Chandrapur, March: For the wild life lovers and conservationists, the news could not have been more heartening. Junona, a tiny hamlet 15km east of Chandrapur tucked in the old and pristine forests of the district, has got a new tiger family: a tigress with three cubs; and if the villagers are to be believed, the robust male (perhaps the father of the cubs) is keeping the company.

Just last month, three abandoned two-month-old cubs found in the same jungle had to be shifted to the Nagpur zoo where they'll now spend rest of their life in cage. There's no news of their mother still. But the new family of the wild cat brings hope for the country's fast-shrinking tigers. This is the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR), and that's where the happy news ends. In a matter of days, the last of tiger havens could be disturbed and eventually destroyed to pave way for the nation's still unmet thirst for electricity. This jungle sits on rich coal reserves, about to be mined.

Coal mining to choke tiger reserve

"We are staring at a disaster," says Mukesh Bhandakkar, a field assistant with the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI). If the mining proposals get the nod from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), India should better forget tigers. Mukesh's fears do not seem exaggerated. The wild cat's future could only then be a caged existence like that of the three cubs. "I fear the new tiger family will meet the same fate too," says Mukesh. Junona's wilderness may be lost forever.

As many as 21 new opencast coalmines are threatening to transform Chandrapur city and district into one big coal quarry and overburden dumping ground. Four of these, argue conservationists, would cut the crucial tiger corridors that link the north and south Chandrapur forest divisions. Three of the four captive mines – Lohara-Lohara Extension, Lohara (west) and Agarzari – are in buffer zone of the TATR.

If the proposals get the MoEF nod, the TATR would be rendered an island, where tigers would perish within years. A tiger requires approximately 10 square km of territory to exist, and if that space shrinks, the wild cat doesn't breed; something that only nature could explain. Currently, tigers from TATR have vast stretches of corridors to go places in north and south Chandrapur divisions during the breeding season. If the mines come up several kms of corridors would be snapped east-west forever.

The road piercing the forests with the demarcation of Adani Mine project area. Pic: Jaideep Hardikar.

The first one to come to the area is the Adani Mining Company, a sister concern of the Adani Power Company that has bagged 1750-ha of captive coalmine blocks in Lohara (west) and Lohara extension for its thermal power project in Gondia. Part of the Wardha valley coalfields, the blocks bear an estimated 170 million tons of coal deposits, of which 140 Mt is extractible. Man and machine would go to the depths of 350 metres to extract the coal round the clock. Already, the Lohara village, which would be acquired for the project, is ready to move with hefty cash compensation being offered by the company.

Nitin Desai, western India head of the WPSI, says that every single tiger left with now is a percentage of the population; Chandrapur has 80 tigers. The mining projects are only going to negate all that conservationists did for years, he points out. “The fact that there's a tigress with three cubs four months old apart from other wildlife indicates that it's a flourishing tiger habitat. At what cost are you handing over such inviolate forests to the mining projects then?"

Company ready to minimise impact, damage may be irreparable

In a presentation that the Adani group made on December 22, 2008 before the forest officials and NGOs in Nagpur, the former admitted to the destruction through direct and indirect impacts. The presentation was based on the Environment Impact Assessment study. The company noted that the project would destroy forest and the habitat of wild animals, which include of tigers, leopards, sloth bear, wild dogs and some 70 other species. The Lohara forests have a measured density of 0.7-0.8, forest officials say. This, in the forest conservation parlance, is sacrosanct – you cannot touch it.

Sanjeev Dokey, the general manager of Adani Mining, says the company is open to all that would help reduce the impact of mining activity. "The mine life is 40 years; we are dividing it into two halves. We'll dig western side first and start filling the mined area by the overburden simultaneously, so that no more than 800 hectares of area is under use at one time," he argues.

Fact file: Chandrapur is home to Maharashtra's nearly 60 per cent forest

By 2007 census, there are over 80 tigers in the protected and reserve forests of the district, about 8-9 per cent of the existing tiger population of the country 21 new coal mines are in pipeline in the district apart from 10 existing ones.

Three of these open cast mines are in buffer zone around the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, one of the last remaining havens for Indian tigers.

The allotted coal blocks sit on TATR buffer zone, or reserve forest that is a rich tiger corridor linking north and south Chandrapur forest divisions.

It has an estimated 300 species of trees and about 70 wild animals.

The biodiversity that will perish is irreplaceable and invaluable.

The Lohara and Lohara (Extension) blocks are allocated to the Adani Mining Ltd as captive source of proposed thermal power plant to come in Tiroda, Gondia.

The Rs.1200 crores project over 1750-ha of forest (with an estimated 0.7 and 0.8 density) will be one of the biggest opencast coalmine in the country.

The company has got a lease of 40 years with an ultimate working depth of 350 metres.

The mine has estimated 140 million tones of extractible coal deposits and a total of 170 million tones of geological reserves.

The company will pay Rs.170 crore in compensation for the forestland.

Murli Agro has bagged the adjoining 700-ha Lohara East coal block, which, if cleared by the MoEF, would along with the Lohara West snap the tiger corridor and kill the last remaining forest reserves.

The coal block in Agarzari spread over 700-ha of forest has been allotted to the Maharashtra State Mining Company (MSMC). It will be an extension to the existing Padmapur coalmine, which has already destroyed vast stretches of forest.

Mines will not only snap the corridor forever, it'll render the TATR an island; it means a quick death of tigers and other extinct flora and fauna in the zone.

The company would regenerate the mined area immediately, he explains, and adds that not the entire area would be required for mining activity. While admitting that the rigorous round-the-clock mining activity would not only destroy the forest wealth, but also impact the wild life habitat, the Adani Mining Company has shown its commitment to reduce the impact and go to any extent to do conservation.

