Six years after the Supreme Court ordered that mining operations in the Western Ghats be stopped because of environmental concerns, two government bodies have recommended the examination of underground techniques to see if these can be used to resume the hunt for iron ore in the area.

The Indian Council of Forestry and Research Education (ICFRE), Dehradun, and a working group of the Planning Commission have both independently recommended such feasibility studies for extracting the resource from the Western Ghats.

Damage control: A file photo of an iron ore mine in Goa. A panel has suggested phasing out mining operations in the most sensitive areas of the Western Ghats, which include Goa, through opencast methods.(Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint)

The move could assume significance in the light of the bans that have recently been imposed on illegal and indiscriminate mining practices in Bellary and elsewhere in Karnataka that led to widespread environmental degradation. The sudden decline in the mining activities, which boomed along with a surge in global demand in the last decade, has led to iron ore exports trickling to a halt.

According to ICFRE, the Western Ghats is estimated to have a deposit of 10 billion tonnes of magnetite ore—of which around 8 billion tonnes is located in Karnataka. The Geological Survey of India has reported significant deposits of magnetite in the Chikmagalur, Shimoga and Uttara Kannada districts of the state.

ICFRE made these recommendations in a macro-level environment impact assessment study report of Bellary district following directions by the Supreme Court.

These recommendations were also echoed by a working group of the Planning Commission on the steel industry, headed by Union steel secretary Pradeep Kumar Misra. Mint has copies of both the reports, of which the one by ICFRE is not available in the public domain.

“Although, the present steel capacities in the country are primarily based on haematite iron ore, over a longer period of time, it may also be required to tap the magnetite iron ore resources located in the Western Ghats, where mining activities are currently banned," the group said in its November 2011 report.

The mining technique that both have recommended is considered environmentally friendly.

“Unlocking these iron ore resources may need recourse to underground mining technologies, so that the precarious ecological balance in the Western Ghat region is not disturbed while iron ore is extracted," the working group panel report said.

However, the recommendations have met with resistance on the part of environmental activists.

ICFRE has been asked to remove the reference to the Western Ghats, said Samaj Parivartana Samudaya founder S.R. Hiremath, who filed the public interest litigation (PIL) that led to the report.

“ICFRE has clearly gone beyond its mandate and we have asked them to file a fresh report," he said.

The Karnataka government has also opposed the recommendation. Forest minister C.P. Yogeshwar said, “The Western Ghats is renowned worldwide for its biodiversity. We will definitely not allow any mining and I am going to lodge a protest with the Centre on this."

The range is frequently classified as being among the most bio-diverse regions in the world. Ecologist Norman Myers, in a paper in Nature, classified the Ghats as being among the top 10 biodiversity spots in the world. This region has recorded more than 5,000 species of flowering plants, and nearly 77% of the amphibians and 62% of the reptile species found here are not found anywhere else.

The Supreme Court could prove another stumbling block. The mining operations of Kudremukh Iron Ore Co. Ltd in the Western Ghats in Karnataka were stopped by the apex court after a PIL alleging environmental damage in the area.

Last week, The Hindu reported that the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, appointed by the environment ministry and headed by ecologist Madhav Gadgil, had recommended phasing out mining in Goa in the most sensitive areas of the Western Ghats and allowing the continuation of existing operations in areas that were comparatively less ecologically sensitive under strict regulation.

Moreover, the cost of underground mining is expected to be significantly higher than opencast methods. “It is appreciated that underground mining requires huge investment costs and, therefore, the same will negatively impact the competitiveness of Indian steel industry," the working panel group note said.