India sets out on "a fight for the forest"Published by MAC on 2012-04-02
Source: The National (2012-03-28)
But is it really aimed at promoting mining?
The Indian government hopes that, combining "security" with development will help counter the threat from Maoist rebels in the Sarada region of Orissa.
But critics suspect that the "real reason" for the military operations is to open up the area to mining companies. See previous story on MAC: Vedanta betrays the people - yet again!
India sets out on a fight for the forest
By Eric Randolph
28 March 2012
The Indian government hopes a combination of security and development can help counter the threat from Maoist rebels, but its attempt to implement the plan in the Saranda forest of eastern India reveals a daunting challenge.
The village of Jambaiburu does not officially exist. It has never been surveyed, and its residents - members of the Ho tribe - have never been able to vote or receive rations cards.
Recently, an activist there managed to secure job cards for the villagers, theoretically entitling them to 100 days' paid work from the government. But the section that lists their district, province and administrative block are still blank.
"I do not know where to go to get this work," said Tupra Surin, a 30-year-old man from the village.
For decades, the Saranda forest, 800 square kilometres of dense woodland that straddle the states of Odisha and Jharkhand, have been largely off-limits for the government.
Instead, they have provided the headquarters for the eastern regional bureau of the Communist Party of India, a Maoist rebel group waging a war against the government in a string of central and eastern states with an army numbering between 10,000 and 20,000.
The Maoists have returned to the international spotlight in the past two weeks after kidnapping two Italian tourists and a local politician in Odisha.
On Tuesday, they set off a landmine in the state of Maharashtra that killed 15 policemen, part of a steady stream of violence that has claimed more than 5,600 lives since 2005, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, a Delhi-based think tank.
The government is hoping the Saranda forest will become a showcase in its latest attempt to combine paramilitary operations against the rebels with development programmes designed to win the support of the population.
Jairam Ramesh, the rural development minister, has made this a pet project, promising new houses and roads in a 2.5 billion rupee (Dh179m) development plan, as well as the distribution of bicycles and solar lamps.
But for now, the area is a war zone.
To open the way for development, the government sent 60 companies of Central Reserve Paramilitary Forces (CRPF) to bolster state forces in Saranda last summer. Troops patrol narrow forest footpaths on foot and motorbike, and bursts of gunfire regularly crackle over the trees.
The sound is so routine that it no longer draws a response from local villagers, but they live in fear of the huge security presence that has suddenly descended on their home.
"They come when we are working in the fields and make us work as guides for them," said Kalus Mundri, a resident of Chewalor, echoing a complaint heard in several villages.
This tactic, says Sonu Sirka, an activist from the nearby town of Meghahatuburu, puts the villages at risk of reprisals. "If the Maoists think they are helping the police, they will come to punish them. By doing this, the CRPF are forcing the villagers to take their side."
For all the show of force, the results have been limited.
The month-long operation that kick-started the campaign last August led to the arrest of just 33 Maoists. The rest are thought to have retreated deeper into the forest, skipped into neighbouring states or simply blended in with the local population.
Meanwhile, the scale of the challenge in improving governance is huge. Children show signs of severe malnutrition, schools and health centres are several hours' walk away and there are few jobs on offer.
"The government hasn't reached here at all," said Kalus Mundri. "All we have are security forces who come and ask us if we have seen the Maoists."
Last year, he was picked up and interrogated overnight in a CRPF camp until a local activist intervened.
"They gave me a sewing machine and a blanket to keep my mouth shut," he said.
Some improvements - such as the job cards, and the distribution of land deeds under the Forest Rights Act - have started to emerge. But these are often the work of individual, dedicated officials, who say they receive little support from the state government.
"I am the only official who bothers to travel and work in these areas," said one local development officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
He believes the real reason for the security operations has more to do with opening the area to mining companies than providing help.
Saranda holds a quarter of India's proven iron ore reserves. Twelve mining companies operate 50 mines in the region, including Tata Steel and the Steel Authority of India, but many have been turned off by the presence of the Maoists, who demand extortion payments and carry out raids on their premises for explosives.
"There is no reason to have all these troops for such a small population if all you want is to improve their condition," said the official. "They are trying to establish a corridor for security operations so that mining can begin."
The government denies this, saying security is a necessary to improve the situation for the community.
"The Maoists capitalise on the grievances of the people. We are trying to give the civilians in these areas the confidence to come forward and make political demands of the administration," said PM Nair, the additional director-general of operations for the CRPF. "Then they trust you to come forward with information."
Saranda bleeds in illegal ore hunt
- RTI glare on four, JSPCB mute witness
24 April 2012
Ranchi - Reclaimed from Maoists, the natural reserves of Saranda are up against unscrupulous adversaries.
