Hope for 1 lakh trees: Karnataka says no to leasing Sandur forest land for mining after Union minister nod

The Karnataka government has ordered the Forest Department not to hand over the 401.57 hectares of virgin forest in Sandur to KIOCL.

BySouth First Desk

Published Jun 22, 2024 | 9:32 PM Updated Jun 22, 2024 | 9:32 PM

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)

The Karnataka government has denied approving the handing over of 401.57 hectares of forest land in Ballari to Kudremukh Iron Ore Company Limited (KIOCL) for mining purposes.

Minister for Forest Eshwar Khandre in the Siddaramaiah-led Congress government issued the clarification after Union Minister for Steel and Heavy Industries HD Kumaraswamy gave the Centre’s approval to lease the virgin land to KIOCL on 18 June.

Following an uproar over granting the permission, Kumaraswamy said it was a procedural continuation of a decision made in 2017. He added that the state government had approved the project.

Now, state Minister Khandre directed officials not to hand over the 401.57 hectares of virgin forest in Swamymalai block near Devadari Hills in Sandur to KIOCL for mining, a statement the Forest Department issued on Friday, 21 June, said.

Also Read: Conservationists term Forest Conservation Amendment Bill ‘biggest tool for forest destruction’

Broken promise

Complaints were received that KIOCL had failed to fully implement directions of the Central Empowered Committee for mining lapses/violations of the Forest Act in the past in Kudremukh National Park within the stipulated timeframe, the release added.

Kumaraswamy’s approval of the lease had drawn 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.

South First has reported the lease agreement meant a death warrant to about one lakh trees.

Forest Department opposes lease deal

Incidentally, the Forest Department has been opposed to leasing the land for mining.

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.

Also Read: Calls to ‘Save Kodagu’ grow louder

Did BJP govt approve leasing land?

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 Swamymalai 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”.

Incidentally, sources in the department told South First that the state government had prepared another special report and approved leasing the land to KIOCL in 2020. BS Yediyurappa-led BJP government was then in power in Karnataka.

The central Ministry for Environment, Forest and Climate Change approved the project in 2022.

Conservation is key

Opposing the lease agreement, environmentalists said the Sadur forest is home to several flora and fauna.

Saying that the existing forest held significant value in balancing climate, they demanded the to conserving the forest and wildlife instead of destroying it. They wondered why the government was not handing over several ‘C’ category defunct mines to KIOCL.

Environmentalists have moved the High Court of Karnataka against the Union government’s move to lease the forest area for mining to KIOCL in 2021. The case is still pending.

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