By Jay Mazoomdaar
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Uranium Mining > Nagarjunasagar-Srisailam
Heavy earth mining began in Andhra Pradesh in 2007 when Uranium Corporation of India Ltd (UCIL) set up operations at Tummalapalle in Kadapa district. But UCIL has been eyeing the uranium deposits around Nagarjunasagar-Srisailam Tiger Reserve (NSTR) since early 1994 when a plan was rejected due to the proposed mine’s proximity to the tiger reserve. UCIL was back in NSTR by 2003, trying to mine the Lambapur-Peddagattu villages next to Nagarjunasagar reservoir in Nalgonda district. Soon after, the authorities denotified a 1,000 sq km chunk of the tiger reserve in 2007. While public resistance continues, the UCIL website says that it is “in the process of obtaining clearances for construction of three underground and one open pit mines… and a processing plant at Seripally” close by.
Five districts depend on the Nagarjunasagar reservoir for water. If blasting in deep shafts breaches the solid rock sheets that stand between the proposed mines and the reservoir, water will be contaminated. But the atomic energy establishment, with high stakes in a belt that holds 27 percent of the country’s uranium deposits, is adamant. Given UCIL’s dubious track record at Jharkhand’s Jaduguda, reckless enthusiasm may spell doom for the state’s public health and ecology.
In 2005, the state sought the MOEF’s approval for a 450 sq km elephant reserve at Lemru in Korba district and got the nod. But it has maintained a strange silence since. One clue to the mystery is a February 2008 letter from the CII state chief to the Forest Department, pointing out that “the proposed sanctuary will block at least 40 million tonne per annum of coal production”. The elephants are still waiting.
Iron Ore Mining > Sanguem
The monetary loss from illegal iron ore mining in the state has been pegged at anything between Rs 4,000 crore and Rs 10,000 crore. But far more damagingly, the mining belt of around 700 sq km (close to 20 percent of the state’s area) comprising Bicholim (North Goa district) and Salcete, Sanguem and Quepem (South Goa district) has been laid waste with deforestation, land degradation, surface, groundwater and dust pollution. Dumped mine reject, pumped out muddy waters from the working pits and slime from the beneficiation plant are being carried by rainwater to the low-lying fields and streams, silting and solidifying into a hard mass. Sanguem taluka is the worst hit, with water pollution threatening the Sanguem and Usgao rivers.
Hydroelectricity > Siang Dam
The big idea is to generate 40,000 MW of electricity by building 150 dams in the state that wants to float “in hydro dollars like the Arab countries are floating in petro dollars”. The prime minister himself is on board. “I must say that all dams do not have adverse impact, some are rather helpful,” he assured in April.
The mother of all dams in Arunachal is being built across the Siang river, a tributary of the Brahmaputra. The dam reservoir will hold 10 billion cubic metres of water. The project will generate 10,000-12,000 MW, making it the largest hydroelectric dam in South Asia. In the bargain, more than 50,000 acres of forest will be submerged, endangering several hundred species of flora and fauna, including the red panda. More than 20 ancient tribes will be hit, including the Adis and Galos in Siang district and the Idu Mishmi of the Dibang river basin.
Protests against the 2,700 MW Lower Siang Hydroelectric Project turned violent this April during the public hearings that had to be put off. Protesters say they are being intimidated and manhandled by security forces and have, in turn, issued a diktat to the workers on the project to leave the state immediately.
The state has revived the country’s biggest ever ‘inter-basin water transfer’ project, which was proposed in 2001 to divert 145 TMC of water from Netravati river to feed seven districts. But with a slew of hydroelectric projects and a petrochemical hub coming up in Mangalore, water may become a scarce resource. It could ravage the Western Ghats by triggering soil erosion.
Since 2003, the 400 MW Tipaimukh Dam project proposed at the confluence of Tipai and Barak rivers has been a looming threat to the region. For its share of 40 MW, Manipur will have to sacrifice 25,822 hectares of forestland and 8 million trees. After getting green clearance, the state signed an MOU with the NHPC and the Sutlej Jal Vidyut Nigam in 2010 and ran into stiff public resistance.
