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Greed for gold in the way of expansion of wildlife sanctuary in Chhattisgarh?

In this investigative story, Ayaskant Das explains why Chhattisgarh’s Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary’s expansion has been hanging fire for years, even as a gold mining project in the adjacent forest is seeing rapid progress.

By Ayaskant Das
New Update

publive-image A sighting from the Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary in Chhattisgarh | Photo courtesy: www.chhattisgarhtourism.co.in

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.

“Barnawapara wildlife sanctuary is one of the most densely populated sanctuaries in the entire country in terms of the number of wild animals. The proposal to expand the boundaries of the sanctuary had been mooted because species of animals that are found within the sanctuary are also present in substantial numbers in areas along the periphery. The areas that had been identified for inclusion within the wildlife sanctuary are those which were found to be repeatedly chosen by wild animals for breeding,” said a senior official of the forest department of Chhattisgarh.

publive-image A sighting from the Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary in Chhattisgarh | Photo courtesy: www.chhattisgarhtourism.co.in

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.

“The huge parcel of forest land was sought for inclusion within the wildlife sanctuary because it was noticed that wild animals were frequenting certain places within it for the purpose of breeding. The movement of female species of animals is generally restricted during the breeding season. Therefore, they chose those areas for breeding that are safe from predators and offer abundant food and water. Several points within this parcel of forest land, given its dense foliage and undulating topography, are ideal for breeding wild animals,” added the senior forest official speaking to The Probe.

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. 

publive-image Vedanta Limited | Photo courtesy: Social media

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.

Activists allege the expansion proposal of the wildlife sanctuary has hit a roadblock because of Vedanta’s proposed gold mining project in Baghmara. Raipur-based RTI activist Sanjeev Agarwal, who has filed a petition in the National Green Tribunal on the delay in expansion of the wildlife sanctuary, while talking to this correspondent, alleged that even the Congress government is not keen to preserve the ecological hotspot since it would mean peeving corporate interests.

“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.

The Probe has copies of RTI replies received by Agarwal from the state government, which reveals that the proposal has been caught in a maze of opinions furnished by enquiry committees formed to ascertain the feasibility of allowing prospecting operations within the 144.60 hectares of reserved forest that was proposed to be included within the wildlife sanctuary.

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.

publive-image The picturesque Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary  | Photo courtesy: www.chhattisgarhtourism.co.in

In its detailed report – a copy of which was procured through RTI – the team recommended against prospecting of minerals within the reserved forest compartment measuring 144.60 hectares based on decisions taken earlier by the Wildlife Board of Chhattisgarh - a state-level statutory body that conducts appraisals of projects proposed within protected areas like wildlife sanctuaries.

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 further justified against mineral exploration over the compartment of 144.60 hectares based on the fact that not only was the area densely forested, but it also supported rare species of flora. The committee found a good number of bamboo forests under the canopy apart from the 20 other varieties of trees and plants, including baheda (whose seeds are known for their medicinal qualities), tendu (whose leaves are used for rolling traditional Indian tobacco-filled cigars called Beedi), saja (whose timber is used for furniture, musical instruments and even boats), mahua (whose aromatic flowers are used for brewing a traditional heady liquor) and kusum (whose seeds are used to extract oil). In a taxonomic study, the committee reported the presence of nearly 300 different categories of flora in the reserve forest, including trees, herbs, shrubs, climbers, grasses and ferns. Besides, the committee reported the presence of animals in the area, including bears and deer.

publive-image The rusty steel pole in the ground is one of the sites marked out to drill borewells for exploring gold within the reserved forest area. Officials of the NGT-appointed panel standing around one such steel pole in the reserved forest. | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

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.

Surprisingly, this new committee overruled the recommendation that exploration activities should not be allowed within the compartment of the reserve forest measuring 144.60 hectares. It recommended allowing exploration activities within this compartment on the grounds that the state’s forest department was yet to take a final decision on including it within the wildlife sanctuary. Notwithstanding the density of the forest land and the varieties of flora found in the region, the committee said that the project proponent could be asked to go ahead with exploration activities under conditions that no tree is chopped and the area’s ecology is not disturbed. Given the inaccessibility of the area and the narrow paths, the committee recommended that the project proponent can be advised to manually carry foldable equipment to the drilling sites for exploration activities.

publive-image A Chhattisgarh forest department official placing a GPS tracker to obtain coordinates of one of the steel poles that has been marked as a point on the ground for drilling borewells for exploration of gold within the reserved forest area in the Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

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 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.

publive-image The picturesque Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary  | Photo courtesy: www.chhattisgarhtourism.co.in

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.

Five members of this panel recommended that exploration activities through the drilling of borewells in land measuring 3.23985 hectares can commence by keeping vigil on the operations to ensure that no ecological damage is caused to the forest. However, the sixth member of the committee, Rajendra Gupta, an additional collector of Baloda Bazar, dissented from the opinion of his team members.

publive-image Additional Collector Rajendra Gupta (pink shirt) at one of the proposed sites where Vedanta will carry out underground drilling for gold exploration. This picture was clicked during the NGT-appointed panel’s field visit to the reserved forest area. Gupta would later send a dissenting letter to the Chhattisgarh government saying gold exploration will cause ecological damage in the reserved forest area | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

In a letter dated 22 July to the Chhattisgarh Environment Conservation Board, Gupta said that allowing exploration activity in the region using borewells will adversely impact the ecology and environment of the area. Therefore, given the plethora of differing views, the NGT sought a study through the Jabalpur-based State Forest Research Institute, an institute under the government of Madhya Pradesh, to ascertain if there would be adverse impacts, if any, from exploration activities carried out in the forest land.

“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”.

“The Drilling machine, which we are going to use are specially designed to drill in dense forest areas to avoid damage to forest, as these are small sized foldable machines which can be easily dismantled and assembled again … Vedanta assures you that drilling machines will be taken from the existing extraction path only, which is used by forest department’s vehicle movement for patrolling and other activities like wood log, so by using same existing path, we are not going to damage any flora and fauna,” Vedanta has stated in its letter to the Tribunal.

publive-image Officials of the NGT-appointed panel studying a map of the Baghmara gold prospecting plan during their field visit to the reserved forest near Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary on 20 June 2022. | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

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”.

“Our prospecting licence area is located outside the Barnawapara sanctuary and its eco-sensitive zone boundary. We are an ESG focused company and will never disturb the ecology of the area nor cause any environmental and forest degradation. As per the permission granted, four-inch diameter drilling will be done by using foldable machine in 51 boreholes without causing any damage to the trees and using the existing extraction path on which GSI has earlier conducted the survey/drilling in Div. 254 . We are committed to limiting our exploration activities to the day shift only. There will be no damage to plantations and animals in the area,” said the spokesperson replying to The Probe.

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?

“These are questions for which there are no immediate answers. These questions were raised even when we accompanied the panel set up by the National Green Tribunal to the sites where the Project Proponent is planning to explore gold. Drilling activities can also lead to vibrations in the ground as well as noise pollution. Wild animals are extremely sensitive and will be affected by human activities in their habitat,” said Agarwal, the petitioner in the green tribunal.

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.

“The zoo-grade blackbucks were first acclimatised to environmental conditions in the area covering the wildlife sanctuary before being released into the open. What has encouraged us thereafter is the fact that there has been breeding within the herd of blackbucks which has led to the increase in their population in the sanctuary. The only animal that is missing from the sanctuary at present is the tiger. We are in the process of procuring tigers into the sanctuary. Hopefully, our application to procure tigers will get a green signal from the state government because it is committed to wildlife conservation,” said another official.