Given the central government’s commitment to protect the elephant, it is most surprising that the environment ministry, headed by Jayanthi Natarajan, has allowed Jindal Steel, a private firm, to mine in the core area of Singhbhum, India’s first elephant reserve, in Saranda, Jharkhand. The ministry has approved the Forest Advisory Committee’s (FAC) January 2013 decision for this iron ore mining lease project in Saranda which decision is also controversial, as the same FAC had rejected the Jindal mining project in 2011 by noting that the forest at Saranda was part of the Singhbhum elephant reserve, which is one of the finest habitats for elephants. No clear reasons have been stated for either the environment ministry’s decision or the FAC’s change of stand but the latter has noted that taking a view purely in the interest of conservation, or on the other hand in the interest of economic activity, will amount to taking an extreme side. This is a strange view for a FAC to take when discussing an endangered animal’s habitat and for whose protection it is expected to weigh in.
Curiously, the environment ministry clearance comes despite the public opposition of union rural development Minister Jairam Ramesh, in a classic example of ministers and ministries in this government working at cross-purposes, with no resultant clarity in policy. Ramesh had earlier this year said that the FAC recommendation would negate all that has been done in the region in the last one year. He had said that he had been at great pains to counter the Maoist propaganda that the Saranda Development Plan was a ploy to benefit private mining interests and he expected the environment ministry to take a larger and more sensitive political view. This the environment ministry has not done and these same private mining interests have trumped all others interests. This decision has clearly been a victory of a corporate lobby that had kept pressurising the government to free the area for mining. The main purpose of setting up these animal sanctuaries is to protect and preserve the elephant population. This sudden change of stance by the government will destroy virgin forest, increase the instances of man-elephant conflict and disturb the area’s ecological balance. Mining has pushed the elephant population to the edge in the other parts of India where it has been allowed in their habitats. The environment ministry decision shows how vulnerable policies in this government are to corporate lobbies.