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Why is Madhya Pradesh Government Ignoring Ecological Concerns for a Diamond Mining Project?

Ayaskant Das |
The state government had sent a proposal to MoEF&CC for the project’s forest clearance just ahead of a tripartite agreement on the controversial Ken-Betwa Linking Project; the Forest Advisory Committee of MoEF&CC has withheld the clearance.

New Delhi: Is the Madhya Pradesh (MP) government putting ecological concerns on the backburner in pushing forward with Aditya Birla Group's diamond mining project in the dense forests of Buxwaha in the Bundelkhand region?

An expert body under the Union Ministry of Environment Forests & Climate Change (MoEF&CC) has questioned the state government for proposing to clear forestland for the project without considering the potential impact on water availability in the drought-prone region.

In its latest meeting, the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC), which conducts appraisals of industrial projects over forestland, has deferred a proposal by Aditya Birla Group subsidiary Essel Mining and Industries Limited to divert approximately 382 hectares of forestland for the diamond mining project in Chhatarpur district's Buxwaha region.

Chhatarpur is one of the 13 districts of the water-scarce Bundelkhand region.

"The project involves diversion of the course of a stream and creation of a water body, which may adversely affect the watershed and the flow of water downstream, thereby affecting the biodiversity as well as the effectiveness of the Ken-Betwa link project. The State Govt. shall examine whether the ecological impact of diversion of stream and creation of water body has been taken into account or not? A detailed report in this regard shall be submitted," the FAC recommended in a meeting held on March 31.

To reduce water scarcity in Bundelkhand, the Central government entered into an agreement with the state governments of MP and Uttar Pradesh in March 2021 for the development of the ambitious Ken-Betwa River interlinking project. The Modi government has claimed that this project is expected to provide annual irrigation to about 10.62 lakh hectares of land besides enabling drinking water supply to roughly 62 lakh people and generating 103 Mega Watts (MW) of hydropower.

But, conservationists, as well as the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) of the Supreme Court of India, have criticised the river interlinking project because it will cause widespread ecological devastation in the region. The Supreme Court is yet to decide on the matter following the submission of the CEC's report, even though the Central government has already cleared approximately Rs 45,000 crore for the project.

Even as talks were underway for the tripartite agreement, the BJP-led MP government, headed by Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, sent a proposal to the Central government in February 2021, seeking prior approval of the MoEF&CC to clear 382.131 hectares of forestland for the diamond mining project.

The project, which involves chopping down roughly 2.16 lakh trees, was thereafter also recommended for clearance by the regional office of the MoEF&CC in Bhopal, MP, in July 2021.

Apart from chopping trees to remove topsoil to extract diamonds, the project proponent will also use more than 200 hectares of forestland for dumping waste generated during mining activities. The state government has further not justified why it has agreed to a proposal to use a large swathe of forestland for dumping waste.

"… Out of the total forest land involved, an area of 138.31 ha is proposed for side burden and waste dump, and another 66.34 ha is to be used as Tailing Dump. The State Govt. has not provided enough justification for using a large chunk of forest area for dumping," the FAC further noted.

Experts believe that diverting a large chunk of forestland, as envisaged for the diamond mining project, would severely deplete groundwater levels in the region besides affecting rainfall patterns.

"The larger question that involves this project is its impact on climate change because it is located in a water-starved region. The role of trees in carbon capture is far greater than the ornamental value of diamonds. Traditional assessments, including environmental impact or social impact of large projects, are passe. Assessments should be conducted on climate change impact of the project," said Manoj Misra, a former Indian Forest Service (IFS) officer who is now the convener of NGO Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan.

The eagerness of the MP government to provide forest clearance comes in the teeth of various environmental and ecological issues encompassing the project.

The proposed mining area is not only located at a distance of around 20 kilometres from the Panna Tiger Reserve, but it also falls within a radius of fewer than 100 kilometres from the Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary and the Veerangana Durgawati Wildlife Sanctuary. The presence of tigers and leopards in the area has been confirmed by the forest department in the past. The Ken-Betwa Link Project is expected to submerge around 90 square kilometres of area in the region, including a significant portion of the Panna Tiger Reserve, in lieu of which a landscape management plan is being developed by the Wildlife Institute of India.

The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), a statutory body engaged in the conservation of the tiger population in the country, has stated the following during its assessment of the diamond mining project.

