Roar Of Discontent Over Uranium Project In Telangana
A recently released Status of Tigers in 2018 report rightly recalls a great shloka from the epic Mahabharat which says –
“Tigers cannot survive without forests and similarly forests perish without tigers. Tigers protect the forests that nurture them.”
(Mahabharata, Udyoga Parva: 5.29.48)
The tiger is India’s national animal and it goes without saying that the conservation of the animal and its habitat is a national priority. It has no alternative. But another national priority, India’s nuclear program, has overridden it.
Another wing of the same union Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change (MoEFCC) accords permission to the Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) to conduct exploration for uranium ore in the heart of the Tiger Reserve in Telangana, quite unmindful of the message of the Mahabharat or the dictates of conservation.
The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) stating that Uranium mining is ‘critically important from the national perspective’ accorded in-principle permission on May 22 to the centre’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) to conduct survey and exploration for uranium ore in an area of 83 square kilometres in Telangana’s tiger reserve.
Even though the FAC found certain deficiencies in the proposal, the expert panel, thoroughly convinced of the DAE proposal placed before it, saw no irrationality in according in-principle permission while seeking resubmission of the proposal with full documentation.
It has eschewed all constitutional norms and democratic consultative process while permitting DAE to conduct a survey in the deep forest, home to indigenous tribes and India’s national animal.
What is more distressing is the state government is not able to question the overriding authority of the FAC.
The premise put forth by DAE while applying for permission to conduct the survey in the fragile tiger reserve in Telangana reads - “Substantial progress of any country is linked to both energy production and energy consumption. The annual per capita consumption of electricity in India is too low (917.2 kWh) compared to the world average (2600 kWh). In the prevailing energy-demanding situation to sustain high economic growth, uranium metal has become a critical and immediately needed commodity to generate nuclear power. The share of nuclear energy is meagre 3.5% of the total energy production in India. This is very low again in comparison to the world average of 16%. Realizing this, our country is on the threshold of taking a quantum jump in harnessing electricity through the nuclear route. As such, a target of 40,000 MW of electricity is set to be produced by the year 2030 through nuclear energy.”
What is forgotten in the rhetoric of critical importance is the fact that the area in which DAE aims to conduct survey and exploration for uranium is also of equally critical importance for different reasons.
Because the area forms the core region of the famous Amrabad Tiger Reserve with high biodiversity. The forest is also home to a primitive tribe called Chenchu.
Survey, exploration, and later mining involves huge amount of drilling, shifting of men and material, and vehicular traffic.
One can easily visualise the disturbance this activity could probably create in a tiger reserve, till now an undisturbed area on the banks of River Krishna, which meets the drinking water and irrigation demands of Andhra and Telangana, including the capital city Hyderabad.
The field director of Amrabad Tiger Reserve in his field Survey report (2016) clearly recommended against the uranium project in two blocks that cover 76 square kilometres. The field director (FD) wondered as to how the user agency would travel and transport the men and machinery inside the project to its area of activity where there are no roads.
The FD also referred to the tripartite agreement between MoEFCC, Telangana government and the tiger reserve which indicates that there shall be no ecologically unsustainable land use such as mining, industry and similar projects within the reserve.
The FD also stated that “the impact of mining will include erosion, the formation of sinkholes, loss of biodiversity, and contamination of soil, groundwater and surface water by chemicals from mining processes. Besides creating environmental damage, the contamination resulting from leakage of chemicals also will affect the health of native wildlife.”
Finally, the FD concluded that “If the mining activity is permitted it will cause habitat fragmentation and disturbance to wildlife resulting in wastage of all our efforts made over the years to restore wildlife and improve habitat in the core area.”
The Amrabad Tiger Reserve
The Amrabad Tiger Reserve is spread over an area of 2166.37 square kilometres in the districts of Mahabubnagar and Nalgonda.
This is the largest tiger reserve in the country. Earlier, it was part of Nagarjunasagar-Srisailam Tiger Reserve.
But after bifurcation of erstwhile Andhra Pradesh, the northern part of the reserve which remained with Telangana was renamed as Amrabad Tiger Reserve.
The southern portion continues to be NSTR is with Andhra Pradesh.
There are an estimated 26 tigers (2018) in the reserve.
