A Supreme Court-monitored committee has asked the National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC) to prepare a closure plan for Panna diamond mine in Madhya Pradesh Panna Tiger Reserve (PTR) by the end of September 2019 so that it can be shut by June 2020. But the Public Sector Undertaking (PSU) has instead gone ahead and is seeking an extension of the mining lease till 2035.
Sources said that at a meeting held on July 6, 2019, under the chairmanship of Madhya Pradesh Chief Wildlife Warden, the PSU officials asserted that since not all diamonds have been excavated and that diamond cutting and polishing industry is a major foreign exchange earner and job provider, the lease for mining in the Majhgawan mine in the PTR should be extended up to 2035. The PTR is spread over an area of 54,200 hectares (ha) across Panna and Chhatarpur districts. It adjoins the Gangau Wildlife Sanctuary.
The SC-monitored committee had been time and again seeking the PSU’s closure plans but the NMDC has preferred to look the other way. So far, eight meetings have been held, sources in the know of things said.
In 2005, the State (MP) wildlife protection board had given mining clearance to NMDC, which is under the administrative control of the Ministry of Steel, with the condition that it should phase out its operations by 2020. Panna is the only diamond mine in India.
The Union Environment Ministry is keen that the PSU shut down its diamond mining operation in the reserve by June 2020 to prevent further degradation of the region where NMDC has set up a sort of township with numerous labour camps and mine digging machines, threatening the ecology and wildlife including big cats. The NMDC has denied the allegations.
Instead, it said that the number of royal Bengal tigers have increased in the PTR due to the presence of its manpower. “Number of tigers has increased from 42 last year to 52 this year. Is this not a sign of a positive impact of our presence?” a senior NMDC official said on the condition of anonymity.
However, the NMDC justification to allow its mining extension has not gone down well with the State wildlife officials. A senior PTR official said, “If that is the reason for increase in number of tigers, should we allow mining in every tiger reserve? Tigers are saved because of our better surveillance, monitoring and management strategy. Our recommendation is in line with earlier apprehensions that mining activity in the tiger reserve and sanctuary will affect the wildlife, especially the population of tigers.”
He also argued that while villagers are being relocated from the tiger reserve to maintain the undisturbed nature of the habitat, why should the NMDC be allowed to mine in the protected area?
After 2005, in 2006 too the central empowered committee (CEC), appointed by the apex court, had remarked in its report on Panna mine that it was undesirable to allow mining indefinitely within protected areas and asked for a deadline for closure.
During the last one decade, the Panna diamond mines have been closed thrice for want of environmental clearances and other related issues. The longest period for which it remained closed was from August 28, 2005 to June 19, 2009.
After the mine was closed in 2005, the NMDC moved the Supreme Court against the order. The SC then appointed a seven-member CEC that visited the Panna mines and surrounding areas in 2008 to take stock of the ground reality.
In September 2008, the Supreme Court revoked the ban on diamond mining in Panna Tiger Reserve turning around its 2002 directive. The court, however, ordered formation of a monitoring committee chaired by the chief wildlife warden of Madhya Pradesh. The committee was mandated to be responsible for approval of the mine closure plan, prescribing and monitoring of various safeguards for mine operation and so on.
The SC-monitored panel comprises of member secretary, National Tiger Conservation Authority, field director of Panna National Park and a non-official member of the National Board for Wildlife of the Union Environment Ministry.