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Modi Govt. Allows Forest Diversion for Jindal Group’s Chromite Project in Odisha’s Highly-Polluted Mining Belt

FAC takes cognizance of illegal mining but clears proposal; case pending on the project in Odisha High Court
Jindal Stainless

New Delhi: The Modi government has allowed multi-billionaire Jindal Group to divert forest land for a chromite-mining project whose operations were halted three years ago, allegedly on the grounds of illegality, following a direction of the Odisha High Court. The forest clearance has been granted at a time when not only is a case on the project pending in court, it also comes ahead of the Odisha government’s decision to extend the lease period in favour of the Jindals.

The chromite mining project belonging to Ratan Jindal-owned Jindal Stainless is located in the highly-polluted Sukinda mining belt in the Jajpur district of Odisha. A proposal to divert 66.20 hectares of forest land for the project was cleared by the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC), an expert panel under the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) that carries out the appraisal of infrastructure projects over forest land, in a meeting held on February 21.

The FAC took cognisance of illegal mining activities at the site between 2015 and 2019 but granted forest clearance, nevertheless, to the project proponent even as the case is pending disposal.

“Mining operations were stopped from December 2019 onwards. Mining operations carried out during the period of 2015 to 2019 amount to a violation of provisions of guidelines issued under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 and accordingly, the user agency is liable to pay penal NPV [Net Present Value] in lieu of violation committed for the said period,” state the minutes of the FAC meeting.

The Odisha government had informed the ministry that the project against which forest clearance had been sought was a “subsisting non-working mine”. It was further informed that extension of the validity of its lease for a period of 50 years, with effect from the grant of original mining lease, up to January 2052, was under the consideration of Odisha’s Steel & Mines Department. However, the FAC recommended the Odisha government to clear the proposal subject to the fact that the project proponent paid up the penalties (appropriate penal NPV) on account of mining operations carried out on 66.20 hectares of forest land between 2015 and 2019 without prior approval of the Central government.

The FAC recommendation has been termed as peculiar by experts in the light of the pending high court case. Questions have also been raised on the manner in which the project proponent carried out mining operations despite a stay order in place.

“Despite a stay order upon mining operations, the private company continued with the extraction of minerals for more than four years which is a gross violation of law and tantamount to contempt of court orders. It appears the project proponent pulled a lot of strings with the state mining department to continue with the extraction of minerals despite being prohibited. The penalty orders passed by the FAC can be paid by the project proponent, but logically approval for diversion of forest land cannot be granted when the matter is sub judice. Further, the project proponent cannot legally commence mining operations until the matter is completely adjudicated and the ban or prohibition is lifted,” said Rebbapragada Ravi of mines, minerals & PEOPLE (mm&P), an alliance of individuals and communities affected by mining.

Notwithstanding the stay order on mining operations at the project site, the FAC has further stipulated a condition in the minutes of its meeting that relief, if any, granted by the high court in terms of penal NPV will be adjusted accordingly from the project proponent in future.

Jindal Stainless had not obtained prior clearance from the Central government before going ahead with the mining project. In 2016, the mining firm had challenged the notification of the MoEF&CC whereby a prior clearance from the Central government is required before diverting forest land for non-forest purposes “within” a mining lease area. The Central government had, through this notification, made prior approval of the MoEF&CC mandatory for areas within mining leases that were recorded as “forest land” in revenue records but by a peculiar practice were considered as “non-forest land” while processing proposals for extracting minerals. In an interim order issued on March 4 2016, the high court directed for the status quo to be maintained on the operation of mines till March 10. On August 2, 2016, thereafter, Jindal Stainless submitted a proposal with the MoEF&CC demanding clearance against 66.20 hectares of forest land from within the mining lease area.

The high court, subsequently, in another order issued on December 3 2019, directed that the status quo be maintained till December 17. There has been no hearing of the case thereafter. 

A detailed questionnaire has been emailed to Jindal Stainless on behalf of NewsClick, asking, amongst other queries, why the company chose to seek forest clearance from the Central government when the matter is pending in high court. It was also asked what steps, if at all, were taken by the company to ensure speedy disposal of the case in the high court. No responses were received from the company officials when this report was published. This report will be updated as and when we receive any responses.

The decision of the Modi government to accord forest clearance to the project has been criticised not only because it comes in the teeth of a restraint order by the judiciary. It has also been criticised on environmental grounds because Sukinda, where the mining project is located, is one of the most polluted places on planet Earth. The US-based Blacksmith Institute had, in a report released in September 2007, rated Sukinda as the fourth most polluted place on planet Earth because of the overwhelming amount of hexavalent chromium in the air and water of the region.

The mining lease area is located in the catchment area of the Brahmani, a major seasonal river flowing in Odisha.

“About 15 tributaries, including Damasala Nala, carry the chromite waste into Brahmani. The Nala and river waters contain unsafe levels of hexavalent chromium, a carcinogenic chemical. I am surprised that the Forest Advisory Committee makes no mention of the fact that the forest area in question is a part of the catchment,” retired bureaucrat EAS Sarma, a former Energy Advisor in the Planning Commission of India, told NewsClick.

India accounts for about 2% of the world’s chromite reserves. Out of this, Odisha accounts for nearly 97% of the reserves, most of which is concentrated in the Sukinda area. Numerous reports have thrown light on how hexavalent chromium, a carcinogenic form of the chemical element, has been causing adverse impacts on the health of local communities, many of them belonging to the Scheduled Tribe of the Sukinda area. The presence of hexavalent chromium in the environment of Sukinda has been attributed to industrial activities. Its generation is traced to industrial oxidation of mined chromium deposits, as per a report prepared by the Indian Bureau of Mines.

High levels of the carcinogenic element that have entered water sources of the Sukinda area have resulted in gastrointestinal diseases amongst the local population apart from causing permanent damages to the skin and eyes.

The pre-feasibility report of the project itself lists 15 Nalas (streams) in close proximity to the mining lease area. The entire mining lease area of 89 hectares is located within the Mahagiri Protected Forest, out of which the project proponent has now been allowed to clear 66.20 hectares. 

“The fact that Jindal Stainless continued to violate the Forest Conservation Act without prior clearance should have been a valid ground for rejecting the proposal. The prime task of the Forest Advisory Committee is to protect forests with their flora and fauna, not condone the private company. The forest wealth lost, if valued from its social benefits point of view, would outweigh the social costs of chromite mining. Chromite is a limited mineral, over-exploitation of which is against national interest,” added Sarma.

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