Arsenic Contamination > Bhojpur
Nearly half of Bihar (16 out of 38 districts) suffers from arsenic contamination of groundwater, which also plagues the neighbouring states of Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. The result is skin lesions, cancers of the skin, lung, bladder and kidney beside reproductive disorders resulting in abortions and stillbirths. There were reports too of congenital defects and babies being born blind in Bhojpur where, a decade ago, 73 villages reported arsenic levels above 50 microgram per litre.
Instead of conducting a detailed groundwater survey, the state government resorted to supplying treated surface water from the Ganga to Bhojpur in 2009-10 and subsequently extended the scheme to four other districts. The clock is ticking; there may still be time to move from prevention to cure.
Encroachment > Sonitpur
From Sonai-Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary in the east to Behali Reserve Forest in the west, a network of wildernesses made Sonitpur one of India’s greenest districts. But, in the past 10 years, it has lost 37 percent of that forest cover. In actual terms, the overall forest loss here stands at 232 sq km just between 1994 and 2001.
Since the beginning of insurgency in the late 1980s, the Bodo leadership encouraged its people from all over Assam to move to the proposed Bodoland to ensure a Bodo majority. Soon, the migrants tore down the forests in the Bodo heartland of Sonitpur, not so much to free land for homestead or agriculture, but simply to monetise timber.
Gradually, the migrants claimed ownership of the open forestland. A fresh surge of encroachment began in 2007 after the legislation of the Forest Rights Act. With tacit political support and under militancy’s shadow, this loot of the forest is being silently perpetuated. Out of the 60,000 claims filed under the Forest Rights Act in Assam, 30,000 came from Sonitpur alone.
But encroachment has become pandemic in Assam with even Manas and Nameri national parks losing forest cover. Other seriously-affected districts include Karbi Anglong, Kokrajhar, Darrang, North Cachar Hills and Barpeta.
In 2011, a survey revealed an investment rush in properties in the hills, with buyers flocking from Delhi. So the Kumaon hills are paying the price for their proximity to the capital. Trade insiders claim that every inhabitable acre has been sold or is up for grabs. As crammed and palatial properties are replacing hamlets and wildernesses, natural resources are being stretched to the limits.
Since April, the Palamu Tiger Reserve is out of bounds not only to tourists but also the forest staff. A CRPF team is carrying out phase two of Operation Octopus against the Maoists. The forces have occupied the entire forest infrastructure and even detained a few tiger trackers for venturing into the reserve. The former field director resisted the takeover and was swiftly transferred.
The $120 million Kaladan Multi- Modal Transport project will connect the Northeast to Myanmar’s Sittwe port with a sea and road link through Mizoram. But the 62 km road will have to be carved through an earthquake-prone terrain. The sea route will require dredging of the Kaladan river, causing saltwater ingress. Add to this two hydroelectric projects planned on two tributaries of the Kaladan river.
On 10 May, the Gujarat HC closed down Electrotherm’s steel plant for lack of green clearance. Earlier, the HC stopped construction at Adani SEZ and the National Green Tribunal sought action against OPG Power for violating conditions. But a slew of other projects, thanks to hastily signed MOUs at Vibrant Gujarat summits, continues in Kutch and can devastate the unique Rann ecology.
Power Tunnels > Sutlej
The state wants 648 small and big dams, no less. Already, its power revenue has shot up from Rs 29.6 crore in 2003-04 to Rs 1,050 crore in 2011-12. The hydropower projects already in motion have a total capacity of 12,798 MW and will earn the state Rs 4,393 crore at the current rate by 2022.
