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Oct 31, 2002
Kudremukh will ride again

Kudremukh literally means ‘horse’s head’ in Kannada. It’s the affectionate, poetic name --inspired by its silhouette-- given to a hill range in the Western Ghats lying within the state of Karnataka. Quite apart from its gentle beauty, it is so rich in species diversity that it has been picked as one of only 18 international bio-diversity ‘hot-spots’, that should be pro-actively conserved. Way back in 1916, 600 around it had been declared a ‘Reserve Forest’. The hills --varying between 100 and 2000 metres in height-- receive 7000 mm of rain annually. They create many rivers, sustain hundreds of micro economies and are home to a variety of wildlife. Tigers, leopards and wild dogs, deer, wild pig and monkeys have their habitat there. Of the last, it was the exotic Lion Tailed Macaque whose likely extinction swung the spot light on Kudremukh. In 1987 the state government declared it a National Park.

Kudremukh’s problems began twenty years ago when some simplistic planner sitting far away, came up with a big deal: Kudremukh has rich lodes of iron ore, it is just 110 km from Mangalore, a port, the Shah of Iran wants his country to be ‘in steel’ and is willing to pay up-front to set up a mining operation. In a bureaucrat run India it seemed a win-win proposition. And so the Kudremukh Iron Ore Co Ltd [KIOCL] came into being with a lease to mine an area of over 4000 ha right in the middle of a notified forest. KIOCL would be an open cast minermaking ‘profits’ by simply shipping a resource buried under a forest. In the manner of ‘public’ undertakings it soon gathered employees—it has about 2000 today-- built itself a big, ugly office in the jungle and began to gouge the earth.

In the meantime, the one-client project faced the fall of the Shah. The project was completed with Indian funds. Had KIOCL remained a ‘dig and ship the dirt’ operation it may have been just as ‘profitable’ as it became, and hurt the environment a lot less. But it chose to pelletise the ore at Mangalore and this called for massive sieving at Kudremukh, which left a monumental tonnage of slurry --called tailings-- in the forests.

Between invasive construction of roads and work-shops, the cluelessness about a way to dispose the tailings and the lobby of 2500 employees, KIOCL was soon in the news. The water of the River Bhadra turned turgid, farmers downstream found their yields falling and there were signs the dusty, noisy activity was petrifying wildlife. To compound its ineptness, KIOCL deployed its ‘afforestation’ activity on pristine grass lands that should have been left alone. For the record it could cite 7,500,000 saplings as having been planted but these were senseless species, planted to show numbers.

If you wondered why this depressing story belongs in GoodNewsIndia, here is the reason: the fightbak to save Kudremukh can only happen in a democracy that respects ‘systems’. It is an instructive example of the role the press, environmentalists and the judiciary played in redressing a wrong.

Wildlife First, an NGO sought the intervention of the Supreme Court in May,01. A leading lawyer Harish Salve, took the brief. They had found enough violations of laws the state itself had legislated. The Court pricked up its ears and dug deep into the matter. The tale is well told in detail at this link.

On Oct 30, 02 it was all over for KIOCL. Despite all the sleight of hand the defence played , the letter of the law was enforced: Kudremukh will cease all operations from Jan 1, 06. A three member bench observed: “By destroying nature, man is committing matricide...”. The time given was to complete its contractual obligations and to dismantle the massive establishment. It will be the largest --KIOCL is a $500 million company-- closure, enforced on environmental grounds. Wildlife First had struck a blow for nature. The horse will rear its head in the sky again.

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