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DH Impact | Karnataka forest minister Khandre pauses project to axe 99,000 trees in Ballari's Sandur

The minister issued directions to hold the transfer of the land 'in view of the complaints over the KIOCL's failure to comply' with the CEC directions over the violations in the Kudremukh National Park.
Last Updated : 22 June 2024, 14:28 IST

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Bengaluru: Days after a row over felling of 99000 trees in Ballari's Sandur, Forest, Ecology and Environment Minister Eshwar Khandre on Saturday ordered his department not to hand over the 992 acre forest to the Kudremukh Iron Ore Company Limited (KIOCL).

Read the full story on Sandur forest issue here

The minister conducted a meeting to review the project where he was briefed about the complaints against the KIOCL. The minister issued directions to hold the transfer of the land "in view of the complaints over the KIOCL's failure to comply" with the CEC directions over the violations in the Kudremukh National Park.

"It is hereby directed to issue necessary instructions to the officials concerned (Deputy Coservator of Forest, Ballari) not to execute the contract agreement for diversion of the forest and not to handover the forest," the minister said in a letter to Additional Chief Secretary, Forest, Ecology and Environment Department.

The KIOCL, a central public sector unit, was dragged to the Supreme Court with allegations that mining activities were continued in the Kudremukh National Park in the Western Ghats despite the orders passed by the court in 1996 and 2000. Particularly damning were the allegations of polluting Bhadra river with the open cast mining. The CEC looked into the matter and made several recommendations. The KIOCL has now been accused of not following the CEC directions.

The project put on hold was proposed by KIOCL in 2018 sought 401.5761 hectare (992.31 acre) of Devadari forest in Swamimalai Block, Sandur. The entire mining activity clearing 99000 trees, of which 21,259 on 292 acres would be cleared in the first five years. Officials have estimated 300 species of medicinal plants in the forest and recorded leopards, sloth bear, antelope and other animals along with several species of birds in the area.

Interestingly, the Forest Department -- from the deputy conservator of forest to the principal chief conservator of forest -- had advised the government against the project. The state government in October 2020 overruled the department and approved it. Subsequently, the project got final (Stage 2) clearance from the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) in December 2022.

In April 2021, DH wrote about the environmental impact of the project in an area already ravaged by mining. Earlier this month, Union Minister for Steel and Heavy Industries H D Kumaraswamy approved the KIOCL's file for operationalisation of the mining, giving push to the project. The approval saw opposition from activists on the ground and led to an online petition which was signed by over 4000 people.

As per the procedure, the clearance will allow the KIOCL to seek diversion of land. However, with the minister giving clear instructions to not to divert the forest, the rich biodiversity of the forest has got an interim relief.

The large-scale tree felling has evoked a strong opposition from the residents of Sandur, reeling under the pollution caused by the mining which have failed to provide better living conditions. Over the last one week, the government had faced criticism from people across the state for its decision to allow cutting of trees at a time the state has been facing repeated incidents of heatwaves and floods.

Govt fails to recover Rs 139.15 cr penalty

The state government failed to recover Rs 139.15 crore penalty imposed on KIOCL for violations.

The penalty was imposed on KIOCL for illegal submergence of 340 hectare (840.15 acre) of forest in the Western Ghats. Between 1990 and 1995, the company increased the level of the Lakya reservoir from 75 metres to 100 metres, which led to the submergence.

The company challenged the penalty before the High Court of Karnataka, which allowed its petition in March 2004. However, delay at all stages -- from taking legal opinion to filing of the special leave petition -- led to the Supreme Court rejecting the government's appeal.

"Failure to execute work with due diligence and delay at every level led ot the Supreme Court rejecting the application. Officials concerned at each level are responsible for the failure to recover Rs 139 crore," the Public Accounts Committee said in its report placed before the the Vidhana Parishath in 2009.

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Published 22 June 2024, 14:28 IST

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