The Death Of A Waterfall in Orissa — thanks to Mining

The Death Of A Waterfall
The mining scourge reaches the sacred Khandadhara. Will it turn ‘raktadhara’?
Madhushree Mukerjee, Outlook

A rugged, tree-covered mountain range sweeps vertically into a brilliant blue sky. Out of a cave on its western side gushes a natural spring, its lacy, white water tripping 244 metres over a sheer black-and-red cliff face to fall into a blissful rock pool, before cascading further downhill. The site is of ethereal beauty, evoking awe, elation, a sense of rejuvenation.

One of India’s highest and most sacred waterfalls, Khandadhara in Sundergarh, Orissa, is cherished by tens of thousands for the life it brings to all in its vicinity. “It’s because of the Khandadhara that my life flows with power,” says a Munda resident of Bandhbarna village, which lies near the foot of the mountain. Although a migrant from Jharkhand, he shares the reverence of all the indigenous peoples here—including the Christians—for the Khandadhar mountain and its waterfall.

By common consent, the guardians of the range are the Pauri Bhuiya, a tribe of shifting cultivators who traditionally live in the dense sal forest that covers the peaks. Genetic research finds that about 24,000 years ago the Pauri Bhuiya shared a common ancestor with the Jarawa of the Andaman Islands—a reminder that India’s indigenous peoples directly descend from some of the first modern humans to wander the earth. The Pauri Bhuiya are also unique among Orissa’s tribals for speaking a version of Oriya, rather than an entirely different language: they claim theirs is the original Oriya.

A Pauri Bhuiya legend speaks of how their mountains came to be so munificent. The Sundergarh branch of the community was once possessed by a rapacious goddess named Kankala Devi, who consumed trees, soil and everything else. In despair, the Pauri Bhuiya placed her on a rock, which she ate through as well—creating a deep hole from which poured out the Khandadhara (split-rock waterfall). So they had water. Then a couple from the community went to visit relatives at the eastern, or Keonjhar, end of the Khandadhar mountain range. Their prospective hosts were away but a pile of grains had been left outdoors and, amazingly, not even the birds were eating it. Inside the heap, the couple discovered a small goddess, Khand Kumari, protector of the region’s prosperity. They stole her and brought her back to Sundergarh, and so her bounty became theirs.

The mining firms call the Khandadhar range the “jackpot”; Orissa govt has promised Posco 2,500 ha of it.

The Pauri Bhuiya never cut down a shade or fruit tree, so the mountaintop abounds with nourishment. The pristine, ancient jungles are home to elephants, sloth bears, leopards, gaur, pythons, peacocks, tigers and a rare limbless lizard—a keystone species that testifies to the richness of the ecosystem. The thick jungle absorbs monsoon rain, releasing the water in perennial streams that feed the Khandadhara. But in the ’90s, some 80 Pauri Bhuiya families were shifted by the Pauri Bhuiya Development Agency (PBDA) from the mountaintop to the plains, under the pretext that their shifting cultivation was damaging the forest.“Here we have nothing,” laments Kalia Dehuri, who now lives in a PBDA settlement. “Our houses are as small as latrines. They promised us five acres of land each but gave us just a little over one acre. When we lived in the forest, if I cut my leg I could find a plant to heal it. Now I have to walk miles in the sun to the doctor, who tells me to come back another day.” The despair and hopelessness is palpable. Of the families brought down, at least 15 have since returned to the mountain. “There it is cool,” says Dehuri, “and they have fruit, water, wood, tubers.”

Not for long. The strikingly coloured rocks that give Khandadhara its beauty are red jasper and black hematite—both made of iron. Downstream of Khandadhara, one can pick up massive, gleaming chunks of largely pure iron. The mining companies call the Khandadhar range the “jackpot”, and at this very moment the Supreme Court is deciding which of several contending firms has the winning ticket. The Orissa government has promised the Pohang Steel Co of South Korea (Posco) as much as 2,500 hectares of Khandadhar—essentially the entire Sundergarh section of the mountain range.

Red waste The Kurmitar mountain now

All the region’s tribals know what will happen if Posco comes, because they have had a foretaste. Deep inside the range, invisible from normal roads, rises a horrific sight: the blood-red carcass of Kurmitar mountain, flayed of its skin of trees and topsoil and terraced into a giant pyramid by a spiralling road for trucks laden with iron ore. Dynamite blasts have pulverised the underlying rock into a fine dust that gives the mine its brilliant red colour. Behind this Mars-scape, the partially shaved surface of another mountain rises—readied for mining by clear-cutting the trees. Dust smothers the jungle for hundreds of metres around, but in the distance one can see the undulating green of what remains, for now, of the Khandadhar reserved forest.

The Kalinga Commercial Corporation Ltd (KCCL) operates the 133-hectare Kurmitar mine. It boasts on its website of having exceeded production targets by several hundred per cent, and of exporting iron ore to China and manganese ore to an unnamed Korean company. Hanuman is said to have carried on his shoulders a portion of the Himalayas in order to find a medicinal plant to save Lakshman’s life. The Samal family of Bhubaneswar, which runs kcc, could be even more powerful: it is transporting an entire mountain to China and beyond.

