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Mining sanction to steer India towards ecological ruin

Oct 15, 2010

The Maharashtra government's approval of 49 mining leases in Western Ghats, could lead to one of the worst ecological disasters in years. The region is one of the last few densely forested areas in India and is home to a wide range of wildlife species.

The beauty of the Western Ghats, one of the last few remaining densely forested areas in the country, may soon be relegated to the realm of the picture postcard. In what could bring forth one of the worst ecological disasters in years, the state government has approved 49 mining leases for excavating iron and bauxite ores in the eco-fragile Sindhudurg region.

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Sindhudurg, incidentally, has the highest green cover in Maharashtra (49%) and was declared the first eco-tourism district in the country in 1997.

Worse, 32 of these mining permits have been given in the Sawantwadi-Dodamarg zone, which has the highest forest cover within Sindhudurg, and is an integral part of the wildlife corridor between Koyna sanctuary in Satara, Radhanagari wildlife sanctuary in Kolhapur district and the Anshi-Dandeli tiger reserve in Karnataka.

The biodiverse region, with perennial streams and rivers, is home to a spectrum of wildlife, such as the leopard, bison and deer. Forest officials say there have been at least four tiger sightings as well in the past two years.

Four mines are already operational in the area. On Wednesday, TOI visited one, which began work last year, in Kalane village in Sawantwadi block. The sharp colour contrast at the site said it all: a long red strip of a half-slit mountain jutted out like an ugly sore amid the lush green canopy around it. Huge earth movers dug deep into the mountain and gouged out red mud, which was transported by a trail of dumpers to processing units.

Stalin D, project director of Vanashakti, an environmental NGO working on mining-related issues in Sindhudurg, explains that the mining companies use open-cast processing to excavate iron ore and bauxite. "The mountains have to be slit open and dug up to extract minerals lying deep beneath the soil," he says. "What remains are huge craters filled with unpotable water full of heavy metals. The miners never bother to refill the hole or replant native vegetation to regenerate the eco-system."

Before operations began here, the villagers of Kalane had passed a gram sabha resolution stating that they did not want mining, as it would destroy both the rich flora and fauna and their agricultural farmlands. "The villagers in Kalane objected at the two public hearings, as the environmental impact assessment (EIA) report prepared by the mining firm did not mention the existence of perennial water bodies, rivers and the reserve forest in the adjoining Ugade village," says Sawantwadi-based environmental activist Dr Rajendra Parulekar. "It is shocking that based on the false EIA reports, mining companies got licences to operate here." Activists say that there were physical skirmishes between the mining companies and villagers, and that the latter were threatened.

Wildlife experts and botanists say that if other mining companies start operations at the proposed sites, the mountains will become huge craters in just a few years from now. "Just look at how miners have destroyed stretches of Goa along the Sahyadri, where instead of green mountains we have ugly open craters now. The government should revoke all these licences if it wants to protect its rich natural resources, and instead encourage eco-friendly business models," says Goa-based environmental activist Claude Alvares, who has been advocating zero mining in all eco-fragile zones in the country.

Interestingly, Alvares believes that mining companies are increasingly eying Maharashtra ever since the ministry of environment and forests imposed a moratorium on issuing fresh mining leases in Goa till its government came out with a comprehensive mineral policy. "It is a well-known fact that the mining mafia is controlled by politicians from both states, as the money involved is huge," he says.

According to Parulekar, there is an estimated Rs 25,000 crore of mineral wealth in Sindhudurg. "Lured by this, if mining continues unabated, it will have tragic human consequences as well," he says. "Devoid of rivers and agricultural land, farmers will have no option but to leave their once fertile and self-sufficient villages. The result will be urban migration and ensuing poverty and misery."

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