Suspicion, Resistance Brew Against Proposed Diamond Mine in Bundelkhand

Representative photo: A road just outside Chhatarpur, Madhya Pradesh. Photo: felixdance/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

More than two lakh trees are to be cut for a diamond mine, called the Bunder project, in the Madhya Pradesh part of the drought-prone Bundelkhand region. The project is reportedly worth Rs 55,000 crore.

The project has run into resistance, including a big social media campaign with hashtags like #save_buxwaha_forest and #india_stand_with_buxwaha.

The project site, in Chhatarpur district, is only 20 km from the buffer zone of the Panna tiger reserve. If the project is executed, it will damage the wildlife corridor between Nauradehi wildlife sanctuary and the reserve.

In 2019, a company called Essel Mining, of the Aditya Birla Group, won a mining lease for 50 years over a notified area of 364 ha for the Bunder project. The state stood to receive 41.55% of the revenue in royalties.

Nine years earlier, the Anglo-Australian mining company Rio Tinto had submitted a proposal to operate the mine to the Madhya Pradesh government. It estimated based on a survey that the region had 34.20 million carats of diamond (6.8 tonnes).

The same year, Rio Tinto signed a contract with the state and invested Rs 140 crore. The state forest department issued a clearance for a small-scale project, mainly for an additional survey, and for the company to excavate 475 ha of land.

But in 2014, when Rio Tinto expressed an intention to establish a full mine over 971 ha, the forest department objected. Then the Madhya Pradesh government sent a proposal to the forest advisory committee (FAC), an apex body tasked with adjudicating forest clearance requests. FAC later deferred the clearance.

The project saw stiff opposition from the locals as well. In 2014, villagers in the area organised a large protest against Rio Tinto, citing environmental concerns and loss of livelihoods. Rio Tinto shut its operations in 2016 and handed the project over to the state.

“Our exit from Bunder is the latest example of Rio Tinto streamlining its asset portfolio. It simplifies our business, allowing us to focus on our world-class assets,” Rio Tinto chief executive Arnaud Soirat said at the time. “We believe in the value and quality of the Bunder project and support its future development, and the best way to achieve that is to hand over the assets to the Government of Madhya Pradesh.”

An official from the forest department confirmed to The Wire Science on condition of anonymity that the department had objected to the project. “But now the project has changed and it has been cleared by the government. A high level committee is deliberating upon it. if anything occurs, we will send our objections to the government,” the official added.

Many contentious issues remain. In 2015, a proposal that Rio Tinto drafted said the project site in Chhatarpur is home to many leopards, chinkara and peacocks, and is frequented by tigers as well. A 2017 report mentions the presence of critically endangered white-rumped vultures. However, in more recent assessments, the state pollution control board didn’t report the presence of any endangered species in the area.

Rio Tinto’s 2015 proposal, to divert land, was for 971.59 ha. Now, however, Essel Mining has pitched for 364 ha – but says the reduced area also contains 34.20 million carats of diamond.

Local activists expressed suspicion that Essel isn’t asking for all the land right away in order to avoid trouble. “If they had applied for the whole 971.59 ha, they may not have received clearance,” one of them said. But if they keep it gradual, it might be easier.”

Another concern is water. The mine and ore processing plant will need around 16,050 m3/day (or 5.9 million cubic metres a year). For this, Essel proposes to divert seasonal streams towards a reservoir, although the details are not clear.

The area has sedimentary Vindhyan rock. The water table is very low, and the deepest tubewells in the area already yield only 20-50 m3 of water per day. The Central Groundwater Authority has classified Buxwaha a semi-critical area in terms of water availability.

Next, many of the local residents depend on forest produce like tendu leaves for their livelihood. The region is known for its bidi production. “People migrate from here for employment, but when they return, their employment depends a lot on the forest, as it happened during the lockdown,” Arvind, a resident of Buxwaha block, said.

The Buxwaha forest has many teak, ken, baheda, banyan, jamun, tendu and arjuna trees – as well as jungle cats, sloth bears, jackals, striped hyena, Indian foxes and wild dogs.

“The question is how much employment will the project create? This area is drought-prone, and this forest is a lifeline for people residing in the villages,” Abhishek Jain, a local youngster who joined protests against Essel’s plans. “The company has promised to employ 400 people but these jobs will be for skilled workers. So the locals won’t be employed.”

Writer and social activist Avinash Chanchal echoed Jain, and added,

“Mining affects the overall well-being of the people, because the air and the water get polluted. They also generate pollution. All of these affect the health of the people.”

According to Jain, he and his compatriots in the area will organise a “Chipko movement on a broader scale” if Essel goes ahead with the mine. A resident of Jabalpur, 250 km to the south of Chhatarpur, has also filed a PIL in the Supreme Court asking for the project to be stayed.

However, Pradyuman Singh, the Bharatiya Janata Party MLA from Bada Malhera, some 50 km away, said the protesters were “mentally diseased” and “frustrated”, and who didn’t want “any development”.

“How can anyone say how many trees will be cut beforehand?” Singh said in an address to local journalists. “First, officers from the geology and the environment departments will visit the area” – and once trees are felled, “the government and the company will plant trees. If one tree is cut, 15 trees will be planted.”

However, compensatory afforestation in India has been becoming increasingly controversial.

Emails to Essel Mining hadn’t elicited a reply at the time of publishing this article. It will be updated as and when a reply is received.

Mayank Jain Parichha is a journalist based in Madhya Pradesh.

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