Bling bling for tigers

By Sumana Narayanan
Published: Monday 15 September 2008

  Panna tiger reserve
Diamond mine gets the go-ahead
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Supreme Court revokes ban on diamond mine in tiger zone

the Supreme Court on August 13 gave the go-ahead to the National Mineral Development Corporation (nmdc), a public sector undertaking, to resume diamond mining operations in the core area of Panna National Park in Madhya Pradesh. The ruling comes at a time when 13 villages are being relocated from the tiger reserve to maintain the undisturbed nature of the habitat.

With this ruling, the court turns around its 2002 directive banning mining activities in protected areas. Experts fear the ruling may set a precedent for other ventures seeking permission to mine in protected areas.

The Panna National Park is also a tiger reserve and is spread over an area of 54,200 hectares (ha) across Panna and Chhatarpur districts. It adjoins the Gangau Wildlife Sanctuary.

The tiger reserve at present is home to 24 tigers.It is also home to over 350 families. But they were asked to move out after the critical wildlife habitat was demarcated. "Each family was promised Rs 10 lakh in accordance with the guidelines of National Tiger Conservation Authority, but given only Rs 8.5 lakh. The authorities refuse to give any explanation for the difference," says Yusuf Beag of Mines, Minerals and People, a coalition of ngos. "nmdc is allowed to resume mining while the government moves us out saying we destroy forests," says Dhani Ram Yadav, sarpanch of Jhalar village.

The court's decision is based on recommendations of the Central Empowered Committee (cec). The committee, appointed by the apex court, advises it on all forest matters. In its July 2006 report on Panna mine, cec stated that it was undesirable to allow mining indefinitely within protected areas and asked for a deadline for closure of the mine. But it could not come to an agreement. "The issue was debated in the court. The time frame agreed upon during the discussion was five years," says a cec member. The court ruling, however, does not reflect this; it only asks the company to draw up a statutory mine closure plan (such plans typically do not set deadlines for mine closure). The only time nmdc was given a deadline was in 2005, when the Madhya Pradesh State Wildlife Protection Board gave its clearance saying that nmdc should phase out its operations by 2020.

The court's latest decision seems to have given nmdc a carte blanche to mine diamonds as long as it wants. All it has to do is make a one-time payment equivalent of the net present value (npv) for diversion of forestland and five per cent of the project's capital cost. The sum total comes up to about Rs 100 crore, which will go towards conservation measures in the national park.

The court has also ordered the formation of a monitoring committee chaired by the chief wildlife warden of Madhya Pradesh. The committee will be responsible for approval of the mine closure plan, prescribing and monitoring of various safeguards for mine operation and approval and monitoring of the annual work plan for utilizing the npv and conservation funds. It will include the member secretary, National Tiger Conservation Authority, the field director of Panna National Park and a non-official member of the National Board for Wildlife.

Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India who has been nominated as non-official member of the committee says "The court's decision to allow mining is extraordinary." Clearly, the move has taken wildlife activists by surprise. "The Panna diamond mine has been reporting losses for the last several years...No doubt they (the Supreme Court) had their reasons. Perhaps one reason is that this is the only diamond mine in India," she adds. Panna is now likely to have a rippling effect on other mines in forest areas. According to Rajeev Dhavan, a senior advocate of the Supreme Court "It (the court order) has implications for mining within national parks and sanctuaries." For example, says Dhavan, the Panna case is linked to another case on mining in buffer zones in Rajasthan. In May 2003, the cec recommended the closure of mines in the Jamua Ramgarh wildlife sanctuary in Rajasthan saying that the mines were in the buffer zone of the sanctuary, while in the present case the Supreme Court has allowed mining in the core area of a national park.

The decision could give a window of opportunities to ventures to argue for mining in protected areas, says Wright. She plans to take up the issue of a time frame for closure of the mine when the monitoring committee meets.

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