The ambiguous future of Jharkhand’s Saranda forest

The proposed diversion of 46,000 hectares of virgin forest of Saranda division for mining will destroy the whole forest ecosystem and disastrously impact wildlife resources

By Dipak Anand, Syed Ainul Hussain
Published: Friday 27 September 2019

On November 22, 2010, the Department of Mines, Government of India, had constituted an enquiry committee under the chairmanship of Justice MB Shah to look into illegal iron ore mining in the country.

In response of the enquiry committee’s report, the then-Union Ministry of Environment and Forest constituted a multi-disciplinary expert committee to assess the carrying capacity of the Saranda forest division in Jharkhand.

This committee, known as the Bisht Committee, submitted a report on illegal mining in Jharkhand, whereby, significant issues pertaining to the effect of mining on the ecology and environment of Saranda forest were raised. 

In 2016, a study was conducted by the Indian Council of Forest Research and Training (ICFRE), Dehradun, in association with the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun. WII’s individual report clearly mentioned that the Koina, Sasangda and Samta ranges in the Saranda forest division had high biodiversity vis-à-vis diversity of mammals, birds, amphibians and butterflies.

It was found to be high due to low intensity of mining in the ranges. Whereas, the Gua range, spread across the Saranda forest division and Noamundi range in the Chaibasa forest division had low density of wild species and floral diversity due to high mining activities.

The effect of mining on biodiversity was clearly observed up to 5 kilometres from the active mine boundary. According to the report, any mining activities in the future might completely block the movement of elephants through the Saranda area because all the active corridors had either been blocked or were being diverted towards mining.

Further, a total of three ‘hotspots’ were identified in the Saranda division for their high conservation value. The Saranda forest is a potential wildlife habitat and has sufficient plants and prey base to sustain both, herbivores and carnivores.

In its final report, the WII also recommended to the expert committee to provide legal status to the Saranda forest.

The ICFRE’s concluding report to the expert committee also raised concerns about the management of wildlife in the forest. The committee observed that Saranda was one of the finest elephant habitats in India and hence, capping further iron mining in it must be considered.

It was further observed by Justice MB Shah that the Right to Life was fundamental under Article 21 of the Constitution of India and included the right to pollution–free water and air. The protection of this right was directly linked with clean environment.

It was thus the duty of the state and citizens to improve the natural environment, including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife, and to have compassion for living creatures. This would require wildlife habitats to remain undisturbed and rivers, lakes, water and air to be unpolluted.

The Bisht Committee examined all aspects of biodiversity conservation in tune with the concerns of the Shah Commission.

It identified critical wildlife habitats, corridors linking them and other important areas in Saranda which need to be protected and conserved for posterity, may be considered as inviolate for iron ore mining and maybe notified as conservation reserves or ecologically sensitive areas in accordance with the provisions of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 and the Environment (Protection) 1986.

Based on the report submitted by WII and ICFRE to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, the Supreme Court cancelled all the mining leases in the Saranda forest in 2016. It was considered a historic decision taken by the Supreme Court to save Saranda.

But as they say, happiness is fleeting. Recently, the government of Jharkhand requested the Centre to carry out a reassessment study on the carrying capacity of Saranda and Chaibasa forest divisions.

The state government is planning to convert 46,000 hectares of the Saranda forest to mines.

The ICFRE Dehradun, IIT Kanpur and IIM Dhanbad have again been selected to research and assess the effects of mining on biodiversity and this time, WII has not been included. In the previous report, WII recommended no new mining lease in the Saranda forest and the Centre accepted it.

A matter of concern

The proposed 46,000 hectares of forest diversion will completely destroy everything, especially if such diversions take place mainly in the Koina and Sasangda range of Saranda forest because of their high biodiversity value.

The Noamundi and Gua ranges have a large number of working mines and a further extension of existing mining boundaries within a permissible limit is acceptable. This was also suggested by the report but the diversion of huge virgin forest should not be permitted at any cost.

If the government is in the final phase of re-assessment then we suggest that it include WII, Dehradun, which has expertise in wildlife and its related aspects. The panel lacks proficiency in this field.

Moreover, WII has surveyed this area and has studied the impact of mining on biodiversity. It would be better if the task of wildlife assessment is allotted to it. The above mentioned report by the WII, ICFRE and the expert panel clearly articulated the Saranda scenario and its importance.

We hope that future reassessment would not compromise on anything and would be able to paint a true picture of the impact of mining on wild flora and fauna and the carrying capacity of the Saranda forest.

If the future report suggests keeping secure the sanctity of this area, policy makers would be in a position to provide legal protection to this forest and that would be justice in the real sense to these hapless creatures.

Dipak Anand and Syed Ainul Hussain work for the Wildlife Institute of India

Views expressed are the authors’ own and don't necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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