99,000 trees in Sandur forest to face axe

Forest department opposed move to dig up area for mining.
Last Updated : 16 June 2024, 20:37 IST

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Bengaluru: Ballari's Sandur is set to lose 992 acres of virgin forest for mining amid opposition from the Forest Department, public outcry and a case pending before the High Court of Karnataka for nearly three years.

The project proposed by the Kudremukh Iron Ore Company (KIOCL), which DH wrote about on April 19, 2021, has come to the limelight after Union Heavy Industries and Steel Minister H D Kumaraswamy approved it, essentially giving a green signal for operationalising the mine.

Activists said the development is another blow to the mining-ravaged region and a reflection of the prioritisation of profits over conservation and public health.

Virgin forest areas are old growth forests that have remained untouched by humans. Following a ground survey, forest officers had put the number of trees in the 992 acres at 99,000, including "300 types of medicinal plants".

Between June 2019 and February 2020, the proposal to dig up the hilly forest region to mine iron and manganese ore was rejected by the Forest Department at four levels, starting from the Deputy Conservator of Forests to the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF, Head of Forest Force).

In fact, the sheer scale of destruction of forests had prompted then PCCF Punati Sridhar to write to the government in August 2019 "not to consider fresh forest areas for mining purpose till detailed exercise is undertaken in the state for mapping the mineral resources within and outside forest area" and to prioritise exploitation of minerals outside forest areas.

Sridhar noted that loss of the 992 acres of forest on the hill ridge would cause severe soil erosion and will have a negative effect locally. "About 8,000 hectares (20,000 acres) of the 32,000 hectares of Sandur's forest area have already been leased out and broken open for iron ore mining. It may not be advisable for the time being to approve for diversion of such forests for mining," he said.

However, the state government overruled the department's objections and recommended the project. The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) gave final approval in 2022 after its regional officer opined that allowing the project "will be less imposing and less destructive" as there were other mining projects in the vicinity.

The approval came amid a pending case in the Karnataka High Court. The court took up a case against the in-principle approval given to the project. "We make it clear that further steps taken on the basis of Annexures-A and A1 (stage 1 clearance) shall be subject to further orders passed in this petition," a bench of A S Oka and N S Sanjay Gowda had said on July 29, 2021.

The KIOCL had stated that the delay in the operationalisation of the company had led to problems, a statement echoed by the new Kumaraswamy. He further sought to clarify that the 90,000 trees will not be cut down immediately but over time in the next 50 years.

As per the year-wise land use plan submitted by the KIOCL, the first five years of the project will involve clearing 21,259 trees in 293 acres. The company has been told to come up with a plan to conserve the wildlife affected by the clearing of trees. So far, the company has deposited Rs 147 crore towards conservation and agreed to pay for 1,984.63 acres of degraded land to be turned into a forest.

In Sandur, which bore the brunt of illegal mining for a decade, many people are opposed to further mining projects. "We have lost most of our greenery and what we have got is serious health issues caused by the pollution left behind by the mining lobbies. Legal or not, mining should stop to allow us to breathe," said Srishaila Aladahalli, an activist in Sandur.

Published 16 June 2024, 20:37 IST

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