The mighty Sutlej, however, will pay the maximum price with more than 30 hydropower projects planned on it. From the Chinese border (Shipke la) to Koldam, the river will be tunnelled for 135 km and reservoirs will span another 70 km. The same grim future awaits Ravi (3,011 MW), Chenab (3,132 MW) and Pabbar (887 MW) rivers. The power rush has all but written off the fragility of the high-altitude alpine zone or the ecological imperative of maintaining a minimum riparian distance of 5 km between two projects. After the completion of the 1,500 MW Nathpa Jhakri and 1,200 MW Karcham Wangtu, Sutlej has already become a seasonal river. The result is soil erosion, landslides and changed climatic conditions. With aquifers disrupted, natural springs catering to drinking water and irrigation are drying up. Owners of apple orchards in Kinnaur are already up in arms.
Groundwater > Rice Belt
Haryana uses more groundwater than its annual availability for irrigation alone. Green Revolution technologies practised in Haryana increased foodgrain production from 2.6 million tonnes (MT) in 1966-67 to 16.6 MT during 2010-11. Increases in wheat and rice production were 11 and 16 folds, respectively. Today, water-intensive paddy is the kharif crop and Haryana (with Punjab) is the largest exporter of basmati rice in India.
But the cost is proving suicidal. According to NASA, water table is declining at the rate of 1 metre per year in India’s northwestern states. In Haryana’s rice-wheat belt, the picture is scarier. Groundwater resources in the entire districts of Sirsa, Karnal, Rewari, Panipat, Yamunanagar, Sonepat, Kurukshetra, Fatehabad, Kaithal and Bhiwani are over-exploited while several are semi-critical. Even Gurgaon is feeling the thirst.
Tourism Mess > Munnar
The once pristine hills are now scarred by plastic, sparkling rivers too polluted to throw up trout, and lush greens mutilated by concrete invasion and plantation. Even the Eravikulam National Park, home to the endangered Nilgiri Tahr, has become a garbage bin. Tourism that put Munnar on the world map has become its curse.
The encroachment and cultivation of soft crops has blocked the traditional paths of the wild elephants, triggering acute conflict. Chinnakanal, the ground zero of encroachment, is where most elephant attacks are reported. In 2007, the Left Front government launched the first crackdown. In 2011, the Congress-led government “reclaimed” some 2,009 acres. Within six months, encroachers were back in business.
Jammu & Kashmir
Road Construction > Ladakh
India may never get over the Chinese threat. So the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Home Affairs are busy pushing a legislation that will help India match the Chinese infrastructure. Called Border Infrastructure Bill, it will exempt all strategic roads within 50 km of the international border or the Line of Actual Control from green clearances.
No tree is felled for road construction in the cold desert of Ladakh and low traffic poses no threat to the sparse wildlife. Better infrastructure would be a boon here only if the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) did not ignore two critical issues. Moist meadows are absolutely vital in Ladakh for the wild and domestic ungulates and waterfowl. Yet, roads often cut through them when minor realignments can save these key foraging grounds.
Road construction requires labourers who are sourced from the plains. These migrants camp by water sources, extract dry vegetation and even poach opportunistically. Unless the BRO becomes sensitive about critical wildlife patches, cuts its workforce’s dependence on natural resources and speeds up project works to minimise damage, a flurry of construction will threaten the region’s biodiversity and sabotage Project Snow Leopard even before it hits the ground.
Mines in the Panna Tiger Reserve may soon shut down for good but mining giants have been scouting the forests around the reserve for diamonds. While Rio Tinto has already constructed a state-of-theart plant to process bulk samples of the ore at Bundar in Chhatarpur, De Beers is eyeing the forests north of Panna on the Uttar Pradesh borders.
Pesticide > Bhatinda
After the Green Revolution, the cancer train has arrived in Punjab. Every night, the Abohar-Jodhpur Passenger pulls into Bhatinda and ferries patients to hospitals in Rajasthan. Punjab accounts for less than 2 percent of India’s land area but 17 percent of all pesticide use. The Punjab Agricultural University at Ludhiana recommends only seven sprays of pesticides on cotton in six months while farmers in Bhatinda are known to spray more than 30 times. Pesticide residues have been found in the blood and even breast milk across the state. The result is a surge in cancer (103 per lakh in Talwandi Sabo block of Bhatinda), congenital disorders and mental retardation in children. The state is not ready to reduce pesticide use; it is setting up hospitals instead.
