For the past two months, a protest has been gaining momentum in central India's Bundelkhand. It concerns a 382.131-hectare patch of the protected Buxwaha forest that is proposed to be allotted to the Bunder diamond block. The forest clearance report states that a total of 2,15,875 trees would have to be cut down in this area for the proposed mine.
The bid for the block, which is estimated to have 34 million carats of rough diamonds, was won by Aditya Birla Group’s Essel Mining & Industries Limited in December 2019. But there are several intricacies related to this controversial project that need to be examined.
Livelihood of Tribals Under Threat
Buxwaha forest lies in the Chhatarpur district of Madhya Pradesh, about 260 km northeast of the state capital of Bhopal. Amit Bhatnagar, a volunteer with ‘Buxwaha Jungle Bachao Andolan’, said, "The region is still considered backward. Around 7,000 villagers of the 17 tribal villages in the territory depend solely on forest products, like Mahua, Tendu leaves, Chironji, Aamla, etc, for their livelihood. The proposed mine would snatch away their income sources. For example, Mahua earns a family about Rs 40,000 to Rs 1,00,000 in a season."
But the assessment report submitted by Chhattarpur's Chief Forest Conservator (CFC) on 2 January 2021 claimed that the tribals of the area were 'NOT DEPENDENT' on the proposed forest and that 'no right of tribals has been recognized in the area'.
Speaking to The Quint, Anurag Kumar, District Forest Officer (DFO), said, "We regularly visit the forest and the tribal villages. They (tribals) have shown no resentment about the project. Rather, they are happy that the mines would bring employment opportunities for them."
On the question about the threat to tribals' livelihood if the mine materialises, Kumar said, "The area proposed for mining consists of only a partial forest (area) where the tribals venture. The rest of the forest will remain intact."
What Is At Stake?
According to the Indian Bureau of Mines (IBM), among India's four diamond-reserve states – Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Odisha – Madhya Pradesh alone accounts for about 90.18 percent. National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC) is actively pursuing prospective diamond blocks in these states.
Aditya Birla group’s EMIL plans to develop a fully mechanised opencast mine and state-of-the-art processing plant for recovery of diamonds with an investment of around Rs 2,500 crore. The company claims that the project, once operational, has the potential to become one of the largest diamond mines in the Asian region.
In the past, the Madhya Pradesh government granted a prospecting licence to Australian mining giant Rio Tinto in 2006. IBM had conditionally approved the mine plan over an area of 954 hectares in Buxwaha. But the project faced stiff opposition and, in 2016, the government shelved its permission, saying that the plan endangered a rich forest area and a tiger corridor between the Panna Tiger Reserve and Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary.
After spending around USD 90 million over 14 years, the Australian company exited the project in 2017. The MP government invited fresh bids for the USD 90-billion diamond mine project. However, it had reduced the mining area to more than half of what was leased to Rio Tinto initially.
The new round of bidding took place in December 2019 and EMIL won the 50-year lease. Reports suggest that the mine could generate annual revenue worth Rs 1,550 crore for the MP government.
EMIL is currently in the process of obtaining various regulatory clearances, such as approval of mine plan, environment & forest clearances required for the execution of mining lease, etc. The company aims for the execution of the mining lease by the end of financial year 2022 and thereafter initiate the operations.
Petitions and Protests
The massive ecological cost of the project has invited resistance against the project. Activist Neha Singh filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) with the Supreme Court to stop the project. Another activist, Dr PG Najpande, moved National Green Tribunal (NGT) pleading to quash the permission granted for the diamond mine.
Protests against the possible environmental damage by the mine have been growing for some time now. A group staged a symbolic 'Chipko movement' in Buxwaha on the occasion of World Environment Day on 5 June. However, most of the protests are online. Environment lovers have created social media pages to raise awareness on the issue. '#SaveBuxwahaForest' was among the top ten trending topics on Twitter on 20 May.
"Our protests started prominently in the last couple of months. But we had to limit our opposition because of the pandemic. Gradually, we shall enhance our protests and if the need arises, we can also resort to mass mobilisation. We have established a national core committee and are in the process of making village-level committees to raise awareness," said Bhatnagar, who lives in Chhatarpur's Bijawar.
Sharad Singh Kumre of Bhopal's ‘Paryawaran Bachao Abhiyan’, who is also part of the Buxwaha protest, said, "Forests across the country are being destroyed by industries. But most of it goes largely unnoticed. It is a blessing that the protest for Buxwaha's forest has come to the national limelight. Many scientists, professors, retired civil servants and judges are expected to join the protest as it gains momentum."
DFO Kumar, however, dismissed the protests by citing the rationale of jobs that the mining would bring. He said, "It is only outsiders that are coming here and protesting. Locals seem to be welcoming the mine."
“If the project is approved and the mining starts, as per the rules, the company will have to compensate for the forest diversion due to the project by way of afforestation in another area,” Kumar said.
But according to Bhatnagar, the concept of compensatory afforestation is only on paper and not on the ground. "The trees planted to compensate for the lakhs of trees cut down for Bundelkhand Expressway Highway are hardly alive. The Ken-Betwa Interlinking Project risks the lives of 21 lakh trees, officially. But the actual number is many times higher," he said. "In this mining project also, the assessment of 2 lakh trees is much lower than the actual count of flora. And what about the animals living in these forests?"