India’s expert forest panel calls for sustainable mining

  • The Indian government’s expert forest panel in its May 2021 meeting recommended an in-principle approval for two mining projects, of about 400 hectares each, for red sandstone in Rajasthan and iron and manganese ore in Karnataka.
  • While the project that was given a go-ahead in Rajasthan falls in a zone where mining has been going on since the 1950s, in Karnataka it falls under a virgin forest area.
  • In both cases, the expert forest panel, while clearing the project, called for sustainable mining while seeking measures, such as a cluster mining plan and common green infrastructure, to protect ecology and wildlife.

It has been about 70 years since sandstone mining has been going on in Rajasthan’s Bharatpur district and there seems to be no respite for the area as the expert forest panel of the Indian government’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has given an in-principle go-ahead for diverting about 400 hectares of protected forest area for mining. It has also directed for a slew of measures to ensure sustainable mining and protect ecology.

The forest panel has sought a “detailed cluster mining plan which will incorporate the scope of common green infrastructure for all sub-leases to optimise resources and minimise ecological impact.”

The case pertains to the Rajasthan government’s request for diversion of 398 hectares of forest land in the Pahadpur region for red sandstone mining in the Bharatpur district of the state. According to the Rajasthan government’s department of mining and geology, the sandstone available in this area is of “very high quality and is available in large quantities.” The proposal was discussed by the MoEFCC’s Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) during its meeting on May 31, 2021.

The FAC’s minutes said that the area proposed for mining  is “characterised by highly degraded landscape and poor conservation value which has resulted mainly due to mining activities in the past.” The proposed area, in fact, “falls in a sandstone mining zone where mining has been prevalent on a large scale since (the) 1950s” as a result of which a number of mining pits are visible in the area.

The Bansi Pahadpur forest area, which is sought for diversion, was earlier part of the Band-Baretha Wildlife Sanctuary but “physically isolated from the main sanctuary as distinct patches”, according to the minutes of the forest panel’s meeting. But in March 2021, following the request of the state government, the area was denotified as a wildlife sanctuary. Following this, the application to divert the forest area for mining was moved.

The Wildlife Institute of India even observes, in its assessment of the area, that “the heavily mined areas of Bansi Pahadpur has suffered irreparable ecological loss” and the “severity of the damage does not appear to be restorable by any regular forestry activities.”

The FAC recommended an “in-principle approval” to the project whose cost is estimated to be about Rs. 785 million (Rs. 78.5 crore) but specified that a “detailed cluster mining plan will be submitted prior to handover of the forest land which will incorporate the scope of common green infrastructure for all sub-leases to optimize resources and minimise ecological impact.”

The panel noted that the detailed mining plan should have details such as the areas for dumping overburden, area left out of mining operations for reasons of the slope, soil and water conservation along with appropriate mitigative measures for the conservation of forest area and wildlife.

“Since the area is highly refractory and the rainfall is also low, to ensure successful plantation in the safety zone and at other designated places, the plantations in and around the proposed area should be carried out under the supervision of expert institutions, like AFRI (Arid Forest Research Institution), Jodhpur,” the FAC said.

The expert forest committee asked the authorities to develop a buffer area and a wildlife rescue centre to address “probable man-animal conflict that may arise” due to the proximity of Bandh Baretha Wildlife Sanctuary.

The panel stressed that “as the Banshi Paharpur area has been subjected to opencast mining for several decades and land degradation is a major issue, at least 10 percent of the District Mineral Foundation Trust Fund should be used for tree plantation on suitable sites.” A total of 3,629 trees are expected to be felled for the project.

Read more: Lack of alternatives force women back to work in stone mines, which are health hazards

Illegal sandstone mining already prevalent in the area

According to the inspection report of the project site, prepared in May 2021 before the FAC’s meeting, illegal mining is already prevalent in the area “which is evident due to presence of large pits with water accumulation” but mining department officials present during the site inspection were ignorant of the status of illegal mining.”

“The area is ecologically devastated due to dumping of less valuable material, which has till date not been removed from the forest areas … It is evident that the remaining undiverted forest land shall be prone to illegal mining,” the inspection report said.

