the right to a common water body to be abused? This is a fight for life. Be clear.

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