Kurmitar was a “devisthan”, the abode of a goddess, say the Pauri Bhuiya. It was covered with dense jungle in which thrived elephants, bears and luscious kakri fruit hanging from vines. No doubt driven out by the blasting and loss of habitat, the elephants have begun emerging in the plains. A tigress appeared in January near Phuljhar, at the foot of the mountain. In April, the forest department burned down the huts and food stores of some 20 Pauri Bhuiya families who had come off the mountain and were sheltering in jungles that had been their own.

Just as frightening, the destruction of the forest and the diversion of a mountaintop stream by KCCL has caused the Khandadhara waterfall to partially dry up. Its water no longer reaches the Brahmani river as it used to, and a canal that Bandhbarna’s residents used for fishing, bathing and irrigating crops has been bone-dry for two summers now. All over the region, tubewells are becoming defunct as the water table falls. Streams by Phuljhar and other villages run red with mining dirt, killing fish and polluting fields. When it rains, even the Khandadhara bleeds red, transforming into a ‘raktadhara’ that flows from the mountain’s gaping wounds. If a 133-hectare mine can cause such havoc, the devastation to be wreaked by Posco’s 2,500-hectare lease is beyond imagination.

To begin with, the Khandadhara waterfall will completely dry up, depriving tens of thousands of the water of life. “The miners are demons…they not only eat the soil and trees and rock, but even the water,” says a Pauri Bhuiya woman in Phuljhar. “Kankala Devi gave us this water, these demons will consume it too. We have to get rid of them or they will eat up everything.” All around the Khandadhar range, the tribals are gearing up for a fight—not only for their own survival, but in defense of a common heritage of humankind.

(Mukerjee is author of Churchill’s Secret War and The Land of Naked People.)

Posco verdict: Finally, environmental justice in India

by Janaki Lenin,Firt Post Apr 8, 2012

So what if it was the largest-ever FDI in India? The law finally caught up with it on 30 March 2012, when the National Green Tribunal suspended POSCO’s environmental clearance and ordered a fresh review. We can celebrate the outcome in this day and cynical age: It is still possible, though not easy, to get environmental justice in this country.

Since June 2005, when the agreement between the Government of Orissa and the South Korean Pohang Steel Company, aka POSCO, was signed, there have been behind-the-scenes manipulations, lax implementation of law, and suppression of information. All the main players – the state Government of Orissa, Government of India, and POSCO – colluded.

P Chidambaram, then Minister of Finance, and Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister, are known to have breathed down the neck of A Raja, then Minister of Environment and Forests, to fast track necessary clearances for POSCO. In fact, on 15 May 2007, his second last day as Minister, Raja granted environmental approval to the POSCO port. A month later, approval for the steel and power plants came through. That’s how close it was.

Supporters of Communist Party of India (CPI) hold placards during a protest in New Delhi June 24, 2011. Reuters
Repeated complaints of non-implementation of the Forests Rights Act led to a Review Committee being set up in July 2010. Who does the Ministry choose to chair this Committee? The former Secretary under whose watch clearances were granted in the first place. As the chair, Meena Gupta was to review her own decision. She was both judge and defendant. Did the Ministry really expect her to be critical of her own work?

However, the other three members of the committee were so appalled by the numerous violations, that they drastically differed in opinion from Gupta and submitted their own report. The report said both the Ministry’s Expert Appraisal Committees which granted environmental clearances were filled with yes-men and biased in favour of the Korean company. The majority members of the Review Committee called for nothing less than cancellation of clearances granted to POSCO.

Jairam Ramesh, then Minister of Environment and Forests, ignored the Review Committee members’ report and ignominiously issued the final order in January 2011. Perhaps to neutralize the outrage, he piled on 60 conditions contingent on the clearance. But since the Ministry has no way, much less intent, of checking if the company complies, the stipulations are toothless. The approval was for all practical purposes a carte blanche.

Is all this complaining about a mega project just the romantic, anti-development moans of social misfits out of touch with reality? What is wrong with the POSCO enterprise?

The steel plant requires more than 12,000,000 litres of fresh-water per hour. So, the state offered Jobra barrage on the Mahanadi, 86 km away. But this also happens to be the main drinking water source for Cuttack city and Jagatsinghpur District. When there was a public outcry, the state suggested POSCO siphon water from Hansua Nallah, an irrigation channel. Farmers of the area have banded together and formed a group to protest the use of this water, and they are supported by several political parties. So, at the moment, the plant has no assured source of water.

Seaports on the east coast of India cause devastating erosion on one side of the port and a massive pile up of sand on the other. The POSCO port is to be located on the mouth of an estuary, one of the most dynamic and fragile coastal ecosystems. In order to create a channel for ships to enter the port, POSCO intends to dump sand on the mouth of the Jatadharmohan creek and demolish a sand spit about 500 m away. Sand dunes, which protect the coast from storm surges, will have to be leveled to build the port. Each one of these drastic engineering activities is prohibited as the area enjoys the highest protection under the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification. Did the regulators even see the port’s engineering plans before clearing it for construction? Is the Coastal Notification just window dressing that no one really needs to pay any attention to?

