Iron ore from the proposed Rowghat mines in Chhattisgarh is crucial for the sustenance of the Bhilai steel plants. This, however, not only poses a grave threat to the forest ecology of the area, but is also itself vulnerable. Kanchi Kohli* details the complexities:
In February 2014, the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan (Save Chhattisgarh Movement) objected to the proposed Rowghat Iron Ore Mines in the state. The Rowghat mines would need to be established over an expanse of 2,029 hectares (ha) of reserved forest land in the Antagarh Block of Kanker and Narayanpur Districts of Bastar region. They are considered to be the second largest iron ore deposits in the state after the one in Bailadila. The ore in these mines was discovered way back in 1899, and it was in 1949 that independent India’s Geological Survey of India is recorded to have investigated the area.
Apart from violations of forest rights and forest conservation related laws, the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan (CBA) highlighted in its press release that “the project would bring complete ecological devastation to a region which is widely considered a wildlife corridor for many migratory species, a cultural and religious bastion for the Madia Gonds, Abuj Madia and Madia adivasis, and a natural resource hub belonging to thousands of hill and plains villages of North Bastar.”
Rowghat and Bhilai Steel Plant
Though the Rowghat reserves have been up for digging for a while, the issue has come to light more recently because of its critical and strategic importance for the survival of the Bhilai Steel Plant (BSP) of the Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL). The state Government of Chhattisgarh granted mining lease for Rowghat Deposit-‘F’ in favour of SAIL, Bhilai Steel Plant (BSP) on 21 October, 2009.
News reports from 2012 indicate that the Government of India is worried that one of the country’s biggest and oldest steel plants is running out of iron ore supplies. This is primarily because the Bhilai Steel Plant, set up back in 1955, relies on the iron ore reserves in the Dalli Rajhara area, which will be exhausted by 2015. Rowghat’s estimated capacity is considered sufficient to keep BSP functional for decades.
In a 2012 interview to The Hindu, the CEO of BSP, S. Chandrasekaran had said that the balance reserve in Dalli Rajhara was about 80 metric tonnes, which would not sustain the plant in the future. He also added that once the mining goes deeper into the deposits, the quality of ore starts deteriorating and there is an increase in the percentage of the silica content.
What complicates the matter is that in order to supply iron ore to the BSP, a railway line running through the Abujhmad region needs to be constructed. While recognizing the displacement and impact which the construction of this railway line would cause, the BSP CEO said that the Indian Railways “will need to take care of it through adequate compensation.”
In the same 2012 interview the CEO added that the proposed “railroad between Rajahara and Raoghat, being constructed by Indian Railways, has to come up fast. This would also result in prosperity for the entire region and eventually would benefit the local residents. Therefore, we are extending support to help early execution so that SAIL-BSP and the people living in the nearby area are benefited.”
It is absolutely clear then that for the BSP to continue operations, both Rowghat and a connecting rail line to transport the ore would be on the government’s priority radar. However, this is clearly pitted against the huge social, cultural and ecological impact that both the mines and the proposed railway line will have.
CBA activists have questioned why, despite the knowledge of iron ore shortage since the 1990s, BSP relinquished its mining lease for Kacche Mines at Ari Dongri in Kanker District to a private company, Godawari Ispat Ltd. BSP justifies the move saying that the ore left in Kacche is substandard and the mine was unprofitable for BSP. The CBA, however, maintains that the quality of ore in the mine is high grade and would be compatible with BSP’s expansion requirements.
While on the one hand there is the issue of survival of one of India’s oldest steel plants, the opening up of Rowghat will lead to irreparable damage to forests, wildlife and tribal communities living in the area. What makes it more complicated is that the processes involving official forest and environment clearance have missed many critical impact assessment and appraisal related studies.
The mine received its final approval from the central government for forest diversion on 3 August 2009 and environmental approval under the EIA Notification, 2006 earlier on 4 June 2009.
Impacts of mining and railway line
Mining in Rowghat will undoubtedly impact both the lives and livelihoods of the resident tribal community and also cause irreversible damage to the entire ecosystem, including the wildlife of the region. The three core issues (amongst many others) to reckon with include:
- Activists of the CBA point out that the temple of the Rao deity is located near the Rao Dongri block of Rowghat Mines. This revered site is visited by communities residing in the area and they believe that Rao Devi is embodied by the Rowghat Hills. This issue remains unaddressed in all the regulatory processes related to forest diversion. In fact, it has been denied that such a site is in existence.
- Direct displacement by mining operations has been clearly recorded even in official impact assessment documents. The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) for the Rowghat mines indicates that Anjrel Village would have to be “displaced entirely for establishment of Explosive Magazine” and the Rowghat Railway Station would be built “at the present location of Phulpar Village”. There exists no publicly available plan on how the people displaced from these regions will be rehabilitated or their issues addressed.
- The CBA has analysed that the area leased out for mining is critical for wildlife and constitutes an important wildlife corridor stretching from South Eastern Maharashtra to North Western Orissa. It is surrounded by tiger reserves including the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve to the north west, Kawal Tiger Reserve to the west, Indravati Tiger Reserve and the Udanti-Sitanadi Tiger Reserve to the north east.
The stretch also acts as a migratory route for tigers to the Eastern Ghats. Moreover, according to the CBA’s note, the proposed railway line and its mettle road leading to the conveyor gallery will completely fragment this important wildlife habitat.
Forest rights and diversion
Rowghat has received approval for forest diversion of only 883.22 ha, whereas the total mining area is 2028.797 ha, all of which according to the CBA is dense forest land in Kanker and Narayanpur districts. At this point of time, neither BSP nor SAIL have approval under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 to mine the rest of the area.
The other core issue related to forest diversion is the recognition of the rights of tribal and forest dwelling communities in the area, as per the Scheduled Tribes & Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA). The FRA lays out a process through which rights (both individual and community) of communities to occupy, cultivate, use and protect areas are to be recognised.
No diversion of forestland for non-forest use such as mining can be granted under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 until the process under FRA is complete. A clarification issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) on 3 August 2009 further elaborates this and also states that the consent of the gram sabha needs to be sought prior to the forest diversion.
CBA’s note released to the Press states that in the case of Rowghat, there is nothing in writing from the gram sabhas of the area which says that they don’t have any claims under FRA. Further, none of the gram sabhas have been consulted to date.
There are over 35 tribal villages surrounding the proposed mining area. What this implies is that the forest diversion of 2009 took place without following due legal requirements of the FRA.
While many issues related to direct impact, pending compensation and legal violation remain unresolved, Rowghat has even more serious issues to address before mining or construction of the railway line can proceed. Responses to Parliamentary questions and news reports have regularly pointed out that the development of Rowghat mines has gotten delayed due to “security reasons.”
It has also been stated that “strong Maoist presence and land acquisition issues are postponing the project, resulting in cost escalation”. The response, therefore, is that BSP is funding “construction of barracks” for paramilitary forces to ensure security for the proposed mining project. Paramilitary forces would be deployed also to guard the railway construction site between Dalli-Rajhara and Raoghat.
In the summary of the EIA for Rowghat mines, it has been claimed that the mine will be developed to full capacity by 2015-16. Till then the remaining reserves of Dalli Rajhara are to be utilized, which according to the BSP’s CEO can be used only up to 2015. From where we stand today, this timeline does not seem very far off. Will it prove to be a turning point either for the future of Rowghat or of the BSP?
*An independent researcher and member, Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group. Article also appeared in http://indiatogether.org