Mining > Khandadhar Hills
For its proposed Odisha plant, South Korean multinational POSCO cited a requirement of 600 million tonnes of iron ore and wanted mining concessions in 6,100 hectares of Khandadhar hills in Sundergarh district. The state promptly obliged. But following a petition by Geomin Minerals challenging the state’s decision, the high court ruled against the state government in 2010. The case is lying with the Supreme Court since.
Whoever gets the mining rights, the ground below the dense forests of Khandadhar, home to elephants, bison, leopards and occasional tigers, is waiting to be ripped apart for its 65 percent pure iron content. A part of Khandadhar falling in Keonjhar district is also being eyed by a number of mining companies.
In fact, mining operations have been going on deep in the folds of Khandadhar hills at Kurmitar by the Kalinga Commercial Corporation since 2005. The company exceeded its quantitative target by nearly 700 percent in 2010.
The water system of the region, including the Brahmani river fed by Khandadhar falls, is drying up. Water scarcity and pollution is affecting the health and livelihood of the Pauri Bhuiya tribes, many of whom have been forced to migrate to the plains. The Khandadhar Bachao group is already 3,500-strong and growing.
Since nationalisation in 1967, no individual can mine coal. Except in Garo hills, where locals operate mines at will by digging rat holes. Last year, three diggers perished in such a tunnel while trying to extract coal. Another eight died in 2009. Despite the high risk involved, the business is destroying large tracts of forests and polluting water systems with discharge of untreated acid.
The national parks and sanctuaries of the state are still open hunting grounds where everyone, including government officials, go ‘gaming’. Worse, Dimapur remains the hub of illegal wildlife trade in the region. Bounty ripped off from almost every rhino or tiger poached in the neighbouring states keeps showing up in Dimapur, oen within 24 hours, before reaching Myanmar via Manipur.
Coal Mining > Chandrapur
A 2011 fact-finding mission called for a ban on new mines in Chandrapur and for reining in existing units as the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve faced the risk of being cut off from surrounding forests, not to mention the ecological damage silently undermining the 1,700 sq km reserve and buffer area.
While the government rejected a proposal by the Adani Group in 2010, proposed opencast and underground mining in Chinchpalli to the south and Bander to the north threatens the critical tiger habitat. The two mines in Bander will take up some 1,604.67 hectares and cut off the only corridor connecting Tadoba to the Melghat tiger landscape. Already, excavation has created mountains of mine overburden and is causing soil and waste contamination in addition to the run-off polluting nearby streams.
Population > Sunderbans
In 1911, the Sunderbans was described as waste country. A century later, it has become one of the most crowded regions of the world. With more than 1,000 people per sq km, the mangrove delta is possibly the most densely populated rural stretch of the country.
As a result, the rudimentary local economy is putting tremendous pressure on natural resources. With 85 percent of the population subsisting on a single paddy crop, the cultivable land available per agricultural worker is less than 0.5 hectare. Fishery and collection of nontimber forest produce supplement agricultural income but both have suffered sustained overexploitation. Around 150 registered motor boats used to operate from four fishing harbours in Kakdwip 20 years ago. Today, there are more than 1,000. Fish density in the shallow waters and the catch of commercially important species have declined dramatically. Excessive harvesting of prawn seedlings is ruining vast stretches of mangroves.
With so many people competing with the wildlife for resources, conflict is frequent. Herbivores are hunted routinely and timber smuggled through riverine routes to Bangladesh. In no other forest have man-tiger interfaces recorded so many casualties on both sides. And the population is growing at 18 percent per decade.
