February 5, 2014 at 9:17 am  •  

Baitarani is beck of mining mafia. By the bash of mining, Baitarani always beleaguered. Who was to look after the bounties of Baitarani? Did Odisha government know about such brigandage of river Baitarani and the environment? Leaked parts of the Shah Commission’s report on Odisha Mining Scam places Baitarani and mining as bone of contention. Now, it’s high time to provide breather for Baitarani or leave it to go breathless and bone-dry.

Justice M B Shah Commission’s report is yet to be put in Public domain, officially. Leave aside the official public domain, even the Supreme Court of India has been denied of access to this report. But whatever is learnt from the leaked volumes of the complete report and, also, from the media reports and the desperate attempts of Ministry of Environment and Forest to initiate some actions by writing to the state government of Odisha, shocking is much softer a word to describe the volume and gravity of the mineral loot. Justice Shah Commission, in its report, has brought to light that at least 55 mines located close to river Baitarani and its tributaries have a direct impact on the health of the river. The commission also has recommended that operation of these mines may be closed till the environmental approvals to the mines are revisited by a panel of experts.

These mines are operated by 40 companies that includes some of the big names like Tata Steel, Jindal Steel and Mines, Sarada Mining, Rungta Mines, Ferro Alloys Corporation (FACOR), Adhunik Metaliks, SN Mohanty, Pabodh Mohanty, BPME, Patnaik Minerals, Kalinga Mining Corporation, PSUs like Steel Authority of India Ltd (SAIL) and the state run Odisha Mining Corporation.

Shah Commission has reportedly advised that a definite decision be taken whether to allow large-scale mining in the catchment area of the river Baitarani that acts as the lifeline for three districts in Odisha. The commission has further observed that unscientific, unsustainable and over mining of iron and manganese ore has a high impact on the very existence of the Baitarani and its tributaries. No effective measures are taken ever to mitigate such problems.

MoEF, in desperation to present that some action has been taken, has ordered the Odisha government to cancel the lease of 55 mines located near river Baitarani and its tributaries. It has instructed the state government to serve these mines show cause notices as to why their lease should not be cancelled given that they have been mining in this area in violation of the Environment Protection Act and other relevant Acts.

Odisha government on its part has instructed the district collectors of five mining districts of the state to file cases against miners, who have been found to have violated the Environment Protection Act but have managed to escape prosecution so far. The Secretary of the Environment and Forest Department R K Sharma has asked the District Collectors of Sundargarh, Jajpur, Bolangir, Rayagada and Keonjhar on 25th January to immediately file prosecution and submit the copies of complaints filed in the criminal courts without delay. The collectors have been asked to personally monitor the cases.

Now the Odisha government is putting in yet another effort so that ‘justice seem to be delivered’ on the environmental front. But, going by the past records, one cannot be very optimistic about it.

As reported, the Forest and Environment department of Odisha has decided to file prosecution against 119 cases in these five districts. As response to the MoEF order, details of these cases filed in the local courts would be forwarded to the Centre with detail. But these cases were filed by the state in yet another desperate effort just before the visit of the Commission. Even the Commission’s report has observed that the government had filed the bulk of the cases on the eve of the Commission’s visit to cover up the huge scam. It also has noted that the state police and other state authorities are incapable of carrying out a thorough probe and catching the guilty as the whole scam is engineered by a politician-official-mining mafia nexus. Those who are in the know of the things say, this is another whitewashing effort. The cases against these mines are not strong enough to stand in the court of law and result in desired action.

But, what is more than shocking is the scale in which the environment protection Act was being violated in Odisha. It is not a stray case where the state government has forgotten, over sighted or failed to enforce the EPA. Not one or two, 55 mines in the vicinity of River Baitarani have cared a hoot for the environment.

The Commission in its report has observed that during the rainy season highly polluted muddy and turbid water from the waste dump of 176 mines located in the district of Keonjhar and Mayurbhanj has been responsible for silting of the rivers and rivulets and have been highly detrimental to the aquatic life of the rivers as well as the estuarine area in Bay of Bengal. The report has said that the network of water channels and small nallas originating from hill tops and heavily forested slopes are now “completely shattered due to large mining pits, dumps, roads and other mining activities. It has added that, due to mining, agriculture and minor forest produce collection that sustains the tribals for a large chunk of the year has also been greatly affected.

One is tempted to question what Odish’s Forest and Environment Department, State Pollution Control Board and Water Resources Department were doing all these years while one of the six large rivers of the state, Baitarani, was systematically decimated. What the Odisha State Pollution Control Board, who must take the responsibility of monitoring the pollution of water and air, was doing? What the Forest and environment department was doing? And what was done by the Water Resources Department as the custodian of the rivers? No one simply bothered. It is not that things happened overnight and these departments and agencies were caught off guard. These violations have been taking place since 1992, as per the Commission Report. In fact there has not been any effort to protect the rivulets and the river in the first place. The Commission has reportedly said that “on perusal of approved environmental clearances given by the Environment Ministry, it is observed that the information inputs of rivulets, water courses and rivers in and around mines are either incomplete or suppressed or false.” And the state outfits were not the only ones who have faltered. Even the MoEF has not cared a hoot for enforcement of the Environment Protection Act. As said by Sangram Keshari, a known green activist of the state, “Environment Protection Act is a piece of legislation that no one is interested in. It is natural that the miners, the department of mines and other related departments are not interested in it. But, even, those who have the mandate to enforce it are not interested in implementing it. Rather say, they have a vested interest in non-implementation of EPA.”

Shah Commission also has recommended that action should be taken against those who are guilty and have allowed the mines to run without proper clearances. But hardly anyone believes that any punitive measures are going to be taken against those guilty. A state that has tolerated non-collection of legitimate revenues for years together and allowed the mines to operate with impunity seems to be neither interested in the protection of environment nor in augmentation of the state funds. The interest is rather in private fund generation by a vested interest group scattered all across the spectrum. A glaring example of this is the collection of net present value for the forest land diverted for mining.

Even though payment of net present value (NPV) is part of the mining licensing procedure, Rs 813.4 crore is not paid by the mining companies against the NPV of the forest land diverted to facilitate exploration of minerals. But the forest department was napping happily till 27th January 2014 till Forest and Environment Secretary R.K. Sharma directed the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (PCCF) to withdraw forest clearances from the operative mines if they fail to pay their NPV towards forest land diversion latest by February 28. And Odisha government afforded to nap happily despite a Supreme Court order of 7th May, 2010 to recover outstanding NPV dues from the miners. The state government has proposed to spend about Rs 801 crore from the additional NPV for the development of infrastructure and livelihood of tribals in the mining areas. A project report has also been prepared by Odisha government which is still awaiting final approval of the MoEF. This fund will be spent in seven mineral bearing districts. The plan for spending also has been done, but the fund has not yet been collected. Out of the outstanding NPV of 813.4 crore, the state run Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC) alone owes Rs 276.90 crore, more than third of the total outstanding dues, to the forest and environment department.

“The overall situation is quite depressing. There are good laws and rules for the protection of environment and protection of interest of people. But, the way these rules and acts are being manipulated, even by the ministries and departments who should be enforcing them, is quite distressing. Can the environment be left to the cares of the disjointed works of a few activists on the ground whom the government and the vested interest is quite prompt in declaring as anti-development or naxals? Today I think that these activists are doing a better job than the governments put together, even though for the development sector ‘activist’ is a dirty word,” says an activist working on mining and displacement issues in Keonjhar. May be he has summed up the whole process aptly.

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