'White Elephant' in a Green Forest
Leo F. Saldanha, Manu Mathai, Bhargavi S. Rao and Robert John
Environment Support Group©
Today we are at a very crucial juncture, a time when the future of the Kudremukh National Park (KNP) hangs in balance. The immediate threat to KNP is in the form of a mining leasethat Kudremukh Iron Ore Company Ltd. (KIOCL) seeks from the government, to continue and extend its mining operations for 20 years more, commencing July 2000.
KIOCL has been mining in the Aroli and Malleshwara regions of Kudremukh National Park, based ona 30 mining lease, originally granted to National Minerals Development Corporation (NMDC), and which expired in July 1999. During which time the company mounted a vigorous campaign to get a 20-year extension of the lease.
When the lease came up for renewal last year, Environment Support Group, Kalpavriksh - Environment Action Group and various groups and individuals from India and abroad pressurised the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) not to extend the lease, instead urging the Ministry to ban mining in Kudremukh.
This pressure met with some success, for MoEF provided a year's temporary extension, as opposed to a two year extension recommended by the Karnataka Government. A significant condition of the temporary extension was that KIOCL would have to commission detailed environmental and wildlife impact studies within the year, and any future lease extension would be subject to the findings of these studies. The State Government, for its part, was also required to finalise the notification of the Kudremukh National Park, again within the year.
The present impasse is the direct result of last year's pressure campaign. As time approaches close to reviewing the KIOCL application for further extension, i.e. on 16 July 2000, we have no credible reason to believe that the mandated impact assessments have been initiated. Even if they are submitted covertly, it is probably a theoretical exercise without any detailed ground study, for no such assessment has taken place in Kudremukh during the past year. In any case it is difficult to imagine a possibility of the consultants making a case for mining in the Kudremukh forests, without appearing to be removed from reality, especially given the devastating impact mining operations have had on the Kudremukh and neighbouring forests over the past three decades.
High Level Pressure supporting KIOCL
KIOCL has reportedly been exerting enormous pressure to get the mining lease extended. Mr. N. K. Singh, Secretary to the Prime Minister has in his letter dated31 March 2000 to Mr. B. K. Bhattacharya, Chief Secretary, Government of Karnataka, has stated that "the future growth of KIOCL is inextricably linked to the decision to extend the existing mining lease at Kudremukh and grant of new lease in the adjoiningareas" and thus requests that the State Government should:
i. "Expeditiously conclude the process of final notification of the Kudremukh National Park, and exclude all the survey numbers held by KIOCL, under mining lease from the Kudremukh National Park area;
This even as Mr. Singh confirms per last year's temporary extension that the Company is required to "get an EIA/EMP assessment made and the impact of mining operations on the flora and fauna studied by a reputed institute. Pending submission of reports by these agencies, the company be given a Work Permit to continue its mining operations for a period of one year". Mr. Singh's letter, thus, would amount to wholesome interference and exertion of unnecessary pressure aimed at affecting the due process of decision making in order to promote the interest of KIOCL alone. Not only is such pressure unwarranted but is patently illegal.
It is in this context that we wish to recall that Mr. S. K. Chakravarthy, Chief Wildlife Warden (CWW) of the Karnataka Forest Department opposed the extension last year. However, he was overruled by Mr. Adappa, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and as well Mr. Nagaraja Shetty, Principal Secretary of the Karnataka Environment Department, who collectively recommended a two year extension of the lease while presenting the files to the Centre for approval.
The Chief Wildlife Warden's opinion is binding on the matter, as s/he is the singular authority to decide any activity within a National Park as per the Indian Wildlife Act. Here againthe rider here is such that only that activity could be allowed by the CWW, which will further advance the protection of the protected forest. In case of de-notification it can only be by way of legislative action.
Imperatives for the Extension
Whenthe extension application of KIOCL comes up for renewal in a week's time, a whole range of factors will have to be weighed. The studies required per last year's extension conditions would form the fundamental basis for the review. Further, the implications of such renewal being violative of the letter and spirit of the Wildlife Protection Act, the oft repeated commitments to protecting the Western Ghats region from commercial exploitation, and the directions of the Supreme Court to protect forests from non-forestry activities, particularly mining, will have to guide this crucial decision. Yet, most of the conditions of last year's extension remain in a state of non-compliance today.
