Over the past decade, fuelled by a commodity boom led by exports to China, the iron and manganese ore-rich forests of north Odisha’s Eastern Ghats have seen an unprecedented rush to mine. Much of this mining—as a detailed indictment by a former Supreme Court judge’s commission has laid out— violated a raft of laws and regulations, severely despoiled the area’s complex eco-system, and resulted in windfall profits for miners at the cost of the public exchequer.
In the state government’s own belated admission to the Justice M B Shah Commission, ore amounting to Rs 59,203 crore was illegally mined through the decade. To provide perspective, this is almost a fourth of the state’s Gross Domestic Product.
On the ground, the loot is encouraged as much by broken laws and opaque governing, as by the state’s traditional contempt for marginalised adivasi communities. The latter make up the bulk of the local population, and are given little say in decision-making around mining projects, and assessing their severe impacts.
The Shah Commission’s report was tabled in Parliament on February 10, but saw no discussion. In its action taken report, the Central government, including the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), said it is taking measures to verify the illegalities, such as mining in forest areas without the necessary clearances.
The state government told the commission that it had issued 146 recovery notices to mine lease holders who have illegally mined iron ore and manganese. An official in the state’s Directorate of Mines said this week that this money was yet to be recovered—some lease-holders had moved local courts for stay orders, making the recovery of the assessed amount sub-judice, while in other cases proceedings are still under way.
Additionally, the state government has steadfastly countered the Shah commission’s recommendation for a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation in several egregious instances of illegal mining—a demand that Prashant Bhushan, counsel for the non-profit Common Cause, is reiterating in a public interest petition being currently being heard by the Supreme Court.
According to Biswajit Mohanty, a wildlife and transparency activist who has been raising the issue of illegal mining in Odisha since 2008, the absence of meaningful action by local authorities is evidenced by the fact that “despite thousands of crores of public property being looted, not a single public servant or private official has been sent to jail, not one mining license revoked, and not a rupee recovered till date.”
These images from Sundergarh district’s Bonai region show the contrast between the mined landscape, and areas which are yet to be mined.