DNA EXCLUSIVE: Mining plan to conserve sal forests, 200 elephants hits steel giants in Jharkhand

The Chiria mine in Ankua forest block has India's single largest iron ore deposit, estimated to be about two billion tonnes

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The government’s draft plan on sustainable iron ore mining in Jharkhand’s Saranda has proposed go and no-go zones and biodiversity hotspots to protect the rich Sal forest and over 200 elephants, DNA has learnt.  The plan, if finalised, will halt big-ticket mining projects of giants such as Steel Authority of India (SAIL) (public sector) and Vedanta and JSW Steel Ltd. (private sector) in the Ankua forest, documents showed. The Chiria mine in Ankua forest block has India’s single largest iron ore deposit, estimated to be about two billion tonnes.

The plan has been sent for vetting to Environment Minister Dr. Harsh Vardhan, top officials said. The plan was prepared in light of the findings of the Justice MB Shah inquiry commission report on illegal mining in Jharkhand.  The Ministry is treading cautiously on the issue because CBI is probing alleged violations by former Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan in granting forest clearance to Electrosteel Castings Ltd and JSW Steel.

The Ministry has proposed two mining zones, two conservation areas and three critical biodiversity hotspots for “sustainable mining” in the region. The mining leases of SAIL and private sector giants fall in the Koina range, one of the biodiversity hotspots. In September 2016, both SAIL and the Ministry of Steel registered strong reservations against the plan. The Centre had sought replies on the draft plan, documents reviewed by DNA showed.

JSW has plans to produce 10 million tonnes of iron ore per year, and it requires 999 hectares of forest land in Ankua. Vedanta had signed an MoU with Jharkhand in 2016 to set up a 1 million tonnes per annum steel plant. The company has planned to feed this plant iron ore from the Dhobil mine spread over 700 hectares of forest. This mine is located in the proposed prohibited zone. Queries and reminders mailed by DNA to SAIL, Vedanta and JSW Steel remained unanswered.

The mining zones are spread over 33 forest compartments across Ghatkuri, Samta, Karampada, Tirilposi, Thalkobad, Kumdi ranges, while 18 compartments fall in the no-go zone. All of them fall in the Ankua forest. The Karo-Karampada elephant corridor, providing connectivity to Odisha, falls in the mining zone of Karampada and Thalkobad range. The plan showed that Sasangda and Koina range have been marked as critical biological hotspots.

“The Ministry has proposed to allow mining only on those leases in the eastern parts that are already broken and where mining has begun. But we want to keep mining in central part of Saranda such as Chiria and Ankua in abeyance,” a top official of the Ministry said on the condition of anonymity.

“The Ministry is treading cautiously on allowing mining in central parts as it will fragment the dense forests and elephant corridors.”

Jharkhand’s industries and mines secretary Sunil Kumar Barnwal said, “We had given our comments to the Ministry and we feel that Centre should impose more conditions on the mining projects and push for more scientific methods to cause least disturbance to forest. But, we do not want prohibitions on mining.” 

Spread over an area of 820 sq km, Saranda forest is home to one of the best Sal forests in the world because of its fast regeneration capacity. It is also home to Singhbhum elephant reserve, the country’s first, and sustained around ten tigers until a few decades ago.

In 2014, the Centre had halted clearances for all fresh projects in Saranda region and had asked Jharkhand government to assess the impact of mining in the region. This was done in light of the Justice MB Shah enquiry commission report on illegal mining of iron ore and manganese in Jharkhand.  In the same year, Centre also began the process of identifying inviolate areas in the forest and commissioned two studies; one to fix an annual mining cap and the other for a wildlife management plan. Based on these two expert reports, of the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE)  and a multi-disciplinary expert committee that was examining the wildlife management plan, the ministry prepared the mining plan.

The ICFRE was commissioned to undertake a carrying capacity survey and in its report it had recommended an annual mining cap of 64 million tonnes per annum. Along with technological upgradation and mitigation measures, it recommended that it could be increased to 90 MTPA.

ICFRE’s report also recommended that Jharkhand government establish the West Singhbhum Integrated Environmental, Forest and Wildlife Management Authority that would be headed by the chief secretary. It also suggested that a special fund be created under the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Amendment Act, 2015 for conserving Saranda’s biodiversity.

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