Opinion

Rough Cut: One Man’s Battle Against Diamond Mining In Madhya Pradesh Forest

“To a man living around these forests, 34 million carats of diamonds have no meaning, all he’ll understand are the many zeroes…that is what his bank balance is most of the time.”

Rough Cut: One Man’s Battle Against Diamond Mining In Madhya Pradesh Forest
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Diamonds are for the rich… a poor man living around these forests cannot afford a diamond for his wife or daughter even with the savings of his entire life. To this man, 34 million carats of rough diamonds have no meaning; perhaps all he’ll understand are the many zeroes because that is what his bank balance is most of the time. This forest, however, is priceless for him. He knows he can depend on forest produce to earn a living and feed his family. When he dies, he knows the forest will provide wood for his funeral pyre.

—Dragpal Singh

A resident of Jhujharpura village in Madhya Pradesh’s Chhatarpur district, Dragpal Singh is not an influential politician or prominent social activist. Nor is he some renowned environmentalist or philosopher. Yet, for the past few months, he has been busy touring the nearly two dozen villages in and around Chhatarpur’s Buxwaha forest to drum up awareness about the heavy personal price locals may have to pay if a proposed private diamond mine project in the area takes off.

The project concerns the Bunder diamond block in the Buxwaha forest. In December 2019, the state’s Kamal Nath-led Congress government of the time issued a letter of intent to Essel Mining and Industries Ltd (EMIL), a unit of the Aditya Birla group, for grant of a 50-year mining lease on 364 hectare of land in the forest. Nearly 20 months later, amid a waxing and waning Covid pandemic, the area has been witnessing protests organised by locals like Singh and several groups of villagers who fear that the sprawling Buxwaha jungle, which provides them minor forest produce as a reliable source of income, will turn into barren land once mining begins. As per government estimates, a staggering 2,15, 875 trees will have to be cut before EMIL begins quarrying for diamonds.

A slew of petitions have been filed in courts, including the Supreme Court and the National Green Tribunal’s central zone bench in Bhopal, challenging the government’s decision to allow mining in Buxwaha. On social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, campaigns to ‘Save Buxwaha Forest’ have been initiated by individuals. At least two ‘petitions’ have been launched on Change.org—a popular portal for crowd sourcing public endorsements for various causes—seeking support for a ban on the proposed project. Singh and his friends have been regularly carrying out padyatras and performing street plays in the villages around Buxwaha to protest against the project. Locals staged a protest in the forest this July, enacting the late Sunderlal Bahuguna’s popular Chipko Movement of the 1970s by hugging the trees and tying sacred threads around them.

Subject to receiving necessary environmental clearances from the Centre and the MP government, the mining lease will allow EMIL to set up privately operated mechanised open cast mines by “drilling, blasting and shovel dumper combination up to a depth of 345 metres below ground level”. EMIL’s pre-feasibility report for the project suggests that the site will yield five metric tonnes of diamond-bearing kimberlite ore annually. Once operational, the mines will yield 34.20 million carats of rough diamonds over a period of 14 years. EMIL has pegged the capital inv­estment cost at Rs 2,500 crore for the project and claims that around 400 people will receive direct or indirect employment from the mines.

EMIL plans to divert a seasonal stream that meanders through the project area. The stream will be div­erted to a proposed reservoir that EMIL will eventually use to fulfill its massive water requirement of 16,050 cubic meters a day (5.9 million cubic meters annually) at its mine and ore processing plant. Ujjwal Sharma, who is one of the three main petitioners challenging the project before the NGT, tells Outlook that the “proposed project site already faces acute water scarcity; by diverting the seasonal stream, the project will deprive the loc­als of a key source of water”.

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Advocate Yadvendra Yadav, who is appearing pro bono in the NGT for another petitioner, Dharnendra Jain, agrees with Sharma. “This project env­isages diverting the Sira and Kalidhar rivers through dams so that water needed for the proposed mines can be met. But where will the over 15,000 residents of the villages around the site go to fetch water…this is a highly drought-prone region that registers deficient rainfall almost every other year,” he says. Jain has urged the NGT to stay EMIL’s project and also “imp­ose a blanket ban on all non-forest act­ivity, including mining, in the Buxwaha Protected Forest.”