The Uranium Project
The proposed Uranium project envisages digging of 4000 bore wells in the Tiger Reserve. But the people in the region with the support of environmental activists and political parties have raised the banner of revolt. A couple of days ago, 30 scientists from GSI (Geological Survey of India), who were on their way to the forest, have been stopped and sent back from Devarakonda, a town in Nalgonda district.
Similarly, a team of officials allegedly representing the UCIL have been prevented from entering the forest by Chenchu tribals on Thursday.
These strangers, the activists allege, are venturing into the forest only to mark the points for drilling the bore wells.
The Chenchus have formed a Struggle Committee against uranium mining in the forest. The members of the committee have kept a vigil on movements of all strangers with the suspicion that they might be employees of UCIL. They will not cede the ground without a fight.
Congress and the Left have formed a joint action committee against uranium mining. A bandh was observed last week in Amrabad and Padara mandals protesting the uranium mining proposal.
Telangana Jana Samiti (TJS) headed by Professor Kodandaram is also waging a battle against the uranium project. The TJS is organising a round table on Monday to forge an all-party Joint Action Committee (JAC) of all the forces opposed to the uranium project.
Kodandaram said the mining, if allowed, would spell disaster in the region. “It is proven beyond doubt that the uranium mining contaminates the water in surrounding areas. Similar mining has become anathema for farmers of Kadapa district in neighbouring Andhra. It is certain to destroy the Nallamala forests and uproot the Chenchus. It will contaminate waters of Nagarjuna Sagar Reservoir which supplies irrigation and drinking water to many districts in Andhra and Telangana, including Hyderabad city. The damage will be irreversible. People of Telangana cannot afford this. The project should be abandoned,” he said adding that they would intensify the movement to save the forest, the tigers and the people.
Alleging that there was no transparency in the process, Kodandaram said no Gram Sabhas were held to discuss the proposed project.
Former Congress MP Dr Mallu Ravi blamed both state and central for turbulence in the Nallamala forest. “Due to some inexplicable reasons, the state government is silently allowing the uranium project in delicate ecological zone. The project will affect about 70,000 people in about 45 villages,” Dr Ravi who once represented Nagarkurnool Lok Sabha seat said.
Janasena leader, former actor Pawan Kalyan and leading movie star Vijay Devarakonda also extended support to the 'Save Nallamala, Save Tiger' movement.
Constitutional Rights Violated
Former Union secretary and environmentalist Dr EAS Sarma says the recommendations of FAC goes against the Constitutional protections afforded to the tribals whose lives will get adversely affected by uranium exploration activity.
He said the in-principle clearance hastily issued by FAC is not valid. He also said the Tribal Advisory Council (TAC) has not been consulted, which he says is mandatory.
There are 23 villages in Amrabad Mandal which fall within the stretch notified by the President of India under the Fifth Schedule to the Constitution. The Chenchu tribals, a Primitive Tribal Group (PTG), enjoy special protective rights that cannot be violated.
State Government’s Silence
What is intriguing is the silence of the state government. Despite the widespread protests in Nalgonda and Mahabubnagar districts against the project, the officials are tight-lipped.
Dr Sarma wonders as to how the centre takes a unilateral decision on a subject as sensitive as uranium mining, without consulting the Tribal Welfare Ministry at the centre and the Tribal Welfare Department at the state level.
“It is equally distressing to find that neither the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs nor its counterpart in the state has chosen to question the decision. Apparently, both the centre and the state have relegated the interests of the tribals to accommodate DAE's proposal. This is unfortunate,” Dr Sarma said in a letter written to SK Joshi, chief secretary, the government of Telangana.
“Exploratory drilling for uranium and uranium mining following that activity will generate toxic pollutants that will adversely impact the health of the tribals and also the health of the downstream population. FAC has failed to consider this, as evident from the minutes of its meeting held on 22-5-2019. In the Scheduled areas of Amrabad Mandal, no project can be taken up except in compliance with the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act or PESA and the Forest Rights Act (FRA), which require prior approval of the local Gram Sabhas,” he said in the letter.
Quid Pro Quo Politics?
There is some talk of quid pro quo in the state. Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao’s government is rather obliged to allow the uranium mining project in the state’s tiger reserve as a reciprocation to the MoEFCC clearances for his pet project Kaleshwaram.
Some attribute the state’s silence to KCR’s inability to question the invasive policies of the centre for political reasons. KCR, who used to say that the Centre should confine itself to External Affairs, Defence and Communications before 2019, now appears to be consciously avoiding a clash with the centre.