December 31st, 2005 was an environmentally historic day that went virtually unnoticed, even by most environmentalists. It was the day on which a landmark judgment of the Supreme Court of India took effect, bringing the curtain down on a mining operation that was causing havoc in the Western Ghats of Karnataka. The Supreme Court’s order was all the more remarkable because what was closed down was no two-bit operation but a massive, government-owned, export-oriented, profit making mining operation of the Kudremukh Iron Ore Mining Company Limited (KIOCL), one of the so called ‘Mini Ratna PSUs’.
The Judgment was the culmination of a hard-fought campaign led by a Bangalore based NGO, Wildlife First, and serves as further proof that a small band of committed people can make a big difference
A tragedy in the hills
Most people will recognize the name Kudremukh as a place where iron ore comes from. But few are aware that this iron ore has been extracted from the heart of one of the most spectacular and biologically rich tropical rainforest landscapes in the country.
Open cast mining is a highly destructive activity and Kudremukh is one of the worst places to have situated such an operation. The hill slopes are steep, and the region receives a mind boggling 6500 mm of rain a year, most of it as heavy downpours during the four months of the southwest monsoon between June to September. Compounding the problem is the fact that the mined slopes are just above the River Bhadra. Every monsoon, over 100,000 tonnes of loose soil are washed down from the slopes and into the river, depositing iron ore laden silt on the fields of farmers cultivating downstream, and finally emptying into the Bhadra Reservoir. The mining company’s much touted ‘profit-making’ status did not take into consideration the much greater economic losses caused by the siltation. In fact, the enormous silt loads have drastically reduced the water holding capacity of the Bhadra Reservoir, which was designed to have a lifespan of 180 years.
Most ironic of all, the ore extracted from Kudremukh at this tremendous cost to the environment was of a low grade and did not go towards fulfilling any vital national need. It was exported to China, Taiwan and Japan.
Lakya – a ticking time bomb
The problem with low-grade iron ore is that it generates a vast amount of waste, known as tailings. In the case of Kudremukh, with an iron ore content of just 30%, the remaining 70% of waste mud had to be dumped somewhere. That ‘somewhere’ turned out to be the forested Lakya valley, across which a tailings dam was constructed. This dam now contains over 150 million tonnes of iron ore tailings and is a disaster waiting to happen. In 1994 it developed a serious crack, leading to panic. People were evacuated as far away as 45 km downstream, and emergency repairs were carried out. A big earthquake or extraordinarily heavy rainfall is all it would take to break the dam and cause a disastrous mud flood. Such accidents have occurred worldwide. One of the worst instances of this nature was when a tailings dam in the Stava Valley in Italy broke on July 19, 1985, sending six million cubic feet of semi-fluid mud hurtling down towards an unsuspecting community, killing over two hundred people and totally destroying homes, buildings and bridges. The estimated financial damage: 133 million Euros. Since then there have been 33 incidents of tailings dams breaching, including 8 in the United States.
Other impacts of mining
The impacts of mining go beyond the extraction of ore and the dumping of the tailings. The Aroli-Gangamoola range of hills in Malleshwara, where the Kudremukh mine is located, was previously virtually inaccessible. So a ghat road had to be built from the plains to reach it. A large self-contained township was then created to house the workers and management. Additional roads were cut through pristine forest and grasslands to provide access for giant earth moving machines, and blasting was taken up in earnest to loosen the soil. To get the iron ore to the pellet plant in the port city of Mangalore, a 67 km pipeline was laid through the forest, with a road created to service it. Everyday iron ore, in the form of slurry, was pumped downhill to the pellet plant. The slurry pipe is prone to breakage, and in the year 2000 alone, it broke four times, spilling an estimated 4000 tonnes of concentrated iron ore into crystal clear rainforest streams.
The damage does not end there. To portray itself as a ‘green’ company, KIOCL went on a massive tree-planting spree, planting some 8 million saplings of exotics like Eucalyptus and Acacia on 2000 acres of natural grasslands, in the name of ‘compensatory afforestation’. These invasive alien species are now spreading by themselves, and it is feared that they could gradually replace the native species in the shola forests.
These are the impacts of mining that are visible even to the casual observer, but the long-term ecological damage goes even deeper. One of the more serious consequences of the mining is the massive habitat fragmentation that has taken place. Scientific research during the last three decades has revealed that habitat fragmentation is the single largest threat to biodiversity and biological integrity. Kudremukh and its surrounding forests comprise one of the largest blocks of tropical rainforests in the Western Ghats and harbour many rare and endemic species including the lion tailed macaque and great pied hornbill.
