Odisha mine project: ‘Felling of 1.3 lakh trees to have negligible impact’

Some 10,000 trees have already been felled. The project involves diversion of 1,03,187 ha of forest land in Odisha’s Jharsuguda and Sambalpur districts.
The forest department confirmed that 17,704 trees will be felled in first phase of the project in Sambalpur division. Image used for representational purpose only.(Satyabrata Tripathy/HT Photo)
The forest department confirmed that 17,704 trees will be felled in first phase of the project in Sambalpur division. Image used for representational purpose only.(Satyabrata Tripathy/HT Photo)
Published on Dec 14, 2019 12:44 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByJayashree Nandi

Felling 130,000 trees will have a “negligible” impact on the “ecology of the region”, a site inspection report of the Odisha forest department’s Sambalpur division said in 2014 -- a fact that is just coming to light as protests gather momentum against the felling of trees for the state-owned Neyveli Lignite Corporation India Limited’s opencast coal mine.

Some 10,000 trees have already been felled. The project involves diversion of 1,03,187 ha of forest land in Odisha’s Jharsuguda and Sambalpur districts. The Centre granted final forest clearance to the project in March; earlier this month, the felling of trees began in the Talabira forest in Sambalpur division.

Villagers in the area, dependent on the forest for minor forest produce and who have traditionally protected the forest, started protesting soon after they alleged that the gram sabha consent for the mine was forged. The site inspection report came to light when activists started looking into various permissions for the project.

“We objected to the project. Two gram sabha hearings were conducted for this mine. One, original, in which objections of villagers were recorded and another, forged with false signatures. We have the original gram sabha document in Odiya with us,” said Hemant Kumar Raut of Khinda village over phone. “The villagers were shocked when they saw thousands of Sal trees being felled in Talabira. These forests were protected by villagers so they would never consent to this crime. We have given our affidavit to a National Green Tribunal (NGT) lawyer. We will also move the high court,” he added.

Raut has shared both the gram sabha documents with Hindustan Times. Projects in environmentally sensitive areas need the approval of the local village council or gram sabha.

The forest department confirmed that 17,704 trees will be felled in first phase of the project in Sambalpur division, out of which about 10,000 have already been felled. More than 60,000 trees will be felled in the Jharsuguda division in the next phase, which will begin after three years.

These estimates are the latest ones, said Sanjeet Kumar, divisional forest officer, Sambalpur. However, according to the site inspection report 1,30,000 trees are estimated to be felled.

“As per our records, gram sabha approval is in our files,” he added. “Gram Sabha was called by the panchayat and revenue department. I do not have details of how the process was conducted and whether it was fair”.

Kumar said the area has traditionally seen many encroachments on government land and that it has a huge floating population dominated by tribals.

In 2017, the forest advisory committee (FAC) directed the regional office of environment ministry to examine the “completeness of the proposal in all respect and carry out fresh site inspection of the proposed site for diversion as well as the compensatory afforestation site offered by the user agency”, according to an FAC document.

Kumar admitted that no fresh inspection was carried out by the forest department; only the number of trees to be felled was reduced and transplantation was suggested.

“The 2014 site inspection report is the latest and valid report but we are still working on reducing the number of trees to be felled.”

Interestingly, the chief general manager of the Talabira mines said that the project “may involve felling of 1,30,000 trees”.

On wildlife in the region, the inspection report stated that this is restricted to “monkey, snakes and common reptiles etc” and that “no rare or endangered species are available in the proposed area”.

“The site inspection seriously underplays the impacts massive tree felling and illogically calls the impacts on ecology negligible. The list of wildlife also has very casual mention. These site inspection reports are crucial as they form the basis whether the forest land should be diverted for other uses. They also have to clearly represent existing rights and livelihood dependence,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at Centre for Policy Research, adding that “forest diversions cannot be based on absent, misleading or forged gram sabha consent. Such practices can only lead to conflicts once illegalities come to light.”

“In the first phase we got approval to fell 17,704 trees in the Sambalpur division out of which 10,000 trees have already been felled by Odisha Forest Development Corporation. We will transplant 2,700 trees. Neyveli Lignite Corporation Limited has a very good record of managing environment and reclaiming mined land in Tamil Nadu. We will definitely replicate it in Odisha. The entire project including Jharsuguda may involve felling of 1.3 lakh trees in lieu of which we are conducting compensatory afforestation of about 24.5 lakh trees. We have gram sabha papers in place,” said Suresh Chandra Suman, chief general manager of Talabira mines.

Bhubaneshwar based Tushar Dash of Community Forest Rights, Learning and Advocacy said tribal villagers of Patrapalli in Jharsuguda have already applied for Community Forest Rights under the Forest Rights Act, which is still pending. CFR provides statutory backing for decentralised management for forests by forest dwellers.

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