"The mining area falls within the landscape delineated in the draft plan with high biodiversity richness. Any loss in the landscape should only be considered as cumulative, adding to the area being lost to the Ken-Betwa river interlinking project."

The tiger conservation body has also drawn attention to a recommendation issued by the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) to prohibit granting any new mining lease in the landscape, considering its significance in permitting tiger dispersal. The NBWL had issued the recommendation to bar any new mining project in the area in a meeting held on August 23, 2016, based on a site inspection report by an expert panel constituted to consider the wildlife clearance proposal of the Ken-Betwa Linking Project.

"To protect the small landscape of PTR [Panna Tiger Reserve] and its surrounding areas and also to reduce sedimentation in the reservoir and maintain water flow in the Ken River, there should be no destructive activities, including mining in the Ecologically Sensitive Zone and catchment area of the river. New industrial development or mining or expansion of the existing mining in and around the landscape would seriously compromise the scope for tiger's survival in Panna Tiger Reserve," NBWL's standing committee had noted in the minutes of its meeting.

The parcel of forestland over which the diamond mining project is being sought to be developed is part of a larger plot of land that had once been allotted to the global mining firm Rio Tinto to extract diamonds. The Anglo-Australian firm had sought clearance of 971.595 hectares of forestland for the project – that was to be undertaken through its India arm Rio Tinto Exploration and Mining (India) Private Limited – after signing a state support agreement in the year 2010 with the then BJP-led MP government which was incidentally also headed by Chouhan.

Rio Tinto abandoned the project in 2016 following uncertainty over forest clearance from the Central government. In response to the MP government's proposal to the Central government to allow the diversion of 971.595 hectares of forestland in favour of Rio Tinto, the MoEF&CC had recommended that the diamond mining project may be taken up only after the finalisation of the Ken-Betwa Link Project.

In a letter dated August 10, 2016, the MoEF&CC had written to the then MP government headed by Chouhan, saying, "As per NTCA report, the project can potentially disrupt the landscape character vis-a-vis tiger dispersal around Panna landscape as such this may be taken only when Ken Betwa link project is finalised as well as a detailed study was done to assess other alternatives."

The MoEF&CC had further told the MP government, through the aforementioned letter, that the proposal of mining diamonds through "surface extraction" would not only entail a huge diversion of forestland but would also result in permanent damage to high-quality forest areas. The ministry had asked the project proponent to consider alternatives like underground mining.

Yet, barely a year after Chouhan reassumed power in March 2020, the MP government again pushed for a proposal to carry out surface mining of diamonds in Buxwaha even as the Ken-Betwa Interlink Project awaits finalisation. In its latest meeting on March 31, the FAC has asked the MP government to update it on the status of the river interlinking project.

Separate questionnaires were emailed on behalf of NewsClick to MP's forest department and the project proponent, respectively, asking, amongst other queries, what alternatives were considered before zeroing down upon the procedure of surface mining to extract diamonds from the project site. No response had been received at the time that this article was published. This article will be updated as and when we receive responses to the queries.

The project has run into a legal tangle with the National Green Tribunal issuing an interim stay last year on chopping of trees in the region until forest clearance is approved. On June 30, 2021, a bench of the Central Zone of the tribunal comprising judicial member Justice Sheo Kumar Singh and expert member Dr Arun Kumar Verma imposed the interim stay based on a petition alleging that clearing a large swathe of forestland for the project would result in largescale adverse environmental impacts in the region.

Further, the MP High Court has also issued an order prohibiting mining activities in Buxwaha – except with the explicit permission of the Court – following a petition filed by a Jabalpur-based NGO that the project site is located in an area rich in Stone Age relics including ancient paintings dating as far back as 25,000 years.

The order was issued on October 26, 2021, by a division bench of the High Court comprising Chief Justice Ravi Malimath and Justice Vijay Kumar Shukla.

Aditya Birla Group had won the bid for the mine – with reserves of around 34.30 million carats of diamond and locally referred to as the 'Bunder Mine' because of the presence of a large number of monkeys in the region – following a tightly contested bidding battle in December 2019. The bid had been floated by the short-lived Kamal Nath-led Congress government in MP.

Though the government had fixed an offset price of Rs 56,000 crore for the mine, it rose by 11.5% eventually because the topmost industrial houses of the country participated in the bid. Less than three months after the bid award, the Congress was reduced to a minority in the MP state Legislative Assembly following the resignation of 22 MLAs, thereby leading to the collapse of the Kamal Nath government.

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