Saranda is in news. With much fanfare, the government has launched a 'development offensive' in this hitherto forgotten part of India, with an eye on exploiting its vast mineral resources.
Everyone wants a slice of the Saranda pie now. There is a Rs 150 crore Saranda Action Plan (since renamed Saranda Development Plan) of the irrepressible Jairam Ramesh's rural development ministry; it's panacea to militancy. And, of course, there is mining, and here the stakes are higher. Much higher.
Mines, militancy, money. Amidst all this, lies Saranda's tattered soul. Forgotten. Dying. Not that anyone cares. Or even knows.
Saranda, “a forest of seven hundred small hills”, has a place in history. As the finest, largest sal forest in Asia, if not the world, it has been the training school of a generation of foresters for well over a century. A Mervyn Smith records shooting cheetah, now extinct in India, in Sarnada. He writes in his book, Sport and Adventure in the Indian Jungle (1904), “It is generally believed that the cheetah is now only found in the scrub jungle of central India, but I have killed them in the dense forest of Saranda in Chotta Nagpur.” Saranda was also a prime tiger country. Once. The last record being the legendary forest officer SP Shahi shooting his last tiger here in 1966. Saranda is the core of the Singhbhum elephant reserve and is estimated to have about 150 elephants in about 820 sq km of the forest.
Since then, Saranda has been ravaged. First for its forest wealth by large-scale logging –both by the state and illegally. The fatal killer is the mining, though, pillaging and fragmenting the forest. It is estimated that over 1,100 ha of virgin forest with over 80 percent canopy cover has been devastated by mining in Saranda with existing mines in many parts such as Gua, Kiriburu and Noamundi.
Then, in February 2011, Jairam Ramesh, then the minister of environment and forests, gave away the Chiria iron ore mines in Saranda to Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL) overturning the recommendation of his forest advisory committee. The pressure was from where it usually is: 'above'. While deciding to accord approval, the ministry also considered facts like prime minister Manmohan Singh writing a letter to the chief minister of Jharkhand in August 2007 for renewal of leases in SAIL’s favour “in the broader national interest”. Another factor, said Ramesh, was that “Chiria is essential for the future of SAIL”.
No one worried about the future of Saranda, or writing off one the finest forests in the world.
The Chiria mines will be the deadliest blow to this forest given the quantum of its area. Over the next 50 years, around 40 percent of iron ore requirement of the SAIL will be met from the Chiria mines. The ministry kept up its green pretence though, with Ramesh explaining that SAIL has a good track record of corporate social responsibility. What the ministry failed to take into account was that SAIL had a dubious past of working in Meghahatuburu iron ore mines in Saranda, where they have reportedly violated all the conditions resulting in silting up of Keona river which is lifeline of Saranda forests and the forest dwellers living downstream.
Saranda's woes don't end here. The state has sold the forest to a multitude of mining companies – and all that stand between them and Saranda are the infamous environment and forest regulations, made as a ministry official cynically put it “to be flouted”. According to media reports, iron ore leases have been granted for huge swathes of forest to big-ticket companies – Jindal Steel & Power Limited, Arcelor, Tata Steel and Essar Steel Jharkhand Limited, and a lot of smaller players who have already signed MoUs with the state government. If all these proposals come through, two-thirds of the Saranda forest will be lost forever. And Saranda will die.
Ramesh has said that he is against any mining activities by private companies in Saranda, given his ministry's investment for social welfare and development in the region. “I will recommend to the union government not to allow private companies for any mining activities in the region," he said. But will anyone listen? Not with such huge stakes involved. And not with our PMO-driven growth agenda which has been dismissive of environmental and forest concerns. And from where do we draw the faith, when the minister himself overturned his own firm convictions and 'green' decisions, Posco being a prime example?
Meanwhile, if anyone cares to listen, the tiger has surfaced again in Saranda. Even as we (and the aforesaid minister included) await with bated breath for the return of the tiger dynasty in Sariska, here its presence has failed to create any ripples, hushed undoubtedly by worries, lest the tiger be an ‘obstacle’ to mining activities.
But, it's there. Following villagers’ reports of a buffalo kill, range officer (Saranda) Bhuvan Mehta investigated the matter, and reported pugmarks and other indirect evidence of a tiger in early October 2011. Following this, a team of experts visited the reserve on October 8 for verification. According to the chief conservator of forests, wildlife & biodiversity, the team came across pugmarks, scat, fur, etc confirming the big cat’s presence in the forest. The pugmarks indicated that it was probably a male tiger. It has reportedly killed a buffalo and injured two others. According to Raza Kazmi, a young conservationist, the pugmark of this tiger was found hardly 800 m away from the mining township of Gua.
The Saranda sal forest is part of a massive tiger landscape that extends on to the Sundergarh and Keonjhar forest divisions of Orissa (which are also ravaged by mines) providing immense potential for tiger conservation. This landscape is connected to the Similipal tiger reserve, which harbours a fair number of tigers (the numbers stand disputed) which with enhanced protection can be a source population to augment the tiger populations that continue to persist against incredible odds in the few undisturbed pockets that remain in the Saranda, Sundergarh and Keonjhar forests.
These forests are the largest, most compact and most expansive tiger habitats in India that exist in east-central India – across the states of Orissa, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and parts of northern Andhra Pradesh – but hardly any importance from the tiger conservation point of view.
Will the presence of the tiger stem the rape of Saranda? Or will the mining lobby prevail? Will the Jharkhand government take ‘responsibility’ of the tiger or will it shy away from the presence of the tiger, as it did in the case of the Hazaribagh national park – where tiger presence was indicated, and later confirmed by scat analysis in 2009, only to be denied by the state?
The importance of the Saranda forest speaks for itself. In my only – and very eventful –visit there in 2005, I saw a herd of elephants, signs of bear and cub and leopard pugmarks. Saranda is a repository of unique biodiversity, a living university, which sadly we, as a nation, have failed to value. Though it was a sanctuary under the Indian Forests Act, it has never been notified, and attempts to notify it as a protected area under the Wildlife Protection Act never really took off, given the mineral interests.
Saranda must be protected for posterity. We must take conservation concerns on board, not lay it open for destruction.
Crux of this article appeared in TigerLink, published by Ranthambhore Foundation