"India will have to decide now. Either we protect forests or go ahead with the irreparable destruction of something that only nature can create."
Mohan Hirabai Hiralal, Chandrapur's frontline conservationist and thinker.

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"The company," Dokey had said during the public hearing in Lohara last year, "is equally concerned, and a detailed survey of flora/fauna and wildlife management from reputed organization, Environsearch Pune has been undertaken. The report of wildlife management will be finalised in consultation with the chief wildlife warden, Maharashtra state, and further it will be submitted to the MoEF for the further decision." Only, there won't be any forest or wild life left to manage.

Key politicians and officials are in support

The issue has also exposed powers-that-be and local politicians, the MLAs and the MPs, who first bitterly opposed it, but later dropped their anti-project stand.

The chairman of the Maharashtra State Mining Corporation (MSMC) and former MLA from Chimur, Avinash Warjukar, believes power, steel and cement are the top priorities before the country. "Unless you give coal fuel to these sectors you can't generate employment. It's time we decided if man is important or tiger."

The allotment of coalmine blocks bang in the sensitive buffer zones around the TATR to companies having the backing of powerful politicians has come as a shocker to the conservationists. The open and vocal support to some of these companies, particularly to Adani Mining Company, by Maharashtra forest minister, Babanrao Pachpute, only deepens the fear of the nature lovers.

Pachpute is evidently in favour of the projects. "We'll do our best to reduce its impact," he told a meeting of conservationists last month in Nagpur, where he openly backed the Adani project and issued a veiled warning to the conservationists to toe his line. The minister instead set up an informal study committee to recommend steps to reduce the impact of mining.

But a top forest official, admits on the condition of anonymity: "If the proposed coal mines get clearance, na bachega bagh, na rahega jungle." His concern: "Even if you pay crores of rupees in compensation for the trees lost or wildlife killed, you can not recreate this forest, which is not man made but a nature's gift." The biotic interference has grown to such extent that forest won't grow in the future.

Graphic on mines in buffer zones cutting the tiger corridors. Pic: Jaideep Hardikar.

Not all government-controlled bodies are toeing the minister’s line. In a written reply to a query under the RTI Act filed by Swanand Soni, convenor of Ekjut, a local platform of 25 environmental groups, the Forest Development Corporation of Maharashtra (FDCM) said on 3 December 2008 that the environmental damage that the mines would cause would be irreparable. It will also create huge amount of pollution, which, in the district, has already reached hazardous levels.

"At best they can build a garden but can't recreate forest wealth and wild life, which is only the nature's gift," says Soni. He however adds that Ekjut is not opposed to any project or a company, but merely activity in tiger tracts. "We have no objection if the government allots them mining blocks at some other place that does not fall on forest land," he says and adds that the company should finalise its report on impact on wildlife pre and post-mining activity in consultation with some of India's best-known experts given the gravity of the issue. "You can't bank on the opinion of only wildlife warden when the issue is of such gravity and covets a decisive policy direction."

Past experience and environmental clearance rejection is basis for hope

Experience however is that forest conservation and mining don't go hand in hand. The Padampur coalmine, along the Agarzari block allotted freshly to the Maharashtra State Mining Corporation (MSMC) in Chandrapur is an example. The mining has destroyed huge tracts of forest along the TATR boundary apart from dramatically increasing the biotic pressures on the other reserve forests.

Ekjut has demanded that a comprehensive study be undertaken to gauge the impact of all the 21 mines on forests, bio-diversity and human settlements. Soni says the cluster of mines would cut one contiguous forest corridor into several patches, which eventually would perish with the growing biotic interference. "All the country's experts must study the combined impact of all the mines than the impact of just one mining project of the Adanis," propose the Ekjut members.

Conservationist Bandu Dhotre warns: "Destruction of these forests by the mines will set the ecological time bomb. We'll lose forever the only oxygen cylinder." That's not all. The mines would eventually destroy Asia's only teak germ-plasm bank, started 40 years ago, with about 300 varieties of teak plants. If conserved, India would be able to clone all the teak varieties 60 years from now.

Mohan Hirabai Hiralal, Chandrapur's frontline conservationist and thinker, says the issue is not local; it's global, and most importantly, national. "India will have to decide now. Either we protect forests or go ahead with the irreparable destruction of something that only nature can create."

He warns generations would be haunted by an ecological disaster following the destruction of forests. "It's not just the tiger's." What's at stake is ecologically rich forest with an irreplaceable, invaluable biodiversity, which can't be valued in cash. The allotted blocks are home to over 300 species of centuries-old trees, official data shows. Some of the trees are such that they can't be re-planted now due to changing climate and growing human interference, forest officials say.

The conservationists are ready for a protracted battle with the government and the private companies. They have hope from two precedents.

One, exactly ten years ago, the MoEF had rejected the ACC Ltd's proposal of the Lohara (East) coalmine, the 700-ha forest block now allotted to Murli Agro Ltd adjoining the proposed coalmine of the Adani group. Refusing to issue the crucial environment clearance, the MoEF had then said: "The proposed Lohara (East) coalmine project falls close to the Andhari Wildlife Sanctuary and Tadoba Tiger Reserve and would adversely affect the wildlife and bio-diversity of the area."

Two, Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister of India, had in the late nineteen-seventies and early eighties dropped the Bhopalpatnam and Silent Valley projects, for the reason that they would destroy the vastly rich bio-diversity that man could not recreate. Three decades on, conservationists wonder if her vision could come in handy to save the wild cat from near extinction. Or push them into a caged existence forever.