Modi Govt. Enables diversion of forest for Jindal Group chromite project in highly polluted Odisha mining belt
New Delhi: The Modi government has allowed the multibillion-dollar Jindal group to divert forest land for a chromite mining project whose operations were halted three years ago, allegedly for illegal reasons, following an instruction from the High Court of Odisha. The clearing was granted at a time when not only is a case over the project pending in court, but it also precedes the Odisha government’s decision to extend the lease period in favor of the Jindals.
The chromite mining project owned by Ratan Jindal’s Jindal Stainless is located in the highly polluted Sukinda mining belt in Jajpur district of Odisha. A proposal to divert 66.20 hectares of forest land for the project has been approved by the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC), a group of experts under the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change of the United States. Union (MoEF&CC) which appraises infrastructure projects on forests. land, in a Meet held on February 21.
The FAC became aware of illegal mining activities at the site between 2015 and 2019 but nonetheless granted the clearing to the project developer even as the matter is pending clearance.
“Mining operations have been halted from December 2019. Mining operations carried out during the period 2015 to 2019 constitute a breach of the provisions of the guidelines issued under the Forest Conservation Act 1980 and therefore , the user agency is liable to pay a criminal NPV. [Net Present Value] in lieu of the violation committed for the said period”, specifies the minutes of the meeting of the FAC.
The government of Odisha had informed the ministry that the project against which the deforestation had been requested was a “mine still inactive”. He was further informed that the extension of the validity of his lease for a period of 50 years, from the granting of the initial mining lease, until January 2052, was under consideration by the Department of steel and mines of Odisha. However, the FAC has recommended the Government of Odisha to approve the proposal subject to the project developer having paid the penalties (appropriate criminal NPV) due to mining operations carried out on 66.20 hectares of forest land between 2015 and 2019 without the prior approval of the central government.
The FAC’s recommendation has been described as peculiar by experts in light of the pending High Court case. Questions have also been raised about how the project proponent carried out mining operations despite a suspension order in place.
“Despite an order suspending mining operations, the private company has continued mining for more than four years, which is a clear violation of the law and amounts to contempt of court orders. It appears that the developer of the The project has pulled many strings with the state mines department to continue mining the minerals despite the ban. diversion of forest land cannot be granted while the case is pending, and the project proponent cannot legally commence mining operations until the matter is fully resolved and the ban or ban is not lifted,” said Rebbapragada Ravi of mines, minerals & PEOPLE (mm&P), an alliance of individuals and communities affected by mining.
Notwithstanding the order suspending mining operations at the project site, the FAC further stipulated a condition in the minutes of its meeting that relief, if any, awarded by the High Court in terms of criminal NPV will be adjusted accordingly by the project proponent in the future.
Jindal Stainless had not obtained prior permission from the central government before proceeding with the mining project. In 2016, the mining firm challenged the notification of the MoEF&CC under which prior authorization from the central government is required before diverting forest land for non-forest use “inside” a mining concession area. The central government had, through this notification, mandated the prior approval of the MoEF&CC for areas included in mining leases which were recorded as “forest land” in the revenue registers but, by a particular practice, were considered as “non-forest land” when treating proposals to extract minerals. In an interim order issued on March 4, 2016, the High Court ordered that the mining status quo be maintained until March 10. Subsequently on August 2, 2016, Jindal Stainless submitted a proposal to the MoEF&CC requiring clearance against 66.20 hectares of forest land within the mining lease area.
The High Court subsequently, in a further order issued on December 3, 2019, ordered that the status quo be maintained until December 17. There was no subsequent hearing on the case.
A detailed questionnaire was emailed to Jindal Stainless on behalf of NewsClick, asking, among other questions, why the company chose to seek the clearing from the central government while the case is pending in the high court. It was also asked what steps, if any, had been taken by the company to ensure a speedy resolution of the case in the high court. No response was received from company officials when this report was released. This report will be updated as we receive responses.
The Modi government’s decision to grant deforestation to the project has been criticized not only for being part of a judicial restraining order. It has also been criticized on environmental grounds because Sukinda, where the mining project is located, is one of the most polluted places on planet Earth. The US-based Blacksmith Institute had, in a report published in September 2007, ranked Sukinda as the fourth most polluted place on planet Earth due to the overwhelming amount of hexavalent chromium in the region’s air and water.
The mining lease area is located in the catchment area of the Brahmani, a major seasonal river that flows through Odisha.
“About 15 tributaries, including Damasala Nala, transport the chromite waste to Brahmani. the Nala and river waters contain dangerous levels of hexavalent chromium, a carcinogenic chemical. I am surprised that the Forest Advisory Committee makes no mention of the fact that the forest area in question is part of the watershed,” said retired bureaucrat EAS Sarma, a former energy adviser to the Planning Commission of the ‘India. NewsClick.
India accounts for about 2% of the world’s chromite reservations. Of this total, Odisha accounts for almost 97% of the reserves, most of which are concentrated in the Sukinda region. Numerous reports shed light on the adverse effects of hexavalent chromium, a carcinogenic form of the chemical element, on the health of local communities, many of whom belong to the Scheduled Tribe in the Sukinda area. The presence of hexavalent chromium in the Sukinda environment has been attributed to industrial activities. Its generation is attributed to the industrial oxidation of mined chromium deposits, according to a report prepared by the Indian Bureau of Mines.
The high levels of the carcinogenic element that have entered the water sources in the Sukinda region have succeeded in gastrointestinal diseases among the local population in addition to causing permanent damage to the skin and eyes.
The pre-feasibility report for the project itself lists 15 Nalas (watercourse) near the mining lease area. The entire mining lease area of 89 hectares is located within the Mahagiri Protected Forest, of which the project developer has now been authorized to clear 66.20 hectares.
“The fact that Jindal Stainless continued to violate the Forest Conservation Act without prior authorization should have been a valid reason for rejecting the proposal. The main task of the Forest Advisory Committee is to protect the forests with their flora and fauna, not to tolerate private enterprise. The forest wealth lost, if valued from the perspective of social benefits, would outweigh the social costs of chromite mining. Chromite is a limited mineral, the overexploitation of which is against the national interest,” Sarma added.