Environment minister Jairam Ramesh has overruled the statutory Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) and approved diversion of 595 hectares of forestland for mining in Chiria, Jharkhand, to maharatna company, the Steel Authority of India (SAIL).
This is for the third time Ramesh has overruled FAC. He had refused approval to Renuka Dam in Himachal Pradesh, which FAC approved, and then agreed to Posco Steel Plant in Orissa, which FAC had rejected.
"The FAC will continue to focus single-mindedly on forest related, bio-diversity-related issues and concerns, while as minister I will have to necessarily to take a broader view but placing on public record in a complete manner the reasons for taking that view," Ramesh said, in his order approving Chiria mines for SAIL.
The environment minister also tried to shrug off allegations of his interference in FAC by saying, he had made no effort whatsoever to interfere in its functioning. "I have gone out of my way to ensure that it functions professionally and in an independent manner," he said.
The Chiria mine complex covers around 2,376 hectares, about three percent of total Sardana forest area. Permission was sought for about 25 % of the total Chiria mining area, which Ramesh granted with 13 environmental conditions including non-mining to be shifted to non-forest areas and no forest roads will be used during night hours. Earlier, SAIL got forest clearance for two mines in the area in 1998.
Ramesh, who had been under fire for blocking projects, overruled FAC on the ground of SAIL’s good track record on corporate social responsibility and its Rs. 18,000 crore Initial Public Offer, of which 50 % will accrue to the Central government.
"Chiria is a left wing extremist affected region with a substaintial tribal population. CSR activities by SAIL could help in the socio-economic development of this region, particularly as far as the Ho tribal communities are concerned," the minister said.
He had directed SAIL to invest two percent of total investment for betterment of locals, especially the youth. Apart from this, Rs. 20 crore will have to be spent on local forest conservation and wildlife plan will have to prepared with the help of Wildlife Institute of India and Wildlife Trust of India.
Drawing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the approval order, the minister said the PM had written to Jharkhand Chief Minister in 2007 requesting for renewal of mining leases in Chiria in the "broader national interest".
Chiria mines are important for SAIL as in the next 50 years around 40 % of the iron ore requirement of the company will come from Chiria mines. "This is the only compact deposit available to SAIL," the minister's approval letter said.
The minister also believed that existing steel plants Bokaro, Burnpur, Durgapur and Rourkela will necessarily have to be run from iron ore from Chiria once the mines presently feeding them are depleted in 10-12 years.