Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF)’s Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) meeting held on March 31, 2022, in an important decision[i], has declined to clear a “destructive” diamond mining proposal in the catchment of Ken Betwa Project in Chhatarpur district of Madhya Pradesh. The High Court has already stayed the mining proposal. The FAC has asked for more information rather than rejecting the proposal.
The Proposal The proposal was for diversion of 382.131 ha of forest land for Bunder Diamond Mining Project of Essel Mining & Industries Ltd (an Aditya Birla Group Company) in District Chhatarpur, Madhya Pradesh. The Govt of Madhya Pradesh had forwarded this proposal for forest clearance on Feb 5, 2021. The proposal also involves diversion of a stream and creation of water body over an area of 49.56 ha. The project involves cutting of 215875 trees. Out of the total forest land involved, 138.31 ha is proposed for side burden and waste dump and another 66.34 ha is to be used as Tailing Dump. The FAC minutes noted: “The State Govt. has not provided enough justification for using large chunk of forest area for dumping.”
An Original Application pertaining to the Bunder Diamond Mining project is pending in the Hon’ble NGT, FAC has asked the state government to furnish the status of the NGT matter. The NGT had on June 30, 2021 directed that no tree should be cut for the proposed Bunder Diamond Mining Project till clearance is given.
On Oct 26, 2021[ii], Madhya Pradesh High Court’s principal bench in Jabalpur stayed the Bunder diamond mining project. During the hearing, the double bench of HC Chief Justice Justices RV Malimath and Vijay Shukla observed that stone-age rock paintings, statues of Kalchuri and Chandel era and other such historic structures found in the area by ASIA can’t be destroyed. Issuing a stay order, the HC bench made it clear that any mining activity will only take place in the said area after its verdict.
Advocate Surendra Verma of the petitioners told the court that ASI had surveyed the Buxwaha forest and had submitted a report with the court in July. The hearing was based on a PIL by Nagrik Upbhokta Manch based in Jabalpur, who also referred to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) report, which had affirmed the presence of stone-age rock paintings and other historic structures in the forest. The ASI, in its report, had mentioned that the rock paintings found in the Buxwaha forest are as old as 25,000 years and could be destroyed if the mining activities are carried out in the area. During the hearing on Dec 10, 2021[iii], the stay against mining was not revoked. No information is available about the status of the High Court matter after Dec 10 2021.
Part of Rio Tinto Project land: A proposal for diversion of 971.595 hectares of forest land for Diamond Mining Project under the Chhatarpur Forest Division for Rio Tinto (Australian mining giant) Exploration India Pvt Ltd in District Chhatarpur-Madhya Pradesh was earlier submitted by the State Govt. That proposal was discussed in the FAC meeting on July 12, 2016[iv]. In fact in that meeting of FAC, another proposal of the proponent for denotification of 76.43 ha for forest land in the first stage and 882.52 ha of forest land to be applied afterwards, in phase-wise manner was also discussed. However, following an NTCA report that proposal was also not accepted. Following these discussions about how the proposal would be destructive for the forests and affect the Panna Tiger Reserve, it was withdrawn by the MP Govt, which was also confirmed by the MP officials in March 31 2022 FAC meeting. The FAC noted: “As per NTCA (National Tiger Conservation Authority) report, project can potentially disrupt the landscape character vis a vis tiger dispersal around Panna landscape, as such this may be taken only when Ken Betwa link project is finalized as well as detailed study done to assess other alternatives.”
The new proposal discussed in FAC meeting on March 31, 2022 is for 382.23 ha of forest land, which is part of the land package of 971.6 ha of forest land earlier proposed for Rio Tinto as FAC minutes notes: “As per DSS analysis the forest area i.e. 382.131 ha sought for diversion through instant proposal is part of 971.595 ha forest land earlier proposed to be diverted in favour of M/s Rio Tinto Exploration India Pvt. Ltd.” As a matter of fact, even the Bunder mine was originally being developed by Rio Tinto. After their exit in 2017, it was given to Aditya Birla group in 2019.
