Odisha's decision to auction virgin mines raises environmental concerns – Mongabay-India

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On August 9, 2021, as the World’s Indigenous People Day was being celebrated, hundreds of people from villages inside and on the periphery of the picturesque Karlapat Wildlife sanctuary in the Kalahandi district of Odisha gathered to protest against a proposed bauxite mining site in the area. The men and women, mostly from indigenous communities, had organised a similar protest last year as well when the government had conducted soil testing in the area.
In July 2021, the Odisha government issued a notice inviting tenders for the auction of 11 mines (seven fresh blocks and four lease renewals) in the state. The activists claim that the seven new mines are expected to result in the loss of 4,000 acres of forest land.
The 11 mines include seven mineral blocks of iron ore (Nadidih BICO, Purheibahal, Chandiposhi, Jumka Pathiriposhi Pahar, Dholtapahar, Netrabandha Pahar, Gandhalpada), two mineral blocks of iron ore and manganese (Nadidih, Teherai), one mineral block of iron ore and dolomite (Kasia) and one mineral block of bauxite. Karlapat is the bauxite virgin mineral block that will go down the hammer.
Karlapat forest is part of the Karlapat Wildlife Sanctuary, which is located over 450 kilometres from Odisha’s capital city of Bhubaneswar. The roads leading to the forest have warning signs citing elephant presence in the area. In the heart of the forest lies the Khandualmali hill, believed to be the abode of the Kondh (an indigenous community) goddess Khandual. Villagers are concerned that the proposed mining activity, will affect both the forest and the hill.
The move for opening untouched forest areas for mining by the state government has, however, led to environmental activists expressing fear about an impending ‘ecological disaster’ in the state. They claim that even as a proper impact assessment of the mining projects is yet to be carried out, preliminary analysis suggests that the mining activity will severely impact the flora and fauna of these areas. The activists claim that close to 4,000 acres of forest land in the state, mostly in the Kendujhar and Sundargarh districts, will be destroyed due to the auction of these seven fresh mines. However, there is no official estimate as yet.
In Kendujhar’s Gandhalpada forest (iron ore reserve) alone, almost 900,000 trees will have to be felled to carry out the mining activity. Of those, almost 73 percent are sal trees, which takes 150 years to mature. Similarly, activists claim the mining activity in the Karlapat area is expected to impact more than 300 perennial streams and elephant corridors in the area.
“At a time when we are facing a climate crisis, the mining activity spot in Gandhalpada will destroy a deep forest area. Karlapat is also an equally sensitive forest. The forests are for future generations and not for the mining industries. Any loss of forest, river or natural resources is directly related to the loss of livelihood of the tribal community. The forests are not only their basis of economic activity but are also their cultural identity,” environmentalist Prafulla Samantara, who is leading the movement, told Mongabay-India.
“There is also no emergency need of iron ore in the state as the existing industries already have captive mines to produce steel. So, why there is such a hurry to destroy the valuable forests of the state which will take at least 500 years to replenish if destroyed now?” he questioned.
Odisha is among the mineral-rich states of the country and is a leader in the production of minerals like iron ore, bauxite, coal. According to Odisha’s Economic Survey 2020-21, the state contributed 34.3 percent of the total mineral production in the country. Overall, the mining sector plays a crucial role in the state’s economy and similar to the central government, the state government is also pinning hopes on mining to revive the economy after COVID-19. In fact, the Odisha government on September 9, announced, after a meeting with the union minister of mines, that it is preparing to auction five more mines in the next two months.
Read more: Bhubaneswar’s periphery is losing its hills to stone mining
A month after inviting tender, the Odisha Government started the first stage of the e-auction process. The last date for the purchase of tender documents was on August 19, 2021, while the bid submission was completed on August 24. However, so far, the local activists claim that the communities who will be directly impacted have not been consulted in the matter, nor any Gram Sabha has been held.
“Usually, the local people should be consulted before any auction. A Gram Sabha is held, which approves or disapproves of the mining activity in its area. Legally, it is not incorrect to conduct the auction first and then hold Gram Sabha, but the process is wrong. If the auction is held first and the lease is awarded, the company getting the lease is also in the middle of the river. Even after winning the bid, the lease is not guaranteed until Gram Sabha (village council) approves. So, the process should be bottom-top approach and not vice-versa,” said Biswajit Mohanty, an environmental activist who has also raised his concerns regarding the fresh mining bids.
Moreover, the activists also alleged that similar to the way mining activities continued unabated during COVID-19 lockdowns, the state government is intentionally rushing with the project while the public attention remains on the pandemic. In fact, they accused the state of resorting to illegal means to get the necessary environmental clearance.
A joint statement released by activists Prafulla Samantara, Biswajit Mohanty and Kirankumar Sahoo (President, Keonjhar Citizen Forum) claims that the Odisha Government has pushed the State Wildlife Board to “lessen the area of the wildlife sanctuary” in Karlapat forest to get the clearance.
“In April this year, to justify the auction and easily procure the environment clearance, the State Wildlife Board has reduced the boundary. But, it is illegal. The Board can propose the changes, but not decide,” Samantara told Mongabay-India. “This is the state’s conspiracy to get the clearance. The mining will take place very much inside the forest area only,” he alleged.
Read more: Odisha diverts DMF funds to urban areas as mining-affected communities suffer
Previously too, Odisha has been at the centre of mining controversies involving indigenous communities. The most highlighted dispute between the state and the tribal people was related to Vedanta’s alumina refinery in Lanjigarh at the foothills of Niyamgiri. In 2013, the Supreme Court was in favour of the locals, giving the power to the Gram Sabhas to take a call on the matter. In what was called a historic environmental case, all the 12 villages inhabited by the Dongria Kondhs had rejected the project.
In 2019, another controversy erupted when at least 40,000 trees were cut in the month of December in Talabira village of Odisha’s Sundargarh district for an opencast coal mining project of the Centre-owned Neyveli Lignite Corporation Limited (NLC). There were widespread protests with the locals claiming ‘forged Gram sabhas’ were conducted to get the clearance. Despite a call to stop the felling of trees, the forest was razed.
Besides, the mining scam in Odisha was unearthed in 2009, when a Commission led by Justice M.B. Shah probing the mines had cited several instances of excessive mining in the state. Recently, Sarda Mines, a leading mining company was slapped with a penalty of Rs. 20.56 billion (Rs 2,056 crore) for excessive mining. The mining leaseholder in Keonjhar district had raised at least seven times more iron ore than the clearance.
However, this time as the state government has begun the e-auction process, environmental activists are prepping up for a long battle. Days after the notification of e-auction emerged, the activists wrote to the Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, requesting him to re-think the decision. On August 25, political opposition parties and several citizen groups joined hands with the activists to chalk the future course of action. A fresh memorandum is expected to be sent to the Chief Minister soon.
“It is the need of the hour to have an experts’ committee evaluate the ecological losses and consequences due to the endless mining activities in the last 50 years. The government should not be hungry to get revenue through finishing non-renewable mines and minerals. We are ready for Jan Andolan. The protest will pick up from here,” Samantara said.
Banner image: Local villagers protesting at the proposed mining site in Karlapat in Odisha. Photo by special arrangement.
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