It is rumoured that the EIA required per last year's temporary extension conditions is said to have been submitted by National Environmental Engineering Institute (NEERI) to the State Government, and is apparently the basis upon which the extension is being proposed. Incidentally, no extensive ground verification, data collection or public consultation seems to have marked the preparation of this EIA. This even as the studies about the impact of mining on flora and fauna, pertaining to another requirement of last year's temporary extension, is yet to be initiated by the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science.
Despite such serious violations of last year's temporary extension conditions, that high levels of political and bureaucratic pressure are being mobilised favouring KIOCL's case, is a matter of grave concern. In circumstances of high levels of complicity to destroy such rare forests, it is imperative for informed public opinion to prevail against sustaining this most retrograde and illegal act. As it stands, such public action is probably the onlyhope for Kudremukh National Park to have a chance of survival against mining.
Environmental Compliance Record of the Company
It is difficult to make an accurate statement about the environmental impacts of over 25 years of mining by KIOCL on the Kudremukh forests, the Bhadra river, the Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary (a Project Tiger Reserve that is downstream) and the agricultural productivity and health of the people downstream. This is because both KIOCL and the regulatory agencies have been extremely secretive with their environmental information. Per the Water and Air Acts, and the Environmental Protection Act, the company is required to monitor the impacts and share this information publicly. Such a practice has never marked KIOCL's corporate behaviour, an attitude strengthened by the lackadaisical review of pollution impacts by the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) and MoEF. In a rare event of monitoring, the KSPCB has been content with just measuring the iron content in Bhadra water!
The Karnataka State Forest Department (KFD) has been equally lax in monitoring the impacts of mining on the forests. For very long the blasting operations continued throughout the day, disturbing and scaring away wildlife. It was only after locals protested that blasting was relegated to day hours. KFD's complete failure to regulate KIOCL's operations is best evidenced in the Nellibeedu episode, where the company violated every condition of the highly questionable prospecting license that the State had accorded it in 1994. Over 40 kms of roads were constructed in preparing to expand mining operations and several wells drilled all over the Nellibeedu area of Kudremukh National Park in abject violation of the Wildlife Act. The consequence of this over the years has been quite devastating causing several landslides, and the drilling has interfered with flow of mountain springs. The Department could have initiated penal action in this case, as it should have also with regard to the illegal increase of the height of the Lakya Dam that resulted in the submergence of a large area of "shola" forests. However, no effective action has followed till date. Whenever corrective action has been initiated by some diligent officers, it has been thwarted at higher levels of administration or defeated by political interference.
Encouraged by such weak regulation, KIOCL has continued its mining operations marked by an extremely closed approach to sharing information on impacts of mining. Anticipating clearance of expansion of its mining operations, the company proposed last year to build another dam across Kachigehole (Hole=stream). This proposal was resisted by active public participation and expose' of the hotch-potch "Rapid Environment Impact Assessment" submitted bythe company, in a process of three Public Hearings during 1999. The report of these Hearings has not been provided to the public in contrast to the assurances made during the hearing. This is not surprising given that the company has kept confidential all the half yearly compliance reports that the public have a right of access to!
Is mining feasible here?
Quite clearly there is no need to justify our case to save a very rare type of forest, wildlife habitat (and we are not talking of saving species alone) and a very critical watershed of South India from the ravages of mining, be it profitable or not. Yet it must be highlighted that it is not as though we are making a case against an extremely productive and profitable mining enterprise, suppose wewere to be guided by the skewed perception of "balancing forest conservation with 'development' priorities". KIOCL is a company that has been set up based on weak techno-economic considerations, is a case we wish to make. And thus, there is no further need to justify its existence in the present location.
A primary consideration is that the deposits the company has been mining in Kudremukh consist of very poor quality iron ore (about 38% iron) compared with, say, the Sandur deposits in Bellary district of North Karnataka (over 60% iron). Consequently, larger areas are mined in Kudremukh, in comparative terms to Sandur, say. Further, additional processing is involved, such as beneficiation, to upgrade the quality of the ore and make the produce marketable; an operation that is highly energy intensive, requiring enormous amounts of water and resulting in massive amounts of mining overburden and tailings deposits. The Lakya Tailings Dam reveals the impact of this for it filled up prematurely almost a decade ago. During a particularly heavy monsoon downpour, the dam ruptured killing several employees of KIOCL and submerged large areas of agricultural and forest land. The dam had to be strengthened, but in so doing KIOCL increased the height by 100 feet resulting in the submergence of about 300 ha. of shola forests, a wholly illegal act.