Tigers, leopards habitat The NTCA in its report about this proposal has noted: “The proposed mining area is located at a distance of approximately 20 km from Panna Tiger Reserve, 67 km from Nauradehi WLS and 95 km from Veerangana Durgawati WLS. The proposed mining site has presence of tigers and leopards. One tiger was photo-captured from Chhatarpur Forest Division during all India tiger estimation of 2018. Wildlife Institute of India’s (WII) research in Panna landscape suggested that at least three radio-collared tigers have used this area since 2009. In lieu of submergence of 90 km2 area in Ken-Betwa river inter-linking project (including the critical core tiger habitat of Panna Tiger Reserve), a landscape management plan is being prepared by WII. The mining area falls within the landscape delineated in the draft plan with high biodiversity richness. Any loss in the landscape should only considered as cumulative, adding to the area being lost to the Ken-Betwa river interlinking project. It is noteworthy that Standing Committee of National Board for Wildlife in its 39th meeting held on 23.08.2016 had recommended that no new mining lease will be granted in this landscape considering its significance in permitting tiger dispersal.”
NBWL: No destructive activities including mining in Ken Catchment The Standing Committee of National Board of Wild Life had also put a condition: “there should be no destructive activities, including mining in the Ecologically Sensitive Zone and catchment area of the river. New industrial development or mining or expansion of the existing mining in and around the landscape would seriously compromise the scope for tiger’s survival in Panna Tiger Reserve.” The FAC requested State government response to this condition of NBWL.
Impact on Water, Liveihoods The project involves the diversion of a nullah which is a lifeline for the area. It ensures groundwater level and water for wildlife. I fear this project will lead to groundwater depletion as well,” Aniket Dikhit of nearby Kasera village said[v].
According to the pre-feasibility report of the project[vi], the water requirement of the project is estimated at about 16050 cubic meters per day or annual requirement of 5.9 Million Cubic Meters. “To meet this requirement a seasonal nallah will be diverted by constructing a dam. The water storage in the reservoir is estimated at around 17 MCM (million cubic metre),” the report said. The report also said that the mining will intersect the groundwater and said the permission for the same will be taken from the Central Ground Water Authority.
“The people living in the villages of the area are dependent on forests for a minimum of two to four months in a year for their livelihood,” said a survey conducted by Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board (MPPCB)[vii]. Very large number of people are dependent on minor forest produce from the project area. There is no mention of social impacts of the project in FAC minutes.
FAC Decision While deferring the proposal, the FAC required a number of responses from the state government as mentioned below, in addition to some mentioned above:
– The State Govt. may provide the status of the Ken- Betwa link project. [It’s a bit strange that FAC is asking for this. Its own website, incidentally provides NO information about the status of the Forest Clearance of the Ken Betwa Project.]
– The project involves diversion of the course of a stream and creation of a waterbody, which may adversely affect the watershed and the flow of water downstream thereby affecting the biodiversity as well as the effectiveness of Ken-Betwa link project. The State Govt. shall examine whether the ecological impact of diversion of stream and creation of water body has been taken into account or not? A detailed report in this regard shall be submitted.
One expected the FAC to also ask for the value of eco system services of the forest with over 2.15 lakh trees, including its hydrological services, but FAC did not ask for this. This was particularly important considering the abysmally shoddy ecosystem valuation done by the company of the forest land involved in the cost benefit analysis of the project[viii]. The cost benefit analysis assumes the Net Present Value of forest at Rs 8.03 lakh per ha and adds 10% of NPV for loss of fodder for animal husbandary, 30% of NPV as possession value of the forest and additional 50% as habitat fragmentation cost besides Rs 4 lakh per ha for compensatory afforestation and soil and moisture conservation work cost! Disappointingly, FAC does not have a word about this shoddy valuation, and also sadly, most of the key documents related to the proposal to FAC are not available on the FAC website[ix].
Similarly, the tree enumeration[x] lists 46 species, but for 14 of them the botanical name listed is “Others” meaning possibly that the enumeration team does not know the botanical name! There are of course never any listing of non-tree species, aquatic plant or any animal, bird, insect species in any FAC proposal.
One expected the FAC to categorically reject the proposal rather asking for more information.
In fact the FAC needs to review and cancel the stage I clearance for the Ken Betwa Project considering the massive impacts. Moreover, the HC also needs to take into account that the Ken Betwa project will also lead to destruction of archaeological heritage including cave painting whose existence is known, but there has been no systematic assessment of the same.