The Saranda forests in the hilly regions of West Singhbhum district of Jharkhand are dense forests that stretch over an area of 82,000 ha. These forests were one of the most pristine in India, and are the largest sal forests in the country (Priyadarshini, 2008; Sethi, 2014). They support a large variety of floral and faunal biodiversity, and are an important elephant corridor (Priyadarshini, 2008). An expert panel appointed by the Government of India in 2011, identified 480 new species of fauna and flora in the region (Chakravartty, 2014). The core area of these forests are also ancestral home to the about 56 villages (Deogharial, 2013) which are mostly composed of the Ho and Mundi adivasi (tribal) communities. The 36,000 strong tribal communities have lived sustainably within the forests for centuries and have played a key role in the maintenance and protection of the forests (Bera, 2012). The ecology of the forests is closely intertwined with the spiritual and cultural practices of the tribe (Lambert, 2016). The cultural integration and the importance of the forests to the tribal communities extends from birth to death—the Ho community custom dictates burials be conducted under the shade of trees within the Saranda forests. The impact that the loss of forest has on adivasis can be gauged by the statement of a part time labourer captured by Bera, 2012: “I just hope they leave some forests for our graves” (Bera, 2012). The hills also hold large deposits of high grade iron ore. Until 2016, close to 1,200 ha of land within the Saranda forests have been granted for iron ore mining to 85 companies (Lambert, 2016). As a result of mining operations large stretches of forest land which served as an elephant corridor, agricultural land belonging to and sustaining livelihoods of villagers lies waste. Streams which serve both domestic and agricultural purposes of the villagers now flow red with mining waste, polluting drinking water sources and resulting in loss of agricultural productivity (Priyadarshini, 2008). Forests, and mountains which are sacred to the adivasis lie degraded due to iron ore mining operations.
Various political actors, including the then Union Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh, expressed their intentions to not allow mining operations to be carried out in the region, specially by private actors (Business Standard, 2012). However, in 2012, SAIL was granted permission for expansion of mining operations over and additional 273 ha (Chakravartty, 2014). In 2013 mining operations were granted further forest clearances. SAIL (Steel Authority of India Ltd.) expanded into an additional 351 ha (Chakravartty, 2014). The SAIL proposal for forest clearance included the felling of 40,000 trees, 26,000 of which had a girth of over 70 cm—an indication of forest health (Chakravartty, 2014). Apart from state owned SAIL this also included various private actors, such as Jindal Steel Works (JSW), Vedanta, and Rungta mines which were granted permission to start exploration within the elephant corridor. The Jindal group was granted approval for the diversion of over an area of 1500 ha and the clearance of 80,000 trees (Deogharial, 2013; Shrivastave, 2013), whereas Rungta Mines were given clearance for 100 ha involving clearance over 2800 trees (Shrivastava, 2013). This raised much discontent amidst the villagers in the region (Deogharial, 2013). However, in 2014 permissions for further forest clearances for mining operations in the region were granted by the Ministry of Forests and Environment (Chakravartty, 2014). The situation was aggravated in 2016, when well-known human rights campaigner and the leader of the movement to protect the Saranda forests—Gladstone Dungdung was denied permission to travel to the UK to participate in a conference to present the case of the resistance movement against anti-mining protests in the region (Lambert, 2016).
Various anti-mining protests have been organized by the local villagers over the years, but to no avail (Openspace, Dungdung). The post-master in Saranda, Bhismen Gop describes the issues that villagers—mostly farmers, and gatherers of non-timber forest produce—by stating, “What use are development programs when our land is turning barren and perennial streams are drying up” (Bera, 2012). Mining waste has turned the rivers red, and mining operations have resulted in the drying up of a 5 km stretch of a perennial stream in the region (Bera, 2012).
The juxtaposition of accumulation of wealth by a small minority in the region and the income poverty of the majority of the population who are the owners of the lands can be gauged by the analysis of economist Ramesh Sharan who states: “It is a paradox that West Singhbhum has the highest per capita income in the state, but also figure on the list of 100 worst districts of the country in terms of human development indices” (Ganguly, 2015). The mining operations, and the woes of the villagers continue. (See less)