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About a month ago I wrote about the model Saranda Action Plan in the West Singhbhum district of Jharkhand. This is one of rural development minister Jairam Ramesh’s pet projects that seek to link security with development. A hearts-and-minds turnaround, as it were, in an 850 sq. km forested area of Maoist influence.

Now for the other side of the coin.

Are such plans, often riding intense security sweeps, for the benefit of the forgotten and development-starved indigenous people in India’s fast-depleting forests? Or are these merely eyewash for the benefit of clearing the way for metals, mining and power generation interests? Indeed, a senior police officer of Jharkhand recently discussed with me this Catch-22 of policing, not just in the state of his jurisdiction, but also in neighbouring Chhattisgarh and Orissa, affected by similar rebellion. “It may seem that our operations are done to benefit business, but that is not the purpose with which the police plan operations against Maoists."

Quite often, though, it may seem that way. Businesses rush, as do their sponsor governments, to take up opportunities even where conflict is raging or, even if reduced, far from concluded. (This is vastly different from conflict having erupted around existing businesses, such as Steel Authority of India Ltd’s (SAIL’s) existing iron ore mines in Saranda. Or, say, NMDC Ltd’s mines in southern Chhattisgarh.)

This opens up business to accusations of colluding with the state, and also be liable for human rights violations that accrue from such conflict. In the context of Saranda, this applies to both Anaconda and Anaconda II anti-Maoist security operations, the second ongoing. Moreover, it goes against norms of business ethics and corporate social responsibility, besides norms of constitutional governance.

The latest to walk into such controversy is JSW Steel Ltd, Jindal Steel and Power Ltd (JSPL), and SAIL. This is on account of approvals granted to operate mining leases in Saranda. These were given by the forest advisory committee (FAC) of the environment and forests ministry during its meetings in January and February, along with several other clearances for minor road, power transmission and hydroelectric projects in other parts of the country. Even, mining projects in other parts of Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh; but this column already brimmeth, et cetera.

JSPL received approval for diversion of 512.43ha (nearly 1,270 acres) of forest land for an iron ore lease in Saranda forests. JSW received an okay to mine iron and manganese ores, and so use 998.7ha (about 2,470 acres). A subsidiary of SAIL received approval—an additional mining lease—to cast for iron ore over nearly 211 hectares (about 520 acres).

A reading of the minutes of these FAC meetings reveals an attitude which directly plays into accusations by both pro-Maoist and utterly non-Maoist critics of government-business joint ventures in conflict zones. The qualifiers for all three projects are nearly identical, but the one for JSPL (file number 8-60/2010-FC) goes the extra mile in justification.

“The committee noted the conflict of interest between conservation of natural resources and need for economic activity. The Saranda is rich in forest and wildlife and at the same time has rich mineral deposits. Taking a view purely in the interest of conservation or on the other hand in the interest of economic activity will amount to taking an extreme side."

So it took the side of economic activity with palliative stretch. “The committee felt the need to take a view wherein economic activity may be permitted to the extent possible and at the same time conserve the natural resources and take sufficient effective mitigative measures."

For all three leases such measures range from not blasting for ore at night to ensuring compensatory afforestation. (Although in one case FAC noted that land has not yet been identified for afforestation and some “found" to be under control of “left-wing extremists".)

Lighting arrangements would need to be proper “to reduce the glare to open sky and thus to facilitate the migration path of avifauna"—bats, birds. Siltation and discharge should not affect nearby river systems. It leaves monitoring to the state government, usually a manoeuvrable entity. State government agencies okay such deals in the first place.

For me the killer app of “sufficient effective mitigative measures" refers to the two Jindal projects: “The user agency and other lessee will celebrate wildlife week to create awareness amongst their staff and transporters for ecological and wildlife conservation of Saranda…"

Read through such a prism, the Saranda Action Plan can indeed read like the Saranda Business Plan.

Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business, runs on Fridays. Respond to this column at rootcause@livemint.com

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