Sanctuary in peril

Maharashtra villagers and environmentalists see red as the Radhanagri Sanctuary becomes yet another victim of industrial onslaught

By Neena Singh
Published: Wednesday 31 January 1996

Sanctuary in peril

-- (Credit: Photographs: Neena Singh / CSE)THE inhabitants of Radhanagri taluka in Maharashtra today are suspicious of both the state forest department and the Indian Aluminium Company (INDAL). In the increasing list of protected areas (PA) in India, threatened by industrial pressures and demanding their denotification, Radhanagri Sanctuary is another recent inclusion.

Located in the Kolhapur disrict in the Western Ghats region, Radhanagri was originally Dajipur Game Sanctuary sprawled over 1,961 ha (19.6 sq kin), famous for its gaur or Indian Bison. Declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1985, the new sanctuary covers a much larger area - 35,116.17 ha. This expansion opened a pandora's box, since, a part Of INDAL'; mining lease at Idergunj where mining is yet to commence, fell in the heart of the sanctuary. But INDAL claims that the collector, Kolhapur, had confirmed in 1990 that the lease area at idergunj was excluded from the sanctuary.

Another bauxite mine Of INDAL, operational since 1992, at Durgamanwadi, is located a few feet away from the new boundary. Although all the procedures regarding rights, settlements and acquisitions have been completed, the final notification is yet to come. Sunil Limaye, deputy conservator of forest, Kolhapur, asserts that for all intents and purposes, the rules and regulations for a sanctuary applies there. INDAL officials, however, claim that since the final notification is not through, they can continue mining in the lease area in Idergunj.

According to a study, a total of 419 faunal species and 325 floral species abound in Radhanagri. The region experiences very high rainfall - between 5,000-6,000 mm, and has two large reservoirs, which irrigates several villages. During heavy rains, the catch-ment areas of both the reservoirs remain submerged, except for elevated areas like the plateaus which serve as corridors for widlife during floods and where the Durgamanwadi and Idergunj mines are located.

INDAL had signed a 30-year mining lease on an area of 777.08 ha with the government of Maharashtra in 1968. The mineralised area was estimated to be about 283 ha. While INDAL claims that it carried out mining from 1973 to 1980, the forest department claims that the company has been paying dead rent for the leased land, and there is no evidence of any mining activity. "As no royalty had been paid by the company to prove any mining activity, the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, holds good for all the activities Of INDAL, including the lease areas, and the commencement of any activity hereon will require a fresh proposal from the company," says Sunil Limaye.

The possible impact on Radhanagri's environment and wildlife is based on the experiences of a previous site at Chandgad in Belgaum now abandoned, and the environmental problems faced by the Durgamanwadi mines - both outside the sanctuary. The Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) carried out an Environmental Impact Assessment at Idergunj. The BNHS' preliminary report indicates that the impact of mining on the sanctuary will be disastrous. The use of sophisticated equipments like ripper dozers and mobile crushers can certainly reduce the impact, but not eliminate it altogether.

INDAL'S public relation officer, however, asserts that "the lease area is a barren wasteland where nothing grows, especially not trees. Bauxite is generally found in lateritic areas, which consists of very little soil and is extremely rocky."

But according to BNHS experts, the region's grass provides fodder to the livestock and wildlife, and rocks and boulders provide excellent cover for wildlife. The area incidentally, is a prime habitat of the sloth bear, panthers, gaurs, pangolins and mouse deer - all enlisted under the Schedule I of the Wildlife Act, 1972.

The Durgamanwadi mines provide insight into what can possibly happen at Idergunj, as geologically the areas are identical. The mines have been operating since 1992, and their overdumps fall literally a few feet away from the sanctuary boundary, demarcated by a stretch of piled up rocks. This is in blatant violation of the Environment Protection Act, 1986, which regulates landuse around PAS. According to the Act, any industrial activity within the 10-km zone of a reserved forest, and 25-km zone of a sanctuary or national park, should have the approval of the ministry of environment and forests. INDAL has not obtained any such clearance, and the forest department, lacking jurisdiction in this matter, has attempted to bring this to the attention of the district administration. But no action has yet been taken.

INDAL officials believe that Durgamanwadi mine is a trendsetter in "benign mining": mining is carried out only on 30 ha at a time. Through ripper dozers, the top soil is gently cut open with the minimum of dust and noise pollution, and there is continuous backfilling of the overburden, over which trees are planted; a three-feet parapet wall has been constructed encircling the mineralised zone, to prevent the run-out waters from polluting the neigh- Resettlement bouring reservoirs. All this incensed has enabled a "greener and better post-mining environment" according to INDAL.

But researchers and experts deny these tall claims. Baba Pansare, a local tribal welfare activist says, "The level of water in the reservoirs has definitely shown a reduction in the last two to three years. There are also apprehensions that the pollution of the reservoirs may have led to recent spurt in cases of kidney stones in the region."

INDAL's afforestation efforts too, have faced flak. The abandoned mine of Chandgad is now a barren area where the pits still exist, and tree regeneration has been just about 30-40 per cent. Sunil Limaye also refutes INDAL'S claim that 75,000 endemic variety of saplings have been planted in the plateau's slopes in Durgamanwadi.

INDAL'S mining lease at Durgamanwadi has always been suspect. This is because the lease was signed with one Ajit Pandit, locally known as Pandit Maharaj. INDAL refers to him as the region's ex-Raja, whom the Dhangars (a nomadic tribe of the area), still revere. Refuting this, Baba Pansare says, "Pandit Maharaj may have been a local jagirdar. But how could he be the owner of so much land as an individual? If the ownership of land is in question, then the lease signed with INDAL can also be proved invalid!"

INDAL, however, maintains that the lease is valid and legal, and that they have obtained surface rights and not ownership rights from Ajit Pandit. The key role in the deed's signing was played by Topkar Patil, an ex-INDAL employee who later represented Pandit. All this confusion has pushed the rehabilitation and welfare of displaced tribal families in the backburner.

Forty Dhangar families displaced by the mines nurture a bitter grudge against the authorities. One such resettled village is Khopechwadi, relocated about a kilometre from the mines. The row of single-room huts resemble slums rather than the "two-room houses" claimed to have been built by INDAL. Bhagabai Sirke, a resident of the village says, "They did not even give us finished houses. Only the walls dividing one hut from the other were built. We had to construct the other walls and the roof." As for compensation, the villages say that they have been given 0.405 ha of land per family, all of which is wasteland where nothing has grown since the last three years. When asked about easily available clean water and electricity supply by INDAL, the villagers said that they still fetch water from a distance of two to three km.

Recently, irate villagers blocked the road to the mines. Their burial site was still within the mine area, and they were adamant not to let mining to extend upto it. To diffuse the situation, INDAL asked Topkar Patil to intervene, but the villagers refused to compromise. They have now consolidated themselves to form the Radhanagri Taluka Bachao Samiti, with representatives from 65 village committees, and Jagdish Lingaraj as their chairperson. Individuals like Baba Adhav, chairman, Maharashtra State Dam and Project Affected Peasant Association are also spearheading the movement. According to them, they are not just fighting for social justice, but also for a cleaner environment.

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