Rajasthan is the largest Indian state by area but only about 10 percent of it is covered under forests. Photo by Jonbrew/Flickr.
Rajasthan is the largest Indian state by area but only about 10 percent of it is covered under forests. Photo by Jonbrew/Flickr.

In fact, the site inspection report was critical of the Rajasthan government as it noted the whole area in and around the forest blocks is full of natural sandstone and mining leases, including illegal ones, are operative in the area. But, it noted that “despite this fact” the government states that there is no feasible alternative available.

On this, the Rajasthan government’s department of mines and geology told the FAC that “one of the main purpose of this application is to curb the incidences of illegal mining, and undertake scientific mining in an environmentally sustainable manner which will also benefit local people with legitimate employment who could otherwise be lured into engaging in illegal mining for livelihoods.”

The panel members instructed that “utmost care needs to be taken to ensure that the topsoil shall be stacked and protected separately so that it could be used for back-filling and or serial rehabilitation of the worked-out areas in a periodic and timely manner.”

Joshita Nag, who works with Rajasthan-based Mine Labour Protection Campaign (MLPC), a social group working on mining issues, said, “Our experience so far shows that all the strict conditions imposed by the authorities to ensure the protection of the environment or mine workers don’t translate into concrete action on the ground when the mining starts.”

“The water bodies in the mining area are not taken care of, the groundwater gets contaminated, the local air quality goes for a toss, and there is no protection for animals. Even the reclamation work that is supposed to be carried out, in accordance with the law, once the mine is closed is never really carried out properly,” Nag told Mongabay-India.

The social worker explained that it is not just the environment but even the rights of the mineworkers that are not taken care of. “Whether it is the social and medical safety of mineworkers in general or women in particular, their rights are rarely ensured by the companies,” she said.

Read more: Some hope for Rajasthan’s silicosis victims but many challenges

‘Sustainable mining’ latest buzzword of the expert forest panel 

Over the past few months, the forest panel while dealing with cases related to mining has been focusing on sustainable mining and the protection of ecology.

The concept of sustainable mining is also increasingly talked about during discussions on the transition that a mining area undergoes, and whether it is just to the environment and the communities in and around the area. The FAC’s recent decisions seem to be in line with the same philosophy.

For instance, in March 2021, the FAC had asked a mining company in Odisha to use short rotation crops in a mining lease area on the degraded forest land so that “ecological services continue to flow” as part of an experiment to ascertain if there is a chance for co-development of “mining and ecology”.

Hundreds of workers are employed in the stone mines in Rajasthan and experts note that they often receive no care from the employers. Photo by Hridayesh Joshi.
Hundreds of workers are employed in the stone mines in Rajasthan and experts note that they often receive no care from the employers. Photo by Hridayesh Joshi.

Similarly, during the latest May 31 meeting, the panel once again sought a study for green/sustainable mining. The FAC was hearing a case for the diversion of about 401 hectares of forest land in Karnataka’s Ballari district for iron ore and manganese ore mining.

It was discussed earlier in the panel’s meeting in February 2021 when it had asked a sub-committee to “look into the rationale of allowing iron ore mining in virgin forest areas when a number of opened up areas of de-allocated mines are already available in the State.”

In this case, as well, the FAC recommended an in-principle approval for the project and noted that the “cumulative impact of mining on the forest, wildlife and ecology needs to be understood and acted upon.”

It said that the area “requires a comprehensive view with regard to sustainable mining vis-à-vis forest, wildlife and ecological conservation including promotion of green mining infrastructure in the future which could not only have the least impact on forest and wildlife in the area but in some cases could actually promote forest and wildlife by itself.”

The panel also sought a comprehensive study, within a year, jointly to be done by a “couple of reputed institutes” to draw a perspective co-management plan for mining and forest, wildlife, conservation and development including for “green mining infrastructure development.”

Read more: India to explore if there can be co-development of mining and ecology


Banner image: Sandstone is used mainly in the construction of buildings and outdoor structures. Photo by Hridayesh Joshi.

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