Death warrant for 1 lakh trees: HD Kumaraswamy approved mining lease despite Forest Department’s objection

Union Minister for Steel Kumaraswamy justified the approval of leasing 401 hectares of virgin forest to Kudremukh Iron Ore Company Limited, saying the process was started much earlier.

ByMahesh M Goudar

Published Jun 21, 2024 | 10:00 AM Updated Jun 21, 2024 | 10:00 AM

HD Kumaraswamy reportedly promised the people of Sandur in 2018 that mining activities would not be allowed in a three-kilometer radius of the Kumaraswamy temple. (Bommanna Yadav/Wikimedia Commons)

Union Minister for Steel and Heavy Industries HD Kumaraswamy has found himself at the centre of a contentious debate after approving a mining lease favouring the Kudremukh Iron Ore Company Limited (KIOCL).

The KIOCL had applied for mining 401 hectares of pristine forest area at Sandur in Karnataka’s Ballari district. The area falls under the Swamymalia block of Deodar village.

The approval drew criticism from environmentalists, local activists, and the state Forest Department. They said the decision contradicted an earlier promise of protecting the region from significant environmental degradation.

The Forest Department’s detailed report highlighted the potential ecological damage, including the uprooting of over 99,000 trees and the disruption of local wildlife habitats. It also opposed handing over the proposed forest land for mining.

However, Kumaraswamy justified the clearance issued on 18 June, saying it was a procedural continuation of a decision made in 2017. He added that the state government had approved the project.

Activists and environmentalists are firm in waging a legal battle to conserve Sandur’s rich flora and fauna.

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A broken promise

Sources said another proposal for leasing around 60 hectares of forest land Bhadravati’s Visvesvaraya Iron and Steel Plant (VISL) at Ramalai block in Sandur’s Ramanadurga range is under consideration. If approved, another 29,000 trees will have to be axed.

Samaj Parivartana Samudaya (SPS) founding president and activist SR Hiremath told South First that Kumaraswamy had promised the people of Sandur in 2018 that mining activities would not be allowed in a 3-km radius of the Kumaraswamy temple.

“Strangely, he approved the mining activity in the Swamymalai block,” he said.

Hiremath said the permission was granted without conducting a detailed study and forgetting the former chief minister’s promise.

“The SPS filed a petition before the apex court opposing the leasing of forest areas for mining activities. The court issued an order to be considered by the governments in such cases on 14 March 2024. We will continue to fight,” he said.

However, Kumaraswamy said he had done nothing new.

“The Union Ministry had cleared the file in 2017 itself. It came for my signature after completing all the procedures,” he told reporters in Hubballi on 18 June.

Reiterating that he had only signed the approved proposal, Kumaraswamy tried to allay fears of environmental degradation. There is no need for concern about mining majorly impacting the environment,” he said.

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Ignored warning

Incidentally, the Forest Department’s objection was ignored while granting permission to lease out the land.

Ballari’s Deputy Conservators of Forest (DCF) conducted a spot inspection of the proposed site in 2019. On 10 October 2014, the forest department submitted a report to the state government.

“The proposed forest land is not part of a national park, wildlife sanctuary, biosphere reserve, tiger reserve, elephant corridor, etc.,” the report noted. “However, the proposed area is 19.22 km from the Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary, 17.52 km from the eco-sensitive zone, and 14.04 km from the Gudekote Sloth Bear Sanctuary.”

The report, accessed by South First, then issued a warning. “It was found that around 99,330 trees have to be uprooted to pave the way for the mining activity. Felling 99,330 trees would negatively affect the local flora, fauna, and other environmental resources.”

It further highlighted the negative impact. “Therefore, the approval for new mining activities in this 484.0733-hectare fresh virgin forest area would lead to severe soil erosion, destruction of stream water resources and thus cause serious environmental damages.”

“This new mining project in a fresh virgin forest area would destroy the local streams, change the local weather pattern, and may lead to ecosystem imbalance. The new mining proposal would ultimately endanger the water security and livelihood security of the local people,” the report said.

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Exploitation of resource

The department also referred to a 28 March 2016 meeting chaired by Karnataka’s Principal Chief Conservator of Forest. The meeting decided against granting or approving a new mining lease in the fresh forest areas in the Swamymalia block.

The report further noted that the mining exceeded the permissible 28 million metric tonnes (MMT) annually. “At present, the production capacity of all the existing mines (A and B category) is pegged at 53.59MMT,” it said.

Reiterating that recommending and approving a new mining lease in the fresh virgin forest area cannot be justified since it causes serious and irreparable damage, the Forest Department said in its report that “this project should not be accepted or considered for approval under Forest Conservation Act, 1980”.

Sources in the department said the state government prepared another special report and approved leasing out the land to KIOCL in 2020. The central Ministry for Environment, Forest and Climate Change approved the project in 2022.

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Greens take up cudgels

The Sandur forest, spread over 30,000 hectares, is home to several Scheduled-I animals such as four-horned antelopes, sloth bears, and leopards.

“The proposed site is dense, virgin forest. The government cannot permit mining activities in areas that are home to Schedule-I animals. It is a breeding ground for these wild animals,” an environmentalist said on the condition of anonymity.

“We are aware that mining is inevitable. However, the government must work towards sustainable mining activity instead of causing serious threats to the rich biodiversity. We strongly oppose this decision by the Union government,” he said.

“As per the new norms, the government compensates by allotting alternative sites to develop forests. However, one must understand that the approved forest area is natural and it cannot be regenerated again, irrespective of the site the government may provide,” he added.

“The existing forest holds significant value in balancing climate. The government must work towards conserving the forest and wildlife instead of destroying it. There are several ‘C’ category defunct mines. Why can’t they provide it to KIOCL,” he wondered.

Sandur resident and SPS member Sreeshaila Aladalli said the climate has already changed in the region with temperatures soaring to 42 degrees Celsius during summer. “If the KIOCL takes up the mining activity, then it will further increase mercury levels,” he said.

“This will have a huge impact on the climate in Sandur and Ballari. The Union ministers work in air-conditioned offices and approve such projects. Have they ever thought about the common people? Why can’t they provide defunct C category mines to KIOCL instead of handing over virgin forest area,” Aladalli asked.

He further pointed out that a writ petition has been filed before the Karnataka High Court against the Union government’s proposal to lease out the forest area for mining to KIOCL in 2021.

“The court is still hearing the matter. We will fight until justice is served,” he added.

(Edited by Majnu Babu).

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