For the past two years, the environment and coal ministries have been at loggerheads about how much more of our forests can be sacrificed to mining. It began more than two years ago, with former environment minister Jairam Ramesh declaring "dense" areas of forests "no-go" for mining, ie where mining would be banned. Until then, his ministry had been clearing each project on merit. Ever since Ramesh announced the new policy, the coal ministry has been trying to dilute it.
Late last month, a group of ministers that the prime minister set up to play arbiter, scrapped Ramesh's policy. It said that mining should be banned only in "pristine" forests that the Forest Survey of India-FSI for short-should identify. A pristine forest is one rich in biodiversity and cannot be easily rejuvenated by humans. Until then, the environment ministry will clear individual projects on merit, like earlier.
Officials at FSI declined to say when it would complete this identification exercise. But whatever the definition, dense or pristine, environmentalists say the government should place our forests in a larger socio-economic context. Many forests are hotbeds of Maoist violence and house the country's most deprived communities. "The assessment has to be made in the larger political sense," said Kanchi Kohli of the non-profit group Kalpavriksh. "[It should include] the impact of mining on local ecosystems, communities and wildlife."
Some evidence of this is already available from two forested regions that have seen the most intense mining activity.
(With inputs from Shalini Singh)