Mining: Death knell for Saranda:-the world’s finest Sal forest

Underneath this pristine Sal forest lies one of the country’s richest repositories of iron ore. But existing mines have already damaged swathes of Saranda as well as led to the extensive silting and pollution of River Koina

On January 21 and 22, the Forest Advisory Committee under the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests recommended clearing over 1,500 hectares by JSW Steel and Jindal Power and Steel for mining iron and manganese ore in Saranda, Jharkhand. While JSW Steel Limited had proposed to mine iron and manganese ore in 998 hectares, Jindal Steel and Power applied for an iron ore mining lease for over 512 hectares.

According to the minutes of the FAC meet, about 87,000 trees will be felled for mining. The Committee also notes the presence of elephant, sloth bear, barking bears (whatever they be) and reptiles. But the mere headcount of trees or a sample of fauna fails to capture the spirit of Saranda — ‘the forest of seven hundred hills’ — which occupies a significant place in ecological history as the finest, largest Sal forest in the world. Saranda has been the training school for generations of foresters for over a century and is a prime elephant habitat. It forms the core of the Singhbhum Elephant Reserve with an estimated 150 elephants in about 820 sq km of the forest.

Interestingly, it once hosted the now extinct cheetah, which India is currently scrambling to re-introduce from stocks abroad. A Mervyn Smith, an officer stationed in Chotta Nagpur, records shooting cheetah in Saranda. He writes in Sport and Adventure in the Indian Jungle (1904): “It is generally believed that the cheetah is now only found in the scrub jungle of Central India, but I have killed them in the dense forest of Saranda in Chotta Nagpur.”

The fecund forests of Saranda also supported the very rare Central Indian wild buffalo and the tiger. Once. Smith has recorded tiger hunting in these forests too. The last record is of the legendary forest officer SP Shahi who shot a tiger here in 1966. Saranda still sees the odd tiger — in fact, in late 2011, forest officers following reports of buffalo kills found conclusive tiger evidences such as pugmarks and scat. It was probably a male — and its presence was noted not a kilometre away from the mining township of Gua.

But the return of the tiger here was not a cause célèbre unlike the hoopla over the reintroduction of tigers in a reserve next to Delhi in Sariska. Instead, its presence was shrouded with apprehension, lest it be a hurdle to mining prospects. The forests of Singhbhum traditionally met the needs of Indian Railways for making wooden sleepers. But while such extraction extensively degraded the forests, natural regeneration of Sal healed and rejuvenated Saranda.

It is mining that is killing the soul of Saranda. Underneath this pristine Sal forest lies one of the richest repositories of iron ore. Existing mines have alreSaranda_miningady destroyed extensive swathes of Saranda. It is estimated that over 1,100 hectares of virgin forest with over 80 per cent canopy cover has been devastated by ongoing mining in many parts, such as Gua, Noamundi, Kiriburu or ‘Elephant Hill’.

It gets worse: A slew of big-ticket companies besides Jindal, like Arcelor, Tata Steel, Essar and others have reportedly already signed MoUs with the State Government in anticipation of getting the green flag and are eying Saranda, not unlike vultures-in-waiting… waiting for the forest to die.

In February 2011, Mr Jairam Ramesh, then the Minister of Environment and Forests dealt the first major blow. He overturned the recommendation of his Forest Advisory Committee and gave Steel Authority of India Limited the green signal for the Chiria iron ore mine in Saranda. The permission was for a period of 20 years, for the diversion of 595 hectares, which covered about a fourth of the Chiria mines area. The pressure — we understood — was from where it usually is: ‘Above’.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had written in 2007 to the then Chief Minister of Jharkhand for renewal of leases in SAIL’s favour “in the broader national interest”. Besides, Mr Ramesh explained in his permission note, “Over the next 50 years, around 40 per cent of iron ore requirement of the SAIL will be met from Chiria mines. Chiria is essential for the future of SAIL .” Now, it appears that the future of Jindal & Co is also dependent on Saranda as well. But isn’t the future of Saranda a national concern too? And what about the future of the elephant, our National Heritage Animal?

Mining in Saranda has led to extensive silting and pollution of River Koina, which feeds the villages downstream. It is also an essential water source for elephants during the summer. But as the river (and forest) dry and wither, the elephants are pushed into neighbouring Chhattisgarh causing severe conflict, and loss of life and  livelihood. This is only going to worsen as we ravage and fragment the forests further.

There has been a strong case to notify Saranda as a protected area, and though this has been proposed, it never gained currency given the mineral interests. The Sal forests of Saranda are part of a large tiger landscape that includes the Sundargarh and Keonjhar forest divisions of Odisha — also devastated by mines — providing immense potential for tiger conservation. This landscape is connected to tiger habitats in northern Chhattisgarh and Odisha’s Similipal Tiger Reserve, which is a potential source population to augment the relict tiger populations that continue to persist against odds in the few undisturbed pockets that remain here.

The Gajah Report authored by the MoEF constituted Elephant Task Force clearly states that mining in elephant reserves should be subject to approval from the National Elephant Conservation Authority whose constitution was mooted by the Prime Minister’s Office.

A report in Down to Earth notes that the “the recommendation of FAC, the principal chief conservator of forests, and the State Government, had not given a clear recommendation and had left the decision to the Central Government”. It also points out that Saranda is home to tribal people who have been opposing mining projects in the area. The tragedy of Saranda is not that of the rich minerals that lie underneath, but the fact that we define the value of a forest by the narrow vision of the economist, that growth and GDP are calculated in the destruction and not the preservation of a natural heritage. Yes, we need economic growth, but at what cost?

First appeared in The Pioneer, Feb 13, 2013


Photograph courtesy: Samir Kumar Sinha

The river Koina flowing through Saranda forest. the mining residue and pollution has sullied the water. Crocodiles in Koina have completely vanished as has other aquatic fauna.

4 Responses to “Mining: Death knell for Saranda:-the world’s finest Sal forest

  • Hello,

    Do you have any knowledge about the current status of these forests? Are they going to face the axe? Can nothing be done about it?

    • A lot of clearances for mining have been granted in Saranda in the past year. the forest will be devastated, as will be the elephants- the these need to be challenged in court-it appears to be the only recourse..

  • no go area surely

    • It was no-go. Then it became go, apparently.

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