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Rio Tinto's diamond mine in MP up for green clearance

Despite dense forests, protected parks & villagers' refusals, project could get nod today

Bunder Diamond

Nitin Sethi  |  New Delhi 

Rio Tinto's diamond mine in MP up for green clearance

The Forest Advisory Committee, the statutory authority of the environment ministry, is slated to appraise the Rs 2,200-crore diamond mine project of Rio Tinto in Madhya Pradesh on Wednesday for forest clearance.

The mine falls in a tiger corridor connecting two protected parks and has been identified by the government as an inviolate area — a forest too dense and valuable to be mined. At least one village in the region has also rejected the proposal to mine their traditional forestlands falling in the mine area under the Forest Rights Act.

The Bunder Diamond mining project requires 971 hectares of forest land in Chhattarpur forest division of Madhya Pradesh. The estimated deposit of kimberlitic ore at the site, the environment ministry records say is 53.7 million ton and that of diamond is 34.2 million carat. The mineral value is estimated to be Rs 20,520 crore. The royalty and taxes to be generated to state exchequer are estimated at Rs 2,052 crore and Rs 208 crore respectively.

Documents reviewed by the Business Standard show that the project has reached all the way up for appraisal before the Forest Advisory Committee despite several written reports by state forest officers and the regional office of the environment ministry that the area falls in an identified tiger movement corridor which the state has not legally notified as such while prospecting for diamond continued. Under the wildlife law identified tiger corridors are to be separately notified and given higher grade of protection. The officers have also gone on record to state that the forest is of very good quality and that at least one of the villages has explicitly refused consent which is mandatory under the Forest Rights Act.

Rio Tinto Exploration India Limited had signed an agreement with Madhya Pradesh government in 2010 subsequent to exploration activity. Under the agreement Rio Tinto was to run the entire operations and Madhya Pradesh government is to facilitate all clearances for the mining and the linked dam project in addition to providing incentives and tax concessions, documents of the union environment ministry record.

The state government has supported the project and sent it to the Centre despite its forest officials highlighting that the area is an important wildlife corridor, and too dense to mine. A report of the Union environment ministry notes, “The ecological importance of this forest can be understood from the fact that this forest area is a corridor between the Panna Tiger Reserve and the Navardehi Wildlife Sanctuary for the movement of wildlife including tiger. However, the state government has not notified this forest as wildlife corridor. The government’s Forest Research Institute has also identified several schedule I wildlife animals in the area including tigers.

The report also records, “Resolutions of Triyamar, Jara, and Shehpura Gram Sabhas (under FRA) are not n legible form moreover, the Shehpura Gram Sabha has resolved against the proposal and in their resolution it is recorded that Gram Sabha is not willing to provide their land to the company and has accordingly not consented to the proposal. The non-concurrence of the proposal by the Shehpura Gram Sabha has not been reported by any of the authority in the State Forest Department and State Government.” Shehpura village will lose 150 hectares to the mines, the second largest parcel of land among all the villages impacted.

The report adds, “It was evident that the area falls in the proposed inviolate category as per the draft criteria of environment ministry for classifying forest areas as inviolate.” The policy for inviolate areas has been repeatedly pared down over last two years to leave out considerable part of the forests and yet this particular patch, the ministry notes is very dense and should be left untouched – inviolate in the environment ministry jargon. But at the state level discrepancy has been reported in the applications with one officer claiming that the forest has a density of 0.3 to 0.6 while the field level officer claimed that the canopy density was 0.6. Density refers to the percentage of land that was found covered by green canopy when snapped from a bird’s perspective. The regional office of the ministry in its inspection report has said, “Ten compartments are involved in the forest lands proposed for diversion and eight of them have density upon 0.5, a fact which cannot be wished away.”

Discrepancy has also been noted in the forest area the state government wants to allocate to the international diamond firm. While the signed mining lease is for 954.0 ha the forest clearance proposal is marked for diversion of 971.595 ha.

While acknowledging that several forest officials of the state government and the Union environment ministry’s regional office have pointed out the value of the forests to be mined, Madhya Pradesh’s second senior most forest official has advocated for the project stating, “It is therefore recommended that the proposal may be considered for approval subject to the condition that all the concern about the forest and the wildlife raised by DFO and CCF in their site inspection notes and Chief Wildlife Warden of the State are adequately addressed.”

This is not the first time the Forest Advisory Committee is considering the proposal. Previously it has repeatedly asked for more information from different agencies on the matter and not rejected it. The committee is advisory in nature and the final say lies with the environment minister though its appraisal in favour of a project is rarely rejected at the ministerial stage.

  • The mine has been identified by the government as an inviolate area — a forest too dense and valuable to be mined
  • At least one village in the region has also rejected the proposal to mine their traditional forestlands falling in the mine area under the Forest Rights Act
  • The estimated deposit of kimberlitic ore at the site is 53.7 mt and that of diamond is 34.2 mn carat
  • The royalty and taxes to be generated to state exchequer are estimated at Rs 2,052 cr and Rs 208 cr, respectively

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First Published: Wed, March 16 2016. 00:05 IST