Environment comes first, profits later, noted Chief Justice of India S H Kapadia while ordering suspension of all mining operations in Bellary on August 5. Of the 148 mines in Bellary, only one company can mine iron ore, that too in limited quantity. The state-owned National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC) can extract iron ore, but only a million tonnes in a month for domestic consumption. Export from this region is disallowed.
Over the past decade, forest around Bellary has been destroyed by mining companies. The Central Empowered Committee (CEC), an advisor to the Supreme Court of India on issues pertaining to forest diversions, says that nearly 45 per cent of the green cover around Bellary may have been lost.
The recorded forest area in Bellary was 138,000 hectares (ha). But in 2009, the Forest Survey of India could find only 77,200 ha under forest cover. Of this, 11,000 ha comprised moderately dense forests. The rest was degraded forests. “As a result of mining and associated activities, what was once an area with green, scenic, undulating hilly terrain, today presents a barren and dismal picture akin to a war-ravaged zone with huge ugly scars,” the CEC report states.
The existing moderately dense forest is also under threat of degradation as most mining leases are given in such areas. The report formed the basis for the Supreme Court ban. The apex court ordered the investigation following a writ petition filed in the Supreme Court in 2009 against illegal mining in Karnataka’s forests by the non-profit Samaj Parivartana Samudaya. In February this year, the court directed CEC to file a report on forest violations within six weeks. Its first report was filed in April.
On the basis of its findings, the court formed a joint team in May, comprising Central and state government officials and CEC members. The team is to conduct surveys of 99 of the 148 functional and defunct mines in Bellary district. These mines were initially investigated by the Lokayukta in 2008. Till July 29, the team had surveyed 60 mines. Of these, transgressions were found in 45. Their owners were asked to stop work by the committee, a CEC member informs. All the transgressions pertain to encroachment.
The joint team’s survey will be periodically reported to the apex court. A final tabulation on the total encroached area is yet to be determined.
CEC’s first report had stated that of the 7,220.8 ha sanctioned area in the 99 mines, 1,079.2 ha was encroached. It also said that 74 mines were involved in illegal mining. But instead of taking punitive action against the erring miners, the state government allowed mining to continue. After the 2008 Lokayukta report, the government had seized vehicles, tools and machinery of the erring miners, but returned them eventually.
CEC’s first report says the state government illegally cleared 15 mining leases in the Ramgarh and Swamimalai forest blocks of Sandur forest range in the Bellary Reserve Forest.
In 2003, land meant exclusively for mining by public sector units was de-reserved for private entities. Between 2003 and 2009, the district administration, along with forest and revenue officials, illegally re-classified forest area as non-forest area and issued no-objection certificates for mining on 183 ha in the two forest blocks.
At present, Karnataka has 266 iron ore mines, of which 134 are located in forest area. Bellary alone has 98 mines in the forest area covering 9,527 ha.
In view of the environmental degradation in Bellary, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in 2001 ordered that no fresh mining leases should be issued till the Karnataka government carried out a detailed Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the entire region.
It also asked for a master plan to conduct scientific mining.
The National Environment Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) submitted its EIA report in 2004. It contained suggestions on: how to minimise dust from mining, storage and transportation; noise reduction techniques; safe disposal of mining waste; restoration and stabilisation of abandoned mines; and most of all using scientific mining techniques. But the measures were never implemented and the malaise continued.
NEERI’s report and MoEF’s order should have slowed down mining in the region. Instead, permissions for iron ore production increased manifold. Environmental clearances were granted recklessly by the Centre and the state. Most of the mining activity had increased in 45 mines that have now been indicted by the Supreme Court’s joint team.
CEC report points the finger at MoEF and the Indian Bureau of Mines which, it says, did not consider issues like area available to dump waste vis-à-vis the area required after increased production. It also did not take into account the capacity of roads to allow increased transportation, and also did not bother about the impact of increased production on air and water.
To illustrate, Associated Mining Company, in which Janardhan Reddy has a stake, was granted permission by the mines bureau to increase its production capacity from 152,000 tonnes to one million tonnes per year.
The size of the mine was only 10.12 ha. The latest CEC report notes that the statutory provisions relating to dumping waste, bench formation for mining, internal roads, maintenance of safety zones, stacking of mined iron ores and maintaining prescribed standards of air and water qualities had to be compromised to maintain such levels of production in such a small sized mine.
Mining in Bellary will freeze for some time now, at least till an environmental appraisal is conducted. The Supreme Court directed the Centre to undertake a macro-level EIA and submit the report within three months. It also directed the Karnataka government to furnish within three months the reclamation and rehabilitation plan for Bellary district.
|ANATOMY OF AN ILLEGAL MINE
It is clear from satellite imagery and maps prepared by the CEC team investigating forest encroachment that miners made no attempts to stick to the land leased to them for mining iron ore. For one, the government did not demarcate the boundaries of the mine sites.
The mining companies, instead, set up their own boundaries arbitrarily without caring whether they had encroached upon forestland. Seldom did the companies extract iron ore within their designated zone.
The encroached land was used not only for mining but also for dumping waste and other uses like building roads.
In this mine, the company was given a lease of about 105 hectares but its operations were spread over 121.5 hectares. Most of the encroached land was used to dump waste.
|NEERI’s recommendations that were never followed
The study conducted by the National Environment Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) in 2004 found 130-4,474 microgram per cubic metre of suspended particulate matter at many locations in Bellary, far above the ambient air quality standards.
The study found high levels of turbidity and heavy metals exceeding permissible limits in the surface water. Water samples from Narihalla dam and pond near the mining area showed deterioration of water quality compared to surface water from non-mining areas. Groundwater in mining areas showed high levels of conductivity, hardness, dissolved solids, chlorides, fluorides and bacteriological contamination. Higher levels of iron, lead, manganese, sodium and potassium were recorded in groundwater. The report pointed out land degradation due to deforestation, soil erosion and unscientific mining.
It suggested that mine lease area should not be less than 10 hectares. To minimise air pollution, the report suggested application of scientific methods of drilling, blasting and sorting of ore. It suggested establishment of rail routes and ropeways to minimise road transport and enhance green belt. To prevent water pollution, the report recommended ban on waste disposal on hill slopes. It said slopes of the waste should be maintained at 30 per cent for maximum infiltration and less run-off.
The leases, it said, should be sanctioned or renewed by the government only on the basis of the five-yearly developmental plans for ore production on the basis of scientific mining methods.