The issue of conservation of tigers in India is, at the best of times, a highly controversial topic pitting the country’s national animal, the forests it lives in, against people and development agendas of the governments of the day. The Amrabad Tiger Reserve in Telangana is no different. Over the past decade, Amrabad has been in the news, not for its efforts related to tiger conservation but for its uranium ore deposits believed to be hidden underground in the hilly landscape of the Nallamala forests.
On May 22 this year, the Geiger counter once again began ticking for Amrabad Tiger Reserve with the Central government according an ‘in-principle’ approval to the Department of Atomic Energy to take up exploratory drilling for uranium ore in 83 sq km of the reserve areas of the forest that are by official admission rich in biodiversity and home to a plethora of wild animals, including the tiger.
And as with anything to do with any issue related to atomic energy, there are not many details about just how exactly the exploratory drilling is to take place in the tiger reserve. Documents submitted to the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change skim over crucial details. The absence of details, acknowledged as much by the FAC itself, which gave the permission, has understandably raised the hackles of conservation groups.
The local residents in villages dotting the tiger reserve have been silent so far but are expected to jump into the fray when the DAE’s convoys with engineers and drilling equipment, reach the forest.
Back in 2017 too, when a similar proposal for drilling for uranium exploration came to the fore, the forest-dwelling communities – mostly comprising the downtrodden and disadvantaged Chenchu tribals – finding support from across the people in Nagarkurnool district in which most of the tiger reserve falls observed a total shutdown in protest against the proposal in April that year. There is simmering discontent and opposition to the proposal and it is believed that it’s just a matter of time when this once again will boil over into active protests as things move forward.
Incidentally, the FAC, which approved DAE’s request, also said that it “observed that there are certain deficiencies in the proposal. However, considering the fact that the proposal is of critical importance from the national perspective, it recommended in-principle approval subject to submission of all required documents/information in due format. After receipt of the same, the complete proposal may be placed before the competent authority for approval.”
Making things murkier is the letter dated June 19 addressed to the Chief Secretary of Telangana, the Deputy Inspector General of Forests, from MoEF’s Forest Conservation Division that asked the State to submit its proposals in the relevant forms and formats “along-with verified relevant documents and shape/KML file (digital maps) for identified boreholes to this Ministry for further consideration.”
This is a task that the State is ill-equipped to carry out considering the fact that none of the exact locations where the DAE wants to dig the boreholes in the tiger reserve has been identified in the documents submitted to the FAC. All that the DAE says is that it “proposes to carry out survey and drilling of boreholes around Amrabad-Udimalla (Mahabubnagar district), Narayanpur (Nalgonda district), Telangana, with the aim to establish uranium deposits in these areas.”
According to officials of the State Forest Department, they have been promised that no disturbance of any kind will occur to the forest during the exploratory drilling, something they say cannot be accepted at face value. Officials believe that this is a promise that is impossible to keep and that trees will be cut and roads will have to be laid. And that is just for starters. There are legitimate concerns that any runoff from rains from the drilling sites will find its way into River Krishna and finally settle down in the downstream Nagarjunasagar reservoir.
The Amrabad Tiger Reserve in Telangana, though the second largest in the country after its sibling Nagarjunasagar Srisailam Tiger Reserve across River Krishna in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, is no Tadoba or Ranthambore in terms of popularity as a tiger zone. Or even for the number of tigers it is home to.
In fact, as per the last census of tigers in 2014, Amrabad had just 13 tigers, far shorter than 20 – considered the minimum viable population of tigers in a reserve. Data from the subsequent tiger census, conducted once every four years, has been due for more than a year. However, it is believed that since the 2014 count, the tiger numbers have risen in the reserve and indications are that Amrabad is inching towards achieving the magic of being home to a sustainable tiger population.
But it is not just tigers that Amrabad is home to. It is the land of Chenchus, a tribe that has stuck largely to its primitive roots living in tiny little hamlets dotting across the reserve and in perfect harmony with the forest and its animals. There are as many as 121 Chenchu ‘pentas’ or hamlets in the tiger reserve that are home to 8,000 to 9,000 of these tribals.
Uranium in Amrabad
According to the DAE and Atomic Minerals Division’s submissions to the FAC, their reviews of assessments indicate that the northern part of Kadapa Basin in Telangana is the most promising and potential area in the country for locating high grade, large tonnage uranium deposits. The proposed forest land is one of the prime targets for exploration of uranium deposits in India.
In India, uranium deposits discovered till now are either of low grade or of low tonnage or both, the DAE said. Increasing uranium production is key to adding to the atomic energy production in the country.
Tiger Reserve’s Field Director says NO
In his field report before the FAC, the Amrabad Tiger Reserve’s Field Director clearly opposes any mining or even exploratory activities in the area. The report says that as per existing laws governing tiger reserves, the State government has to certify that no ecologically unsustainable land use such as mining, industry and similar projects will be allowed within the tiger reserve.
The disturbance to the habitat will be immense even for exploration purpose. The user agency has not spelt out the exact location of the bores due to technical reasons. When the agency was requested to furnish the exact locations, it replied that such locations cannot be demarcated, states the report. Though it is difficult to transport boring machinery into the area, the user agency has not clearly spelt out as to how they are going to go inside the area.
The National Tiger Conservation Authority and the State wildlife authorities are working hard to bring back tiger in the area. If mining is permitted, it will cause habitat fragmentation and disturbance to wildlife resulting in wastage of all-out efforts made over the years to restore wildlife and improve habitat in the core area of the reserve, stresses the report.
An NGO speaks out
Amrabad was selected for a reason. The Peddagatu-Lambapur area in Nalgonda district, where a similar proposal area met with protests and was put on the backburner as a result, was dominated by the politically active Lambadas, who enjoyed Scheduled Tribe (ST) status in united Andhra Pradesh. Amrabad, on the other hand, is dominated by Chenchus, a ST, who are less affluent and are the most underprivileged group in Telangana.
The current move to start uranium exploration will unleash a Frankenstein monster and create major distrust between the people and the government. The area proposed for mining falls under the Amrabad and Nudigal
Reserved Forests of the ‘core area’ of the tiger reserve. It has a good diversity of forests and wildlife. The area lies along a patch where the Nallavagu and Dindi rivers merge, forming a major tributary and catchment of the Krishna river. The forest here is pristine. Some of the areas have been given as pattas under the Forest Rights Act. Despite the rich wildlife, there is very little human-wildlife conflict.
K Kavitha, former TRS Member of Parliament, and her party, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi had vehemently opposed the move to start uranium mining in Amrabad. Chenchus have high hopes on their Chief Minister yet again this time.
(Imran Siddiqui is co-founder of the Hyderabad Tiger Conservation Society)