In 1999, the Centre cleared the Teesta V hydropower project, promising a comprehensive study of the river’s carrying capacity. Since 2004, the MOEF has cleared six other projects on the Teesta basin. If the Teesta IV project, proposed close to the confluence of the Rangyong and Teesta, gets underway, the last free-flowing stretch of the river will also disappear into tunnels.
Pollution and encroachment have long reduced the Yamuna to a stinky seasonal drain. Delhi’s water bodies have been filled up to build highrises and malls. Till the 1970s, canals rolled out from Delhi’s forested catchments and joined the Yamuna. Squeezed by new settlements, Delhi’s own rivulets choked one by one. Next, it will be the city’s turn if it fails to protect the ridge and river.
Since 1963, rubber has been Tripura’s quick ticket to prosperity. Today, it grows 57 percent of the rubber produced in the Northeast. But the plantations accelerate erosion and sediment loads, triggering landslides. Tripura faces the risk of biodiversity loss and water depletion. Already, exotic species of earthworm are wiping out endemic varieties, altering the soil mechanics.
The shark population around the archipelago has crashed drastically as a number of protected species are being hunted to meet huge demands from the markets in mainland cities like Mangalore and Kochi. Reef fishing is on the rise due to the steady decline in the tuna haul and growing demand for varieties like Grouper and Napoleon Wrasse in the international market.
Pollution > Kanpur
The MOEF’s national report on air quality in 2011 recorded the country’s highest concentration of respirable suspended particulate matter (RSPM) in Kanpur, three times the safety standard. Five years ago, Uttar Pradesh reported the third highest RSPM count in the country. Air pollution causes asthma, lung diseases, chronic bronchitis, heart damage and lung cancer.
The state Environment Information System has estimated an annual loss of Rs 260 crore in Uttar Pradesh due to air pollution. A private study has estimated that Kanpur can save Rs 21 crore simply sticking to air quality standards. While the industrial sector is on the decline, urban transportation is Kanpur’s major worry. Two wheelers and cars meet 93 percent of Kanpur’s transportation needs and their numbers are growing at nearly 10 percent a year.
Weeds > Aravali Hills
The secret of the Aravali wilderness is that the hills are not cultivable. So amid a sea of humanity, dhonk forests flourished with a wide range of wildlife, including the tiger. Till Prosopis juliflora, a thorny Mexican shrub, took over, thanks to the state royalty and the Forest Department’s blind greening mission. The developed root system of Prosopis absorbs extra nutrients to outcompete other plants. By the time the damage was understood, Prosopis invaded even the protected forests of Aravali such as Sariska, Ranthambhore, Jamwa Ramgarh, Sawai Mansingh, Ramgarh Bishdhari and Mt Abu. With locals using it as fuel wood, there is no real attempt at rescuing the native forests from this exotic curse. If mining does not destroy Aravalis, chances are this weed will.
Industrial Mess > Gulf Of Mannar
The shallow bay of the Gulf of Mannar is the first marine biosphere in South and Southeast Asia and harbours more than 3,600 species. The bounty encouraged indiscriminate fishing and over-harvesting of marine assets such as pearls. The chain of low-lying islands and reefs is now reeling under pollution from chemical and cotton industries, a fertiliser plant and urban waste. Sea turtles are choking on plastic bags. Shrimp trawling that sweeps the shallow oceanbed clean is rampant.
The Tuticorin thermal power station uses seawater as the coolant and then discharges the warm water back into the sea, damaging species intolerant to warm conditions. The marine sponge, a marker of pollution, is showing high concentration of heavy metals. Oil spills from fishing harbours and sewage from the 20-odd panchayats dotting the coast and the industrial pollution are turning the reefs into graveyards overrun by algae.
The Koodankulam nuclear power plant is almost ready to roll and has plans for four mega desalination units that will take in sea water to produce some 1,06,000 litres of water an hour each, sucking in tiny sea flora and marine young and pumping back brine and chemical waste into the sea.