With over 7000 mm of annual rainfall that Kudremukh receives, mining is an extremely dangerous operation here, and results in adverse impacts on a thickly forested and riverine area. The washing down of large amounts of silt during monsoons from the mines has resulted in high rates of siltation of feeder streams and the Bhadra river.
Such factors had influenced a case against mining in the region ever since the deposits were discovered by Sampath Iyengar in 1913. Perhaps in an attempt to prevent these forests from the imminent threats of timber exploitation and mining, His Excellency the Maharaja of Mysore had declared large parts of Kudremukh and surrounding forests as "State Forests", in 1914. His efforts seem to have been in vain!
NMDC received permission to mine here in days when conservation priorities were not so clearly defined, or rather weakly addressed. Considering the steep expenditure involved in setting up mining operations here, and the consequent burden on ensuring profitability, the plan was almost totally abandoned during the early seventies.
It was almost entirely because of a loan package of US$ 650 million extended by the Shah of Iran in exchange foriron ore, that the project became "viable". The location provided large amounts of water from the feeder streams of Bhadra River, and additionally, the possibility of transporting the ore in slurry form by a gravity pipeline to Mangalore Port, marginally improved the viability of the operation. The Emergency days also helped KIOCL move quickly through the various stages of clearances without any democratic discussion of the implications or impacts.
The Shah was deposed soon after KIOCL was set up in 1976, and this delivered a body blow to the company's plans. Iran did not lift the ore, and in addition, the loan package collapsed. The company was unable to source other markets for several years. Thus floundering to survive, it was largely the sops provided by the Governments of Karnataka and India that sustained the company. The setting up of the pelletisation plant in Mangalore improved its marketing options somewhat and Japan, which was initially reluctant to import the deficient ore, agreed to do so in the pellets form. Japan eventually committed to importing ore from the company consistently, thus providing it durability and capacity to recover the enormous losses incurred during the seventies and the eighties. Yet, it was only during the early nineties that KIOCL was able to clear the loans accumulated from a decade of inefficient operations. Japan remains a major reason for the company's survival today as it accounts for almost a third of the company's exports.
A major justification for the companycontinuing its mining operations in the Kudremukh forests has been that it is the country's largest export oriented public sector mining enterprise. Annual foreign exchange earnings for the years 1996-99 average about US $ 120 million. For an operation involving mining in the heart of the Western Ghats, employing about 2,500 people, and benefiting from large subsidies extended by the State in terms of large extents of land (largely forest land), and energy payment write-offs (upto half the accumulated amount due to Karnataka Electricity Board for a decade's supply of energy was written off recently), it fares very poorly when compared with some of our software industries.
Infosys, for instance, has raked in US $ 190 million in foreign exchange earnings in the recent year, even whilst providing over 5,000 high-paying jobs. And according to National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM), Indian software exports contribute US $ 4 billion worth of earnings annually, a figure that is expected to increase over 10 fold by 2008 to US $ 50 billion.
If earning dollars is the national priority, then we might as well prioritise software development over mining in forested areas! At the very least we keep our forests intact.
A fact confirmed in Mr. Singh's letter to the Karnataka Government is that "the existing ore reserves at Kudremukh would last for 7-8 years" only and thus "it has become imperative for KIOCL to develop new mines in the adjoining areas so that it can continue its operationson a long term basis." What needs to be observed from this statement is that the mining operations are inherently unviable, and that KIOCL's viability is completely hinged on further expansion over larger areas of the Kudremukh National Park. That the consequences of further expansion, leave alone the existing impacts, have not at all been rigorously addressed, has completely ignored in making this request, calling to question the commitment of the PMO to protecting our valuable forests. Sustaining a 'White Elephant' in an Evergreen Forest is the last thing we should support in present economic circumstances.
Consequently, it would indeed be an extraordinary service to the nation the Government would render, if they were to relocate the company in Sandur. The prospects of growth are strong there as this region is fast becoming a major iron ore mining and steel production centre of India. Not only will this action save the forests and rivers of Kudremukh, but would also help develop a very backward regionof Karnataka. This especially when not creating as devastating an environmental impact as in Kudremukh.