Protests against the proposed exploration for uranium deposits in Telangana’s Amrabad forest, the second largest tiger reserve in the country, are gaining momentum. And after environmentalists and opposition parties, now celebrities from the Telugu tinsel world are lending their support for a ban on the proposed exploration.
The latest to join the campaign against the exploration proposal is Tollywood star Vijay Devarakonda who took to Instagram on Thursday (September 12) to throw his weight behind the “Save Nallamala” campaign. Earlier, actor-turned-politician Pawan Kalyan and producer-director Shekhar Kammula too had come out in support of the cause.
“We can buy uranium from the global market but can we buy forests?” asked Devarakonda of Arjun Reddy fame. “Over 20,000 acres of Nallamala (which covers Amrabad forest) is at the risk of being destroyed permanently. We have destroyed our lakes, flooded our states, caused drought in others and polluted most of our drinking water sources.”
“The quality of our air is deteriorating everywhere. Multiple cities are running out of water to drink. And, we continue to justify destroying any small good that is left. Next in line are the lush green Nallamala forest range,” he posted.
Using the hashtag #SaveNallamala, the popular star argued, “If we can’t afford buying Uranium, develop renewable solar energy, put solar panels on every rooftop, make it compulsory. For anyone trying to justify it (uranium mining), what will we do with uranium and electricity when we don’t have breathable air and drinkable water?”
Earlier, Pawan Kalyan, whose tryst with electoral politics ended in a disaster recently, called for a mass movement to stop uranium mining.
“Uranium mining will generate radon, which is a product of the radioactive decay. It may cause lung cancer and kidney diseases when people drink water contaminated with uranium waste. People of both Telugu states will be affected as Krishna river water will get polluted,” he said.
However, there has been no word of protest from the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) camp after the proposal was approved. Though the party’s leaders, including the former Nizamabad MP and Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao’s daughter K Kavitha, had initially opposed the move, neither the ruling party nor the government has so far responded to the approval given by the Centre.
The Congress has also set up a committee to lead its campaign to oppose the mining activity in the area. Several NGOs and people living in the vicinity of the forest in and around the Amrabad Tiger Reserve in Nallamala hill ranges have been demanding that the state government must not give permission for exploratory drilling in the region.
The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change had given an in-principle approval this July for a proposal by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) for conducting survey and exploration of uranium over an area of 83 sq km inside the Tiger Reserve. However, the state forest officials have raised objections over the project.
The Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) had proposed drilling in four blocks of Nallamala forests for establishing the quantum of uranium ore deposits. However, the State Forest Department is yet to formally approve the proposal.
The project was cleared by the Environment Ministry on the ground that it was of “critical importance” from national perspective to meet the nuclear energy demand.
Home to an estimated 18 tigers and a large variety of wild animals, Amrabad reserve in Nallamala Hills contains high grade uranium. Last year, the DAE officials had informed a Parliamentary panel that India was facing critical shortage of uranium and was growing increasingly dependent on imports from Canada, Kazakhstan and Japan.
Making a strong case for uranium exploration, the DAE, in its report, highlighted that augmenting uranium resources and locating new uranium deposits was needed as the country prepares for a jump towards harnessing electricity through the nuclear route.
India has set a target of generating 40,000 megawatts of nuclear power by 2030. Currently, the installed nuclear capacity in India is 6,780 megawatts.
However, the environmentalists and villagers in the area fear that any mining activity would result in ground, air and water pollution, all of which will find its way into the rivers Dindi and Krishna, affecting not just Telangana but also the downstream Andhra Pradesh.
Resistance from forest officials
The state forest officials are opposing the survey since it would involve “drilling” and other invasive methods. It argued that uranium mining would destroy the landscape rich in biodiversity and home to Chenchu tribes. “The exploration will pollute the surface and ground water, and leech the minerals and dangerous chemicals into the Nagarjunasagar dam,” said an environmental activist Purushotham Reddy said.
The DAE’s proposal involves carrying out survey and drilling of boreholes in four blocks of the reserve, of which three are located inside its core tiger protection area. Telangana’s Principal Chief Conservator of Forests PK Jha said that they would not allow any kind of drilling activity unless a full approval is given by the National Tiger Conservation Authority.
Though the DAE sought permission for the survey and exploration of uranium across 83 sq km, the exact locations of the drilling have not been specified.
Created in 2014, the Amrabad tiger reserve covers an area of 2,611.39 sq km spread over Mahaboobnagar and Nalgonda districts in Telangana. It is the second largest tiger reserve in the country after Nagarjunsagar Srisailam tiger reserve spread over an area of 3,296.31 sq km.
This tiger reserve is home to around 70 species of mammals, over 300 avian varieties, 60 species of reptiles and thousands of insects, all supported and nourished by over 600 different plant species.
Listing the probable consequences of uranium mining, Imran Siddiqui, co-founder of the Hyderabad Tiger Conversation Society, said that it will “not only kill its wild denizens but also take away the livelihoods of the Chenchu tribes, besides exposing them and hundreds of others to uranium contamination.” “The uranium exploration and mining in the core area of the tiger reserve will unleash a Frankenstein and create major distrust between the people and the government,” he added.
Besides rich biodiversity, the Amrabad forest area is home to the major catchment area of Krishna river, which quenches the thirst of the two Telugu-speaking states.
Disturbance and destruction
According to an inspection report submitted by the field director of Amrabad Tiger Reserve, the disturbance caused to the habitat due to the exploration will be immense and the flora and fauna will be adversely affected.
The environmental impact of mining would include erosion, formation of sinkholes, loss of biodiversity, and contamination of soil, groundwater and surface water by chemicals from mining processes, the report pointed out. The contamination resulting from leakage of chemicals will also affect the health of the wildlife.
“Erosion of mine dumps and resultant siltation of drainages and creeks will significantly impact the surrounding areas. In these areas of wilderness, mining may cause destruction of ecosystems,” the report said. It also highlighted how these reserves with their rich biodiversity act as cushion and absorb heat, thus reducing the effects of climate change and intense heat waves.
“We must conserve our wildlife sanctuaries and tiger reserves. Otherwise, we will lose our rich natural heritage. These sanctuaries are sacrosanct space, especially at a time when the only way to fight climate change is by conserving and growing more forests,” the executive director of Wildlife Conservation Society of India (WCSI), Belinda Wright, said.
Activists also warned about the dangers of radioactive poisoning arising out of uranium mining in the reserve. They also pointed out the high incidence of congenital diseases in villages close to uranium mining areas in East Singhbhum district of Jharkhand.
Wildlife conservationists also pointed out that despite large investment of resources, nuclear energy remains a small blip on India’s energy horizon, providing barely 3% of the electricity produced in the country.