Greed for gold in the way of expansion of wildlife sanctuary in Chhattisgarh?
Has greed for gold come in the way of the proposed expansion of a wildlife sanctuary in Chhattisgarh, located close to a vast underground reserve of gold? Owing to the presence of gold near Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary, the Chhattisgarh state government’s proposal to expand it to provide more living space to flora and fauna within the densely populated protected area has been awaiting finalisation for more than five years.
The expansion proposal was first mooted by the Raman Singh-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of Chhattisgarh in October 2017. Following the election of a Congress government to power in the state in December 2018, the proposal has seen little headway.
The Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary – containing animals including leopard, sloth bear, bison, sambar, spotted deer, nilgai, and chausingha (four-horned antelope) – in Mahasamund district of Chhattisgarh is spread over an area of 245 square kilometres which is roughly equivalent to 24,500 hectares of land.
In a letter dated 6 October 2017, the then Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) of Chhattisgarh wrote to the department’s headquarters to include 22 different compartments of reserved forests, with a cumulative area measuring 5,114.87 hectares of land within the wildlife sanctuary in order to expand it.
But as we shall see later in this article, the expansion proposal has been caught in a maze of opinions produced by expert panels to study the feasibility of exploring gold in the forest land.
The Gold Mining Block
The mining block, Baghmara, located in the Baloda Bazar district of Chhattisgarh, has estimated reserves of around 2.7 metric tons (MT) of gold and has been leased out to billionaire businessman Anil Agarwal’s London-headquartered firm Vedanta Group. Raman Singh’s government issued a Letter of Intent (LoI) to Vedanta Group in March 2017 in the form of a composite licence to explore and mine gold from Baghmara.
The mining leasehold is spread over an area measuring approximately 474.30 hectares. This includes 414.415 hectares of reserved forests, against which the Vedanta Group has already obtained final forest clearance. A section of reserved forest measuring 144.60 hectares within this lease area is one of the 22 compartments comprising 5,114.87 hectares of land identified by the Chhattisgarh government in October 2017 for inclusion in the wildlife sanctuary.
The boundaries of Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary’s eco-sensitive zone – defined as “shock absorbers” around protected areas – were notified by the union government in July 2017. As per the site inspection reports of the forest department of Chhattisgarh, the Baghmara gold block is located at a distance of 1.6 km from the wildlife sanctuary and 200 metres outside the boundary of its eco-sensitive zone.
“The entire expansion proposal has been put on hold just because only one of the 22 compartments of reserved forests falls within the gold mining leasehold area. This reserved forest area is just a small fraction of the huge parcel of land that has been proposed to be included within the wildlife sanctuary,” said Agarwal.
Report says, no prospecting of minerals within the reserved forest compartment
Barely a few months after being elected to power, the Congress government of Chhattisgarh, headed by Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel, issued a direction in April 2020 for a detailed enquiry into the feasibility of allowing prospecting operations for gold over the entire forested land measuring 414.415 hectares which falls within Vedanta’s Baghmara lease area. On 7 July 2020, a team of officials from the forest department of Chhattisgarh conducted a site visit to some of the reserved forest compartments, including the one measuring 144.60 hectares which fall within the leasehold area of Vedanta. Two officials of Vedanta Group accompanied this team.
Following up on the letter of the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) of Chhattisgarh, the state’s Wildlife Board had, in a meeting on 14 November 2017, decided to formulate a proposal for the expansion of the wildlife sanctuary by undertaking consultations with local public representatives. In this particular meeting, the board also found no need to seek clearance for the gold mining project from the National Board for Wildlife as the project area fell outside the eco-sensitive zone of the wildlife sanctuary. This team recommended that prospecting operations should not be allowed within the reserve forest of 144.60 hectares since the expansion of the wildlife sanctuary was on the cards.
The committee noted that the project proponent had proposed to explore gold in the Baghmara leasehold area through the technology of drilling borewells underground. A total of 58 borewells were to be drilled for exploration as per the proposal. The panel’s members who hiked around the area found that it would be impossible to move about machinery and equipment required for drilling activities without chopping trees, given the density of trees in the area and the inaccessibility of the topography.
A new committee
In December 2020, the state government formed another committee and tasked it to conduct meetings with representatives of the Vedanta Group and analyse the findings of the earlier committee. The new committee comprised three senior officials of the forest department of Chhattisgarh: the then Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and the head of the Forest Force, Rakesh Chaturvedi; Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), PV Narsingh Rao and the Managing Director of Chhattisgarh State Forest Development Corporation, PC Pandey.
Thereafter, the regional office of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MOEFCC) in Nagpur issued permission to the project proponent, through a letter dated 30 June 2021, to carry out exploration through four-inch diameter borewells dug with the help of foldable drilling machines by accessing the site within the forest along the existing footpath.
Diametrically opposed reports
The diametrically opposite recommendations of the two committees formed under Chhattisgarh’s Congress government prompted Agarwal to file an application with the National Green Tribunal (NGT). In an application dated 4 May 2022, Agarwal highlighted the gross incongruous nature of recommendations of the forest department’s two committees which had different members as officials.
