There is a clear difference in the surroundings as one approaches the Nallamala forest in Nagarkurnool Telangana; the breeze is cooler, and the lush greenery takes over both sides of the road. Seated in the heart of the gigantic forest is the Amrabad Tiger Reserve, one of the biggest in the country.
Nallamala forest is spread across five districts in Andhra Pradesh and two erstwhile districts in Telangana – Mahbubnagar and Nalgonda. The forest may soon face what is being dubbed as an environmental catastrophe by activists. The Forest Advisory Committee under the Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climate Change recently recommended an 'in-principle' approval to the Department of Atomic Energy for survey and exploration of uranium over 83 square kilometres in as many as four blocks.
Primary arrangements for exploration are underway, signified by certain markings that have come up in various areas in the forest's core, say local residents. And while there’s uncertainty about exactly what is in store for Nallamala, there is definite fear. Many people say they feel threatened as they read reports of uranium exploration in their neighborhood.
Fear on the ground
TNM visited a few villages in Amrabad and Padara mandals and the local residents say they knew that something big was about to happen. In Udimilla of Amrabad, which has around 600 families from tribal and other communities, people are struggling to comprehend what exactly is happening.
Their understanding of uranium and nuclear power is raw and crude. Remarking that he was aware that the substance could be used to make bombs, a 65-year-old man remarks, "We will lose everything. This forest and trees, everything will go. Instead of all that happening, it is better that they bomb us."
B Nanuk, a woman in her late 50s, is wary of strangers, and says, "As of now nothing has been said to us, but we hear that the government wants to set up a (uranium) plant in the forests. This should not be done if they want us to be alive."
The exploration in the region has particularly triggered concerns about the Chenchus, a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG) in Telangana, who already are witnessing a decline in their population. According to the 2011 Census, their population is 16,912. Most of them reside deep in the Nallamala forest.
It was only recently that 60-year-old Udathala Bayyanna, a Chenchu, got a 'pakka' house at Maddimadugu, the last village in the forest which has motorable roads, thanks to help from an NGO. Maddimadugu is also a temple village known for a huge footprint of devotees from across the state. "How can we survive if they come and establish a plant here?" he asks.
This is a common perception among many, as they point out that the search for uranium could pave the way for further damage to their livelihood. Udatala Anjamma, the Sarpanch of Maddimadugu, who is also a Chenchu, says, "We will ask Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA) officials to take measures that will prevent destruction in the name of plant." Anjamma, who is in her mid 20s, adds, "We demand that this should be stopped at any cost," fearing that the move will certainly pose a threat to the very existence of the community.
Seventy-eight-year-old V Fakeerappa says, "At least 40 human settlements may vanish or be affected by the project. Won't those chemical discharges that flow into the Krishna river, which is being used for drinking and irrigation purpose by several lakh people, also be affected?"
Fakeerappa says that the government should understand their concerns about the future and withdraw the project – something that environmentalists and activists alike are also iterating.
Human rights activists stage a protest in Amrabad
What the proposal says
While the proposal has been under consideration for a while now, things began moving in May this year, when the in-principle approval was granted. The approval was sought by the Department of Atomic Energy, which said that the country is need of locating and using uranium deposits at a greater rate, to achieve the target of producing 40,000 megawatts of nuclear power by 2030 – a goal set by the Union government.
The government says that the process of nuclear power generation will be beneficial in the long run, but environmentalists say that the mining of radioactive substances like uranium is often known to contaminate the local environment.
In its application for clearance, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) noted that it needed to find 'economically feasible, high-grade deposits' of Uranium to meet its goal. "Review of all areas of ongoing investigation and assessment indicates that northern part of Cuddapah basin in Telangana is the most promising and potential area in the country for locating high grade, large tonnage uranium deposits," the DAE said.
The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) in its approval noted that there were 'certain deficiencies' in the proposal. However, it also noted that the proposal is of ‘critical importance from a national perspective'.
The application also claimed that the number of families and adivasis being displaced, would be NIL, a claim that activists and locals deny.
Threat to wildlife
The proposal has not been without controversy and dissent.
While the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) was in favour of the project's approval, barring a few conditions, a scathing report by Field Director, Amrabad Tiger Reserve Circle in June 2016, said that the survey and exploration project could threaten wildlife like panthers, sloth bears, wild dogs, spotted deer, wild boars and tigers.
"The flora and fauna will be adversely affected and a lot of disturbance will be caused for wildlife if exploration takes place. This will also cause fragmentation and add to the disturbance to the Tiger Reserve," the report said.
The report also stated that the Wildlife Protection Amendment Act, 2006, would not allow ecologically unsustainable projects in a protected tiger reserve, 'except in public interest' with the approval of the National Board for Wildlife and the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). TNM has reached out to the NTCA and is yet to receive a response.
The report has also highlighted that the impact includes erosion, formation of sinkholes, damage to biodiversity and contamination of ground and surface waters.
While the government has claimed in the past that the exploration would be 'non-invasive', the report by the Field Director noted that the DAE has proposed to dig as many as 4,000 bores as part of the exploration process, which may require heavy machinery to be deployed deep within the forests. The report also noted that the "disturbance for the habitat will be immense even for the exploration purpose."
Activists point out that the proposal would violate Constitutional safeguards meant for protection and strengthening of forest ecosystem along with Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, which assures the protection of interests of tribal people.
According to the Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 or PESA government has to inform and consent of the villagers through Grama Sabhas before taking up any development project. However, locals told TNM that they were unaware of what was happening.
Dr Palla Trinadha Rao, a lawyer and tribal rights activist said, “As per provisions in PESA, the concerned Grama Sabha should know what is happening in their land, if they are affected by the said project or proposal. Even a linear project should get consent of Gram Sabha as per a recent ruling of the Hyderabad High Court.”
Water contamination concerns
Environmentalists warn that mining for uranium would deplete the springs and rivulets of the Krishna river, which cuts through the reserve forest.
The Human Rights Forum's nine-member committee following its visit to Amrabad and Padara, observed in a statement, "Mining for uranium would deplete the springs and rivulets and will poison the land. Both the Nallavagu and Dindi rivers which flow into the Krishna river, cut through this protected tiger reserve. The exploration and mining will invariably pollute both surface and groundwater in the river’s watershed."
"Due to the very nature of uranium mining, inflows into the river will be contaminated with truly frightening implications for Nagarjuna reservoir. Residents of Hyderabad as well as those in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh relying on the waters of the river will have to bear the consequences," the report said, while urging the Telangana and Andhra Pradesh governments to reject the proposal.
Dr K Babu Rao, a retired senior scientist from the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (IICT) and a member of HRF said, "Countries which have witnessed uranium mining are also seeing its disastrous consequences and are currently restraining. The hazardous chemical discharges will result in huge damage to environmental ecology and human life."
The locals of the region now plan to up the ante, as they have formed a Joint Action Committee (JAC) against uranium mining in Nallamala. The JAC’s Chairman, Nasaraiah, alleges that the Telangana government has deceived the people by allowing the survey and uranium exploration.
"The Union government must withdraw the approvals for uranium establishments explorations, as going ahead with this will disturb the forest ecology and wildlife, along with rich heritage and cultures that are unique to Nallamala," he says
He further says that any advancement towards materialization Uranium mining would pose a severe threat to the indigenous Chenchu tribes, whose habitat is Nallamala forest.
With JAC now pitching up a fight demanding for withdrawal of the "in-principle approval" for the survey and Uranium exploration, a struggle is brewing against the government.
TNM has also reached out to the Director, Atomic Minerals Directorate for Exploration and Research, DAE and is awaiting a response.