Because of its biological importance Kudremukh was declared a National Park in 1987, thus bringing it under the purview of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, which disallows any non-forestry activity, including mining, within a protected area. But KIOCL was allowed to continue, thanks to a 30-year mining lease. However, even after the expiry of its lease in 1999 the company continued mining under ‘temporary extensions’ of its permit. More ominously, it applied for a renewal of its lease for another 20 years and sought permission to open up new areas to mining. This is when Wildlife First decided to go to court. In association with Delhi based NGO LAW-E, an Interlocutory Application was filed in the Supreme Court in 2001 under the Godavarman Thirumalpad vs. Union of India omnibus forest case.
After two years of arguments, during which the petitioners produced overwhelming evidence of environmental destruction, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court, headed by the Chief Justice, handed down their order in October 2002 to close down all mining operations in Kudremukh by December 31, 2005. Numerous appeals by KIOCL failed to move the court and, on the appointed day, operations were shut down, bringing to an end three decades of horrific destruction in a fragile ecosystem.
Healing the wounds
With all the topsoil long gone, healing the devastating wounds left by mining is going to be an extremely challenging task that could take decades of diligent and patient work by an army of horticulturists. But before any planting can even begin the mined slopes will have to be carefully studied and, in some cases, may have to be stabilized to prevent landslips. Unfortunately KIOCL is now trying to use this issue of slope stability as a ruse to continue mining for another three years, although expert opinion clearly indicates that slope stability, if required, can be achieved through standard geo-technical practices such as soil nailing and geo-meshing, which do not require the moving of large amounts of earth. This issue is still pending before the Supreme Court.
The campaign to stop the mining in Kudremukh, although successful, was by no means a simple, painless process for those involved. Apart from harassment and intimidation of various kinds, 13 criminal cases, on baseless grounds such as “trespass into the National Park” and “collecting water samples from the Bhadra River”, have been filed against 18 individuals in 4 courts spread over 3 districts in Karnataka by a forest official apparently working at the behest of the company. A sustained effort has also been made by vested interests to discredit the NGOs by planting scurrilous stories against them in newspapers, magazines and TV channels. Thankfully, higher courts have stayed all 13 cases, and the NGOs have served legal notices on the publications that carried the blatantly defamatory stories. The Kudremukh saga has clearly shown the disturbing trend of how big businesses, including PSUs, attempt to subvert even Supreme Court judgments by co-opting the media through the lure of advertising revenues. It is to be seen whether the long arm of the law will finally bring these unscrupulous publications, renegade government officials and their paymasters to book.
Post script by Praveen Bhargav, Managing Trustee, Wildlife First
In response to a petition filed by Wildlife First, the Supreme Court directed the CEC to file its recommendations and carry out a site inspection in August, 2002. The damning report not only recommended the stoppage of mining but also concluded that the mining lease does not confer any right over the land and that no new rights can accrue to KIOCL within the Kudremukh National Park (KNP).
On October 30th 2002, the Apex Court in a landmark judgment accepted the Recommendations of the CEC and ordered that all mining activities must stop on 31st December, 2005. The Apex Court also directed that “…the modalities to be adopted to effectuate the order passed by this Court and the recommendations of the Committee shall be worked out by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the State Government and the Company under the supervision and guidance and monitoring of the Committee”.
However, eight years after the Judgment and five years after the time period to wind up mining elapsed, the State is still dragging its feet. Even now, KIOCL is fully in control of the lapsed lease area and is obdurately refusing to remove its plant and machinery from the limits of KNP. It is no secret that two senior Ministers who hail from that area, ostensibly on the advice of a former Judge, who unsuccessfully represented KIOCLs labor union in the Supreme Court, are constantly intervening and attempting to support the efforts of KIOCL to stonewall the Judgment.
Consequently, KIOCL continues to lord over several thousand acres of public lands within the limits of KNP without even a lease or payment of rent. Even more bizarre is the fact that in 2007, a senior IAS officer, ignoring the CECs recommendations and Court’s directions, wrote to KIOCL conveying the in-principle approval of the Government to change the land use from mining to eco-tourism. Glossing over the legal position that the rights over land in the mining area were already vested in the Government, he even went on to “request” KIOCL to release 200 acres of land for a Police Commando Training School.
Not just the CEC but even the Report of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of the State Legislature has been ignored. The PAC has made serious observations on KIOCL. In their report tabled in the Legislative Assembly in July 2009, it has recommended disciplinary action against senior officials for their failure to recover the fine of Rs. 139 crores imposed on KIOCL for destroying forests.
On its part, KIOCL tried every trick in the book to reverse the Judgment. After two Review Petitions were dismissed, the last legal option – a Curative petition was filed. This was also dismissed by the Supreme Court. And yet KIOCL continues to hang on thanks to the Government’s benevolence.