A story of ups and downs

Published : Jan 27, 2006 00:00 IST

IRON ore deposits were first discovered in the hill ranges of Kudremukh (named after a 1,892-metre-high peak shaped like a horse's face, which is what the name means in Kannada) by the renowned geologist of the erstwhile State of Mysore, P. Sampath Iyengar, in 1913. There were 431 million tonnes (eight to 10 million tonnes are still left) of weathered secondary ore and 300 million tonnes of primary banded magnetite quartzite ore in the Aroli-Gangamoola ranges alone and over 3,000 million tonnes in the entire region.

Located about 110 km east of Mangalore, Kudremukh is part of the ecologically fragile and biodiversity-rich Western Ghats chain of peninsular India, a region which has been identified as one of the 18 `hot spots' of global biodiversity and is part of the Global 200 regions identified by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) for concentrated conservation efforts. Kudremukh, which has one of the largest stretches of low, mid- and high-elevation evergreen forests, is a unique mosaic of shola forests and grasslands. Kudremukh also supports the largest concentration of breeding lion-tailed macaques, a highly endangered primate that is endemic to the Western Ghats. The forests of Kudremukh are also home to 42 species of mammals, 169 species of birds, 34 species of amphibians, 54 species of reptiles and a large variety of flora, including orchids and pansies.

Home to the almost 600-square-kilometre Kudremukh National Park (KNP), one of the largest - in terms of contiguity - protected areas, the importance of the region, which is essentially on the western part of the Western Ghats, can be gauged by the large number of research proposals that it annually receives.

Explains a forest officer: "We are still to uncover many of the region's secrets. Recently, we discovered the existence of a snake that was thought to have been extinct in these parts for over 75 years. We have also discovered the existence of an endemic frog, known locally as `Hussaini'. Found nowhere else in the world, this largish and wrinkled frog, which eats crabs and snails, is found in streams like the Kadambi hole [stream]. We are currently writing to the International Council for Zoological Nomenclature about the discovery." Recent discoveries of amphibians such as the large-eyed bat snake and reptiles such as the skink, and even mammals such as the civet, which were thought to have vanished from the area, have made us change the bio-geographic theory [distribution maps] of these species."

The annual rainfall in Kudremukh is among the heaviest in India (an average of 6,500 mm, most of it between June and September). It is the source of three important rivers of peninsular India - the Tunga, the Bhadra and the Nethravathi - two of whose catchment areas are in the vicinity. The combination of opencast mining, steep terrain, loose soil and very heavy rainfall is a sure recipe for disaster. A vast majority of studies unmistakably indicate massive sedimentation of the Bhadra river downstream from the Kudremukh Iron Ore Company Limited's mines. But reports vary sometimes, depending on which side had commissioned them.

The KIOCL's recent pollution control methods such as check dams and pollution control dams have reduced sedimentation, but not stopped it altogether. According to environmental experts, opencast mining by its very nature is a very destructive activity, causing virtually irreparable damage. Even to a layperson, the difference between the abandoned mine areas and the currently mined areas and the adjoining natural grasslands and forests is stark.

The KIOCL, set up in 1976, inherited a 30-year-lease for mining in an area of 4,604.55 ha (or 46 square kilometres), originally granted to the National Mineral Development Corporation in 1969. The NMDC had entered into a joint venture with the American Marcona group and the Japanese Mon group, which fell through because of procedural delays. That lease expired on July 24, 1999. Two 12-month temporary working permissions were given subsequently. The leased area comprised 3,203.55 ha of forest land and 1,401 ha of revenue land. Of the total leased area (4,604.55 ha), the broken-up area totals 1,452.74 ha, of which the actual mineralised area (ore body) is 485 ha.

When the decision to site the mine at Kudremukh was taken in the early 1970s, the effects and consequences of environmental degradation, habitat fragmentation and biodiversity loss were poorly understood. But today, laws like the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, and the Environment Protection Act, 1986, prevent mining in ecologically sensitive areas. Also, the body of knowledge that is available today makes clear the adverse impact of continuing mining in eco-sensitive areas like the Western Ghats. This was clearly in the mind of the Supreme Court when it ruled in October 2002 that the KIOCL must wind up its mining operations in Kudremukh by December 31, 2005, a stand that was reiterated in September 2005 when it said "no mining is permissible after December 31, 2005".

The KIOCL, set up as a 100 per cent export-oriented public sector company to supply 7.5 million tonnes of iron ore concentrate from low-grade magnetite ore to the National Iranian Steel Mills, has come a long way from the bleak days of 1980 when it had no buyers because the Shah's regime collapsed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The KIOCL's fortunes took a turn for the better after it entered into a barter deal with the Romanian government to supply one million tonnes of iron ore concentrate in return for equipment to set up a pelletisation plant in Mangalore with a capacity of three million tonnes a year (the capacity was subsequently increased to four million tonnes). It thrived post-1986, because of the booming requirement for steel, especially in Japan and China.

The KIOCL, which currently has around 1,950 employees on its rolls (1,258 of whom are stationed in the mines at Kudremukh), had toted up a turnover of Rs.1,853.77 crores in 2004-05 and earned a profit of Rs.650 crores. It also has a cash surplus of Rs.1,500 crores. Says P. Ganesan, Chairman and Managing Director: "Setting up a facility like the one the KIOCL has at Kudremukh will cost around Rs.4,000 crores."

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