“The Principal Conservator of Forests, government of Chhattisgarh had vide letter dated 06.10.2017 proposed inclusion of Section 254 [the compartment measuring 144.60 hectares] in the expansion of 22 sections of Devpur area but some officers of government of Chhattisgarh are bent upon favouring the Project Proponent and granting a lease to the Project Proponent on the basis of report of another Committee constituted for this purpose which contradicted and negatived earlier report submitted by senior officers from the forest department that no mining was possible without deforestation in the area,” Agarwal alleged in his petition.
Another “panel”. This time by the NGT.
A division bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) comprising judicial member Justice Arun Kumar Tyagi and expert member Afroz Ahmad heard the matter on 9 May 2022 and ordered the formation of a “panel” to ascertain the veracity of claims made by Agarwal.
The six-member expert panel formed by the green tribunal was tasked, amongst other things, to “ … undertake site visits, look into the grievances of the applicant, consider both the reports referred to in the application and make recommendations/take requisite action, particularly with respect to the environmental damage caused and restoration of the environment by following due process of law.”
Based on a report of this expert panel, the green tribunal issued directions to the project proponent to keep the exploration activity on hold.
The panel found during its field visit on 20 June 2022 that neither had any prospecting operations commenced nor any field visit conducted. It further found that the mining site was outside the eco-sensitive zone of the wildlife sanctuary and that, thus far, no environmental degradation had taken place by way of exploration.
“… as per permission granted, four-inch diameter drilling is to be done by use of a foldable machine in 51 boreholes without causing any damage to trees in land measuring 3.23985 hectares by way of prospecting (preliminary survey) for mineral exploration by using already existing extraction path which is to be monitored by Committee constituted under the Chairmanship of Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Wildlife,” stated the committee in its report.
“In view of the peculiar facts and circumstances of the case, particularly that an earlier Committee of the officers of the Forest Department, as well as one of the Members of the Joint Committee, constituted by this Tribunal, expressed their disagreement to the proposed prospecting/exploration activity, we consider it appropriate to have an Impact Assessment Report regarding the impact of prospecting/exploration activity on the forest biodiversity, ecosystem, wildlife movement/habitats etc. of the region from the State Forest Research Institute (SFRI), Jabalpur,” the Tribunal directed in its order dated 14 September.
The case will be heard again by the Tribunal in November 2022. Until then, no exploration of gold will take place in the region. Meanwhile, Vedanta Group has written to the National Green Tribunal that it will ensure no ecological damage is done in the area due to the exploration operations. It has said that the forest clearance that has been granted to it for the project is only for prospecting and exploration operations and “not for mining activity”.
Vedanta’s response to The Probe
A set of queries were emailed to the Vedanta Group asking it, amongst other questions, what measures it intended to take to ensure that the ecology of the forest land is not disturbed by gold exploration. A spokesperson from the group said the company has already obtained final forest clearance for the project and plans to undertake exploration activities in a manner that will not disturb the ecology of the area. Vedanta further stated that it would use the same path within the reserved forest as had been used by the Geological Survey of India for its own exploration activities, which, thereby, precludes the chances of “any damage to plantation and animals of the area”.
The spokesperson further said that the final execution or grant of composite licence to begin prospecting activities is still pending. After the grant of the composite licence, Vedanta would take up prospecting activities. To establish an economic mining asset, at least two to three years of exploration and drilling will be performed, according to the company.
“Initially, approval for 51 drill pads has been taken, which can be completed in a year. Based on the results, the next level of exploration will be taken up after receiving the necessary statutory approvals. Vedanta plans to invest Rs 100-150 crores for prospecting activities to establish gold mineralization,” added the spokesperson in their reply.
What if Vedanta strikes gold?
What if Vedanta Group actually strikes gold in the compartment of reserved forest land measuring 144.60 hectares and needs to expand its operations? Will the parcel of forest land be forever kept out of Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary, notwithstanding its rich ecological value? Will the Project Proponent be permitted to clear the dense vegetation rich with several species of flora and fauna?
The Project Proponent will have to mandatorily obtain a clearance from the National Board for Wildlife if the parcel of forestland over which it is planning prospecting operations is included within the wildlife sanctuary. Notwithstanding the attempts to dig for gold in the area, a number of officials of the forest department of Chhattisgarh have been ceaselessly trying to preserve and expand the wildlife sanctuary. Over the past few years, as many as 77 blackbucks, whose population had vanished from the state, were reintroduced into the wildlife sanctuary through a programme undertaken by the state government in which the animals were procured from zoos in New Delhi and Bilaspur. Officials who spoke to this correspondent on condition of anonymity said that the programme to reintroduce blackbucks in Chhattisgarh was resemblant of the project launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently to reintroduce Cheetahs – considered extinct from the country for the past seven decades – into India.
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