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Projects will be considered for forest clearance only after Jharkhand completes comprehensive environmental assessment of the area, says environment ministry
Forest clearances for new projects in the Saranda forest in Jharkhand have been put on hold by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). The ministry, in a letter issued to the Jharkhand forest department last month, said its Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) will not consider any new proposal for forestland diversion in Saranda, other than projects that are already before FAC, until and unless the state government takes certain measures for sustainable mining practices and comprehensive assessment of the impact of mining in the region.
The state has been instructed to prepare a mine lease map and mine reclamation model for the area in GIS domain and commission a study on the impacts of mining in the Saranda forest on the rivers Karo and Koina (see 'MoEF directions to Jharkhand’).
The Saranda forest is a dense forest in the hilly region of West Singhbhum district of Jharkhand state. The forest and the adjoining areas form a part of core zone of Singhbhum Elephant Reserve.
|MoEF directive to Jharkhand
The ministry's directive follows the state’s request to FAC to delink the state’s integrated wildlife management plan from the stage I forest clearance for the proposed Duragaiburu iron ore mining project of SAIL. The project was last taken up by FAC during its meeting in January. In that meeting, a stage I clearance was given to SAIL for diversion of about 636 hectares (ha) of forestland in Saranda. The approval for diversion of the additional 636 ha, is in contravention to FAC's own directions in 2009, wherein it said that an integrated wildlife management plan is required by it for the approval of the expansion project.
Project-wise wildlife management plans prepared by the state government in certain cases are mandated by FAC for according forest clearance when critical matters, such as wildlife habitat, are involved. A wildlife management plan was sought for the SAIL project as well when the public sector steel company submitted its renewal and expansion proposal in 2009 because Saranda is an important ecological area and a critical elephant habitat.
At that time SAIL submitted a compliance report by saying a committee has been formed for preparing a wildlife management plan. FAC accepted this and renewed the mine lease area for temporary periods thrice—in 2010, 2011 and 2012. FAC, however, did not accord complete stage 1 clearance to the proposal until this January since the wildlife management plan was not finalised by the state. While approving the project in the January meeting, FAC specified the conditions which the ministry has reiterated in the letter.
The directive of the ministry has significant implications for future projects in Saranda. Many big ticket mining projects, including ones in favour of the Jindal group, have been allowed in the area despite it being a noted important wildlife habitat, and fragmentation of the forestland can have significant impact on wildlife. Now following the clearance of SAIL project, FAC seems to be finally giving the matter serious consideration.
The state forest department is yet to act on the ministry's directives. When contacted, the state's principal chief conservator of forests, A K Malhotra, said the letter from MoEF has not reached his office. He, however, acknowledged that comprehensive planning is important for the region given its rich biodiversity. “But this will be a challenging exercise as many mines are already operational," he said.
The forests of Saranda are very rich in biodiversity and are famous for profusely regenerating Sal (Shorea Robusta) trees. The area which is abundantly rich in flora and fauna also has huge iron and manganese ore deposits of good quality. At present, out of the 85,654 ha of forests, including protected and reserve forest of Saranda, 6,974 ha of forestland has been given on lease for mining to public sector companies and 2,531 ha have been allotted to private sector companies, according to the Saranda development plan website.
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