The POSCO port will be just a few km away from Gahirmatha and Devi nesting beaches, one of the largest nesting grounds of olive ridley sea turtles in the world. Would the turtles’ migratory paths intersect shipping routes? Would lights illuminating the port cause nesting turtles to abandon the site, or the defenseless hatchlings to be disoriented and head en masse inland to their deaths at the POSCO site? Other wild creatures such as horseshoe crabs and three species of dolphins use the area as breeding and foraging grounds. Would turbidity, caused by constant dredging to maintain the shipping channel, support any life along the coast? How will this affect the livelihoods of lakhs of coastal people in the area? How will a solid clunker of a port obstructing flow of currents and sediments alter the coast? What would be the likely impact on the mangroves of Bhitarkanika National Park, India’s last safe population of saltwater crocodiles and a site recognized by the international RAMSAR treaty? No one has a clue.

POSCO doesn’t just threaten our natural heritage and local livelihoods. It threatens a key infrastructural asset too. In 2005, T.R. Baalu, the then Minister of Shipping, Road Transport and Highways said in the Lok Sabha that privately owned POSCO port may cause severe erosion to public-sector Paradip port. He asked the Orissa Government to undertake a detailed study of erosion impact before allowing the POSCO port to be built. Besides, dredged material from POSCO could silt the channel at Paradip during some months of the year. On the basis of zero studies, the Orissa government insists all will be fine. We may have numerous institutes and experts, but the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the PMO appear to place greater trust in the state’s guarantee. Despite the many threats to local wildlife and the livelihood of lakhs of people in the area, POSCO is adamant it wants its own port even though Paradip Port is only 10 to 12 km away. And our magnanimous government pampers the company.

Although the total capacity of the steel plant is 12 MTPA (metric tons per annum), the company sought clearance only for 4 MTPA. But, it wants land for a 12 MTPA capacity plant. Not only did POSCO split up the whole undertaking into separate components, it lowered the capacity of its plant to maximize its chances of getting clearance.

This entire edifice will be constructed at great ecological and human cost on the premise that there are accessible raw materials somewhere. There are none. Even while the State and Centre are hustling the enterprise forward, POSCO has no iron ore for its steel plant or to export through its port back to the mother country, and no coal mine to fuel its power plant.

The State government recommended giving the Khandadhar iron ore mine to POSCO, but there are 290 other claimants. One of them went to court which set aside the state government’s recommendation, and now POSCO has appealed to the Supreme Court. What if it loses the case again? There is no information on which coal mine will be assigned to POSCO. The state’s largesse in doling out millions of tons of ore at dirt cheap prices is another story of loot and plunder.

This huge scheme got away with its clearances on the basis of a hastily conducted Environment Impact Assessment (EIA). The plant and port would be connected by railway, roads, and pipelines, which have all been left out of the EIA’s ambit. The assessment did not include the yet-to-be-identified water source, nor examine the impact of this mega-development on human lives, much less wildlife. It also didn’t consider the source of raw materials for this project. If all these impacts aren’t considered, what exactly is an EIA for? Is it just a meaningless ritual?

And then there’s the forest clearance. Unlike the Expert Appraisal Committees, the Forest Advisory Committee headed by the Director General of Forests refused to issue the clearance needed to divert forest land. Before the diversion can take place, the rights of people resident in the area have to be settled under the Forest Rights Act. The state has absolutely refused to do this, even going to the extent of denying that anybody lived on the land earmarked for development. In fact, compared to the generous offer of 4000 acres of land to POSCO, the state is denying its own people any rights at all. Yet, Ramesh over-ruled the Forest Committee’s considered opinion and issued an executive fiat.

In a parallel development, in late March 2012, the Comptroller and Auditor General accused the Orissa government of misusing the Land Acquisition Act in favour of industrial houses such as POSCO.

Seven years after the agreement was signed and more than ten months after POSCO got all the necessary paperwork cleared with the aid of its powerful friends, if the enterprise exists only on paper, it’s because of local people’s opposition. When every single state mechanism and law that protected their rights has been undermined, people have peacefully braved daily harassment and violence being dealt to them by privately-hired goons and state police.

On his recent visit to South Korea, the Prime Minister assured President Lee Myung-bak that POSCO’s plans will be approved. Considering the close watch he’s been keeping on the paperwork, the environmental and forest rights problems could not have escaped his attention. And yet, how was he confident that the scheme will be approved?

Clearly, this entire undertaking needs to be evaluated comprehensively and that’s what the National Green Tribunal has ordered. In the face of the Ministry of Environment and Forest’s callous disregard of laws and ignoring the critique of the Review and Forest Advisory Committees it set up, the Tribunal’s verdict comes as welcome succour.



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