This isn’t the first time Buxwaha’s dia­mond reserves have attracted big companies. Sustained protests against grand ambitions of exploiting the are­a’s mineral wealth aren’t a first eit­her. In 2010, the Shivraj Singh Chouhan-led BJP government allowed the Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto to mine at the Bunder diamond block on a 30-year lease. It comprises 971 hectares of Buxwaha forest. The project got derailed following protests by locals and environment conservation groups, coupled with repeated red flags from the Union environment ministry and the National Tiger Conservation Authority over possible ecological damage in Buxwaha and the adjoining tiger corridor of Panna Tiger Reserve and Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary. In August 2016, Rio Tinto abruptly abandoned the Rs 2,200-crore project, despite spending over Rs 500 crore on diamond prospecting and infrastructure investment.

EMIL says unlike Rio Tinto’s shelved Bunder project “there are no eco-sensitive areas like national parks, sanctuaries, elephants reserves, tiger sanctuaries or migratory routes of the fauna within 10 km radius” from the boundary of its proposed mines. The company’s pre-feasibility report says “the nearest national park/sanctuary is Panna with its buffer zone 19.03 km” away from the mining site, while the nearest inhabited villages—Sagoria and Hirdepura—are a kilometre away. The company claims that only “some of the (local) population was dependent on non-timber forest produce for livelihood”. EMIL marshals in its defence the fact that while Rio Tinto’s mining project was spread across 971 hectares of forest, its proposed mine is limited to 364 hectares. The company insists that the proposed project will not require any rehabilitation and resettlement of locals since the site is not inhabited.

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Those opposed to the project are not convinced with EMIL’s alibis and allege that the company and the state government have been “obfuscating facts”. “In 2016, when Rio Tinto was supposed to implement the project, various official reports, including one by the local forest officer in Buxwaha, had said that villagers in the area depend on minor forest produce to earn their livelihood for almost half the year. Another survey by the MP Pollution Control Board had said the forest is inhabited by at least seven wildlife species listed under Schedule I (of the endangered species law), inc­luding tigers, leopards and sloth bears,” says advocate Sunklan Porwal, who is representing petitioner Neha Singh, in the Supreme Court against the project. “The government is now saying there is no wildlife and locals are not dependent on the forest but can’t explain how the entire ecology of the region changed in just four years?”

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Sankalp Jain, from the Save Buxwaha campaign, elaborates on the forest produce residents depend on. “Locals here source tendu leaves and mahua from the forest for a living. Anyone who says people here do not depend on the forest or that there is no wildlife in Buxwaha, even though two important national parks (Panna and Nauradehi) are located so close by, is lying.” For his part, advocate Yadav says the mining project will harm Buxwaha’s existing fauna flora and the economic well-being of the villagers as well as extract a heavy price from fut­ure generations. “Official records say Buxwaha is home to a variety of flora bes­ides being a natural habitat for 11 mammal species, 107 bird species, seven reptile species and scores of other wildlife. The project proposes felling of over 2.15 lakh trees, diversion of natural streams while mining activity will req­uire blasting and deep-hole drilling. All these will wreak havoc on biodiversity; dep­lete groundwater of an already parched area while simultaneously alt­ering the seismic balance and tectonic strata of an otherwise stable region.”

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Last week, the Archaeological Survey of India submitted a report stating that rock paintings found in and around the proposed mining site date back 25,000 to 30,000 years. P.G. Najpande, another petitioner who has moved the NGT, fears that quarrying will destroy the prehistoric rock paintings.

For Singh, ambivalent of the ecological balance or pre-historic heritage, the reasons for campaigning against the mining project remain deeply personal. He makes his point clear: “The company says it will provide direct or indirect employment to 400 people. The population of the villages around Buxwaha is nearly 20,000, of which at least 8,000 people are directly dependent on the forest for livelihood. How is it fair to sacrifice the needs of 8,000 people to satisfy the greed of a few?” 

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(This appeared in the print edition as "Buxwaha: Priceless")

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