DNA was the first to report on the draft of the mining plan in April.
The Environment ministry has come out with a plan on 'sustainable iron ore mining ' in Jharkhand's Saranda and Chaibasa, West Singhbhum district, and has proposed go and no-go zones, biodiversity hotspots and conservation areas to protect the region's rich Sal forest and over 200 elephants. It has also accepted an annual cap of 64 million tonnes per annum in Saranda-Chaibasa, based on the expert report of Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education.
Only those mining leases falling in the eastern boundary of Saranda have been considered for inclusion in two mining zones and mining leases falling in ten villages across Chaibasa will be considered. The remaining leases, the ministry's plan said, will be closed for mining and kept in abeyance for now. Centre will review their status when mineral deposits in the permitted zones are almost exhausted and appropriate technology is available for their extraction to prevent damage to forest and wildlife.
DNA was the first to report on the draft of the mining plan in April. The report had brought to light that if this plan is finalised, it will affect big-ticket mining projects of giants such as Steel Authority of India (SAIL), a public sector undertaking, Vedanta and JSW Steel Ltd, all of which fall in Ankua forest. In the plan brought out on Friday, the ministry has retained Ankua forest as a no-go mining zone. The Chiria mine in Ankua forest block has India's single largest iron ore deposit, estimated to be about two billion tonnes.
However, the ministry has kept the door open for the big-ticket projects falling in no-go zones. It stated that mining leases in no-go zones and conservation areas "shall be kept in abeyance till the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change takes a final view on the environmental sustainability of mining in the region after further examination." The ministry, though, has allowed SAIL to continue work on Dhobil mines in the no-go zone in an already broken up area.
As per the ministry's plan, out of 79 forest compartments in Saranda, mining will be permitted in 33 forest compartments across the Ghatkuri, Samta, Karampada, Tirilposi, Thalkobad and Kumdi ranges. In Chaibasa, ten out of 18 villages have been considered for mining. The exact forest area allowed to be mined was not clear as per the ministry's plan. The Ministry has proposed two mining zones, two conservation areas and three critical biodiversity hotspots in the region.
Environment ministry officials were not available for comment.
Before commencement of work, the lease holders would have to obtain forest clearance and environmental clearance from Centre separately. In an important addition to the final plan, the ministry has said that leases smaller than 25 hectares would be cancelled.
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.