Anger simmers in Andhra Pradesh after Centre clears uranium project in Nallamala forest
A strike last week underscored growing public anger over the government’s green light to explore uranium in the Nallamala forest — home to one of India’s oldest tiger reserves and the Chenchu, a primitive and protected hunter-gatherer tribe.
Hidden within its belly, Nallamala forest straddling the twin states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh apparently has the best quality uranium; unique and superior.
A 2015 study suggested a rich lode of uranium in Nallamala’s Amrabad forest range.
Uranium-based nuclear plants are key to India’s future energy plans, where a quarter of the 1.2 billion people has little or no access to electricity. The country imports uranium from France, Russia and Kazakhstan, and operates 20 mostly small reactors.
The government hopes to mine uranium, and shift gradually from its dependency to coal-fired power stations.
The National Board for Wildlife cleared a proposal from the Atomic Minerals Directorate for Exploration and Research this April to conduct a survey and explore the expensive mineral over 83 square km of Amrabad.
“The survey area might not be big, but enough for a sample study. Uranium reserves are present in a vast extent of Nallamala forest, extending from Amrabad to Peddagattu near the Nagarjunasagar reservoir. The entire area has to be explored to know how much is there,” said G Ramadas, professor at the geophysics department of Osmania University.
Environmentalists and villagers in the area fear the sample survey will lead to a bigger exploration, ultimately leading to the forest’s destruction and uprooting of its indigenous inhabitants.
Nallamala has the Rajiv Gandhi Nagarjuna Sagar-Srisailam tiger reserve project, declared one of the oldest in the country in 1993.
It is a reserved zone for Chenchus, since the Nizams and British ruled the region. The Chenchus depend solely on the jungle, hunting game and gathering forest produce for a living.
“As of now, it is just a survey and exploration, which doesn’t cause much disturbance to ecology and wildlife. When mining starts, it is an issue of concern. There is still a long way to go,” principal chief conservation of forest Prashant K Jha said.
The forest-dwellers and villagers living nearby feel threatened by the proposed exploration. People in Nagarkurnool district, which covers Amrabad, observed a total shutdown last week in protest.
They want the government to guarantee that no Chenchu will be evacuated from the area.
“Exploration and mining will threaten Nallamala’s rich bio-diversity. Mineral waste could pollute the Krishna river flowing through the forest, and that will be a serious health hazard,” environmentalist P Purushottam Reddy said.
People living on the Krishna basin don’t want the uranium mining to happen, according to social activist Sajaya Kakarla, representing the Anti-Uranium Mining Struggle Committee, a pressure group.
“The government had to withdraw similar plans in the past because of strong protests,” she said.
Forest authorities tried to allay the anxiety, assuring that mining will happen on forest fringes, not inside deep jungles.
“So, there is no threat to wildlife or the tribal population. But all depends on the outcome of the exploration,” said PK Sarma, a retired chief wildlife warden.
Geophysicist Ramdas gave perspective to the debate — admitting that mining would destroy forests and Nallamala’s natural ecosystem.
“But if the country needs uranium for strategic development, it is inevitable,” he said.