At least four mining firms have been extracting iron ore and manganese against their sanctioned capacities in this West Singhbhum region since 2008 right under the nose of the mines department and Jharkhand State Pollution Control Board (JSPCB).
The startling fact came to light this January after the two laggard state offices replied to separate RTI petitions filed by a government official - who chooses to remain anonymous - on March 28 last year.
While the JSPCB provided details of annual mining cap fixed for the individual firms, the mines department furnished its reply based on ore production. The glaring discrepancy in the two sets of figures - copies of which were acquired by The Telegraph recently - suggests that the four firms have been pilfering ores two to seven times of their approved quantities for the past three fiscal.
Interestingly, all these mining firms are operational within a 10km radius.
From 2008-11, Bijaya-II iron ore mines leased to Usha Martin Limited extracted three to four times more ore than its sanctioned limit. In 2008-09, it produced 1.833MT against an approved 0.65MT; in 2009-10, it extracted 2.324MT against 0.65MT; and in 2010-11, it bagged 2.572MT against 2.4MT.
Similarly, the Karampada iron ore and manganese mines - leased to Shah Brothers - produced 0.715MT despite permission for 0.612MT in 2008-09. The next fiscal, it extracted 0.679MT against an approved limit of 0.09MT; and in 2010-11, it gained 0.972MT against a permissible capacity of 0.09MT. Roughly, the excess production amounts to six to seven times the sanctioned limit.
In the same time span, Thakurani iron ore mines - leased to one Padam Kumar Jain - exceeded production up to twice the original consent. In 2008-09, it extracted 2MT against 1MT; in 2009-10, the production was 1.91MT against 1.3MT; and in 2010-11, the figure was 1.68MT against 1.3MT.
The fourth culprit - Ghatkuri iron ore and manganese mines whose leaseholder is Orissa Manganese Minerals Limited - exceeded overall production up to 1.6 times its sanctioned capacity. In 2008-09, the production was 0.18MT (there was no cap), in 2009-10, it extracted 1.2MT against 0.72MT; and in 2010-11, it bagged 0.943MT against 0.72MT.
According to rules, the Indian Bureau of Mines - an apex authority under the Union ministry of mines and minerals - first approves a plan submitted by an applicant, in which the latter has to furnish details of proposed yearly production.
After the bureau's approval, the state pollution control board grants environmental clearance.
If any mining firm exceeds the capacity sanctioned by the bureau, it amounts to gross violation of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, and can invite punitive measures, including cancellation of licence.
The responsibility of monitoring violations lies with the pollution control board, but the JSPCB has not acted against the devious firms till date. The mines department too gets monthly figures of production from these companies, but never bothered to delve into details. The monthly reports just added to reams of paper in dusty files.
"The illegality has been on for three years now. Imagine the drain on Saranda's natural resources, while the mining firms continue to operate unchecked," a senior official of the forest department said.
Soumitra Shah of Shah Brothers, who also happens to be the son-in-law of controversial former Rajya Sabha nominee R.K. Agrawal, refused to comment. "We have no such information. I don't owe any explanation," he said.
N.K. Patodia, senior vice-president (commercial) of Usha Martin, claimed that their "modified mining plan" was approved by the Indian Bureau of Mines in 2007. "Our capacity cap for 2008, 2009 and 2010 was 2.5MT against which we actually extracted much less - 0.996, 1.258 and 1.593, respectively. We have supporting documents to challenge the RTI reply," he said.
Adhunik Group executive director A. Prasad, however, conceded that there was "overproduction around last year", but that was in "anticipation of a consent" for which the company had applied long ago.
"We had applied for 2MTPA clearance to the ministry of forest and environment. The same is stuck because of delay at the state government level. The overproduction was in anticipation of the clearance. However, the pollution board booked a case against us first and then gave the nod for 2MTPA. I don't think there is any violation now," he contended.
No official of Thakurani iron ore mines could be contacted.
When confronted, secretary of mines A.K. Sarkar, who holds additional charge of forests, said rules were same for everyone. "If there has been any violation, the government will certainly take action and bring the culprits to book," he added.
But the RTI crusader, who approached The Telegraph with his exhaustive report, insisted that in Jharkhand, the authorities rarely bothered to book the guilty.
"In states like Odisha, Karnataka and Goa, the Supreme Court has constituted the Central Empowered Committee to investigate mining violations. A separate probe is also going on countrywide under the Justice MB Shah Commission. Unfortunately, Jharkhand has no will power, let alone any mechanism, to check wrong-doings, which is why unscrupulous companies are taking advantage," he said.
Earlier this month, a public hearing of the MB Shah Commission at Doranda remained a damp squib as no one turned up. It exposed the communication gap between the department of mines and the pollution control board. "Whenever irregularities are reported, all the state departments do is play the time-tested blame game. The biggest of mining scams is in the making in Jharkhand," the RTI petitioner added.