A bid to de-notify a part of a sacred national park with a perceived Ramayana connection to facilitate uranium exploration has incensed tribal groups in Meghalaya.
The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has asked the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to de-notify 8 sq km inside the 400 sq km Balpakram National Park (BNP) in Meghalaya’s South Garo Hills. The area falls on the ecologically fragile Rongcheng Plateau.
The Standing Committee of the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) under MoEF had in a meeting on 12 December 2008 discussed DAE’s proposal for exploratory uranium mining in BNP.
DAE justified the need for targeting BNP citing India’s national resolve to generate at least 20,000MW of nuclear power by 2020. The Rongcheng plateau, a recent DAE survey said, is one of the “most potential” sites for “high grade, large tonnage uranium deposits” that requires confirmation through exploratory drilling.
According to the Garo Hills Anti-Mining Forum (GHNAMF) – a conglomerate of 11 social and green organizations – locals were kept in the dark about the “clandestine bid” until it moved RTI last year.
“We are not going to allow any mining activities inside BNP,” said GHNAMF general secretary Ginseng Sangma. The biodiversity hotspot tag on BNP was not the only reason, he added.
“Balpakram is sacred for the Garo tribal people. We believe the spirit of our ancestors reside in these forests sustaining the tiger, hoolock gibbon and slow loris besides elephants,” said fellow activist Vaishali A Sangma.
BNP is holy for Hindus too. They believe Balpakram was the mythological mound from where Hanuman plucked sanjeevani, the life-giving herb, for the wounded Lakshman felled by Meghnad in Ramayana.
But isn’t mining activity in and around a national park rejected outright? In the case of uranium, considered a critical mineral, the MoEF can allow its mining in the “larger national interest”.
DAE officials said things “haven’t progressed enough” to invite anger from local organizations. But NMWL member Bibhab Talukdar said a team is scheduled to visit BNP on April 22 to seek the views of the people on DAE's proposal and submit a report to the standing committee.
Notably, another uranium mining proposal in Domiasiat area of West Khasi Hills district in Meghalaya has been hanging fire since 1992. Several anti-nuke groups have stalled the project citing radiation effect on human health and environmental degradation.
The Uranium Corporation of India Limited wants to set up a Rs 1046 crore opencast uranium mining and processing unit in Domiasiat. The area bordering Bangladesh has an estimated deposit of 9.22 million tones of uranium ore. EOM