December is always a time of closure. Whether one works by the financial or academic year, the month signals the end of another chapter in history, in our lives, in the world around us. So too, this year, December is set to bring the departure of the Kudremukh Iron Ore Company Limited (KIOCL) from one of the most stunning and most disputed landscapes in Karnataka.

Granted permissions and a 30-year lease in 1969, KIOCL took over 3703 hectares of forest land in the western ghats of southern Karnataka to extract iron ore, entirely meant for export. On 25 July 1999 the company’s lease ended, but operations did not. Functioning under a “temporary working permission” granted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the company continued its mining operations, until a petition in the Supreme Court sought to put an end to it all.

Remote sensing imagery had also shown that in the period between 1999 and 2002, after the lease had expired, KIOCL had opened up a further 56 hectares of land in total contravention of existing laws.

 •  Supreme Court rules forests
 •  T N Godavarman vs Union of India

In 1987 the wealth of biodiversity that is Kudremukha received a first notification towards being declared a National Park. That brought the area under the purview of the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972, which disallows any non-forestry operations, including mining, within a protected area. In consideration of the lease granted two decades earlier, the company was able to continue functioning until 1999. The lease expiry date came and went, but iron ore continued to be extracted from the shola-grassland heart of Kudremukha. When there seemed to be no indication that the company would end mining, and when appeals to the government not renew the lease proved unsuccessful, K M Chinnappa, a retired Forest Officer and Trustee of the NGO Wildlife First!, filed an Interlocutory Application (IA) with the Supreme Court in 2001 in the momentous Godavarman Thirumalpad vs. Union of India case. Chinnappa appealed for the mines to be closed and the leased areas to be included in the National Park.

A nearly two-year long court battle ensued, during which the defense produced evidence establishing lasting damage not only to environmental of the Kudremukha region, but to the Bhadra river and reservoirs, to agricultural land downstream, resulting from mining operations. Millions of farmers dependent on the river were in peril due to the impact of sediment from the mines brought down through the river. Remote sensing imagery had also shown in the period between 1999 and 2002, after the lease had expired, KIOCL had opened up a further 56 hectares of land in total contravention of existing laws. The Comptroller and Auditor General estimated environmental damage from this unauthorized land use to be Rs 19.33 crores (1 crore = 10 million).

In a ground-breaking judgement delivered on 30 October 2002, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court comprising Chief Justice B N Kirpal, Justice Y K Sabharwal and Justice Arijit Pasayat, ordered all mining operations to cease and recommended that the company make its departure from the area by December 2005. The apex court had also constituted a Monitoring Committee (MC) to oversee the closure proceedings.

Earlier, in May 2002, the Supreme Court had instituted a Central Empowered Committee (CEC) as part of a ruling on the Godavarman case. All interlocutory applications (IAs) under the Godavarman case were to be referred to the CEC. The CEC was later notified as a statutory committee under the Environment (Protection) Act. The judgement and proceedings of the case against KIOCL had drawn heavily on the recommendations of the CEC which had visited and examined the mine site.

Supreme Court ruling, 2002

"Duty is cast upon the Government under Article 21 of the Constitution of India to protect the environment and the two salutary principles which govern the law of the environment are: (i) the principles of sustainable development and (ii) the precautionary principle."

"Sustainable development is essentially a policy and strategy for continued economic and social development without detriment to the environment and natural resources on the quality of which continued activity and further development depend."

 •  Copy of SC's 2002 ruling (PDF)