‘Forest department said nearly 1 lakh trees would be cut if license for mining were given for Sandur forests’: B.K. Dikshit

Karnataka’s top forest official explains why the department opposes mining in Sandur’s rich forests.

Published : Jun 29, 2024 12:22 IST - 7 MINS READ

B.K. Dikshit, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, says the forest department and State government’s disagreement means conflict. 

B.K. Dikshit, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, says the forest department and State government’s disagreement means conflict.  | Photo Credit:  Youtube Screengrab

On June 22, the Karnataka government halted the transfer of 401.57 hectares of land which is part of the Sandur forest in Ballari to Kudremukh Iron Ore Company Limited (KIOCL) for mining purposes. Forest Minister Eshwar Khandre of the Siddaramaiah-led Congress government issued this clarification after Union Minister for Steel and Heavy Industries H.D. Kumaraswamy announced the Centre’s approval to lease the land to KIOCL on June 18. Given the potential environmental costs, the project and Kumaraswamy’s support for it faced backlash. Khandre halted the handover of forest land to KIOCL, stating, “If permission is given for mining, 99,330 trees will be cut down and destroyed. If the dense forest is destroyed, problems of soil erosion and flooding will arise”.

This decision came after a State-level review meeting where the environmental impact of mining and past violations by KIOCL were discussed. Kumaraswamy quickly responded, terming Karnataka’s objections “a unilateral decision”. Frontline interviewed B.K. Dikshit, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Head of Forest Force), who participated in the review meeting with the Forest Minister, to understand the Karnataka forest department’s stance on the issue and more. Excerpts:

Many people are linking the backlash to the mining project, being pushed by the NDA government, in Sandur to the Congress being in power in Karnataka. But the forest department was against this project even during the BJP government’s tenure in the State. Why is the forest department against this project?

It is widely known that Karnataka has very good forests across the Western Ghats. Most areas of this region get heavy rainfall and have a healthy nutrient cycle. But there are many areas where rainfall is not that high but still we have evergreen and semi-evergreen forests. Sandur is one such area. People might ask, “What is there in Ballari? What kind of forest is this?” But you go to Sandur and you will be surprised by the rich forests present there.

Sandur has iron and manganese. We all agree. It is also true that these minerals are required for development. But, as far as possible, we must ensure that minimal areas are given for mining. If KIOCL or any other company wants to start mining, they can look at areas where mining has taken place and forests are already fragmented .

But we should not be promoting mining in untouched areas. The Forest Minister was also saying the same thing [during the review meeting]. There are some mines in which part of the work was undertaken and then abandoned because the grade of the iron ore was considered low. But this grade is now being considered as good for use. So, old, abandoned mines can be taken up and made feasible. This is a better option than breaking up new forests in Sandur.

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Could you elaborate on the stand taken by the forest department when KIOCL first submitted its proposal for mining?

KIOCL had applied for clearance in 2018. The then Deputy Conservator of Forests, Chief Conservator of Forests, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, and Principal Chief Conservator of Forests as well as divisional and range forest officers were unanimous that around 1 lakh trees would be felled and that did not bode well for the environment. But then we learnt that the Union government had considered the proposal and decided it was favourable to allow mining. This was in 2022 [when the BJP was in power in the State].

We do not know how the decisions were taken at the State level because copies of letters don’t come to us. We, as the forest department, had taken a unanimous decision but the State government sits at an apex level. But you can see that if the forest department has opposed and the State government has proposed, then there is some conflict. There is no full agreement from the bottom to the top. This needs to be resolved. The basis and rationale for this disagreement was discussed in the meeting with the Forest Minister. The forest department conveyed that the trees, the land, and the ore belong to the State. So, we can decide on whether to go ahead with the permissions or impose some conditions.

When people hear “Sandur” or “Ballari”, they don’t immediately think of rich forests. At most, they think about degraded forests. And mining. As the head of the forest department, what would you say about this?

We have a working plan for the Ballari forest division. If you go through it, you will know what is the flora and fauna in Sandur. My personal experience in Sandur is that the temperature is lower than surrounding areas of Ballari. The heat is much lower and it has a very good microclimate. There are also many waterfalls in these forests. If you check Google maps, you will see mines but also waterfalls in the forests. This is what we need to conserve because it is a catchment area. If we lose them, water quality will go down. This is why the forest department is not in favour of non-forestry activities in these areas.

Apart from rich biodiversity, the other reason for opposing mining in Sandur is the KIOCL’s history of legal violations. What are your views on this? Does the forest department view mining proposals differently when they come from a company with a bad track record?

Yes, this was an issue during discussions. We discussed how KIOCL undertook mining in Kudremukh which was not in compliance with the law. They increased the height of Lakya dam and the area under submergence increased. They also transported iron ore from Kudremukh to Mangalore through pipes. This was done without permission and without making payment. Now KIOCL needs to take corrective steps. Let the past be set right first and then we will think about the future.

On your second question about the company’s track record, no, we do not assess proposals in a different way depending on the company submitting them. We poetically call this “dispassionately passionate”. We make decisions based on facts of the case. A company’s track record would make a difference if they don’t correct it. But a decision to not set something right is not a good thing.

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KIOCL has not corrected past violations. Mining dues are still pending. The company has also not implemented guidelines given by the Central Empowered Committee with respect to its violations.

Up until now, yes. They have not. In the future, they can.

 Even if KIOCL pays all its dues and obtains fresh forest permissions, the harm to biodiversity will still be there. Will the forest department agree to the mining proposal if past mistakes are corrected?

This question remains open. But the forest department—from range forest officers to top officials—has said in unison that this is not a good proposal. So, I cannot personally take a stand and say it is a good proposal. I have no grounds to reconsider or disagree. The damage that mining will cause is too high. The calculation that almost 1 lakh trees [99,330 to be precise] will be cut was assessed by the forest department. Many people have already applied their mind.

 Recently, there was news of reviving mining in Kolar Gold Fields (KGF). With H.D. Kumaraswamy heading the Heavy Industries and Steel Ministry, there could be more proposals for iron ore mining in the State. What are the forest department’s views on ore mining in Karnataka?

The principle remains the same. If you are proposing to use an area which was already fragmented, the forest department might be more favourable to consider the proposal because you are not causing a new wound. Whether it’s KGF or Hatti gold mines or any other proposal, we will assess new damage.

Saying if the entire world is a forest, everything will be hunky dory is not anybody’s case. But it’s also true that if every last tree is cut, we will not be able to sustain development. We need a balance. As the forest department, we are willing to compromise but it is difficult to compromise when the ecosystems are unique and the forests are virgin forests.

Rishika Pardikar is an environment reporter covering science, law, and policy.

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