Lignite mining triggers tremors in Bhavnagar district, Gujarat

Print edition : January 15, 2021

The hillock that rose overnight at Badi-Hoidad village. Environmentalists attribute it to mining-stimulated tectonic activity. Photo: By Special Arrangement

RESIDENTS of Badi-Hoidad at a meeting with Assistant Collector Pushp Lata (white saree) and other officials after the incident in their village in November. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Even as lignite mining operations in the seismically unstable region of Bhavnagar district in Gujarat cause mild tremors and sudden elevations in patches of surrounding farmland, the State administration responds with ‘alarming silence’.

On November 16, 2020, a few farmers from Ghogha taluka in Bhavnagar district of Gujarat were on their way to greet their families on the occasion of bhau beej when they chanced upon a sudden elevation in the flat farmland surrounding Badi-Hoidad village. This “hillock” was about 13 metres tall and 700 metres long, with a 300-metre-wide “tabletop”.

No one in this small farming village had any idea when and how this hillock had come up. But as word spread across the region, people recalled a similar occurrence in December 2019 on farmlands at nearby Thordi village, where about 250 metres of land had risen 100 metres high and remains so to this day. The common factor between the two occurrences was that both happened around the lignite mining site which has been operated by the Gujarat Mineral Development Corporation Limited since 2017. The Gujarat Power Corporation Ltd (GPCL), too, has an interest in this project because the lignite is meant to feed a thermal power plant that will be built on site.
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The lignite mine is an open cast one, hence such an elevation in land in its vicinity is considered an unusual event. Activist Rohit Prajapati of Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, a Vadodara-based non-governmental organisation for environmental rights, believes that the elevation could be a result of mining-stimulated tectonic activity and says this is reason enough for officials to look into the matter seriously.

Bhavnagar district is a tectonically active zone, with a fault line running through the region about three kilometres away, near the town of Khambat. Although the actual mining site is on agricultural and gauchar (grazing) land, it is not an isolated rural area. The 12 villages house about 30,000 people and the city of Bhavnagar is 18 kilometres from the site. Prajapati says these are all strong reasons for the mining to be halted while thorough investigations are carried out.

According to Prajapati, the residents of the 12 villages said that in November, when the land rose in Badi-Hoidad village, they had initially experienced tremors but ignored it because they knew about the fault line. But when they noticed the sudden elevation in land, they panicked and informed the authorities. The officials attributed the elevation to high pressure of water in the upper strata of the earth in the region. However, large cracks had appeared in the land around the lignite mining site, pointing to seismic activity.
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Meanwhile, the records of the Seismological Survey of India noted that there had been an earthquake (measuring 2 on the Richter scale) in the region which lasted for two minutes at 4 a.m. on November 16, the day the land upheaval occurred.

Villagers protest

The local people have been struggling with changes in their lives ever since mining operations began in the area. They have had to contend with land acquisition, damage to farmland, damage to agriculture, air and ground water pollution and the ensuing effects on their health and livelihood. Between 1993 and 1994, more than 3000 acres of their grazing land and farmlands were acquired on paper by the then Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) State government. The land was acquired, with little option offered to the village residents. They were told they would get Rs.48,000 per hectare for non-irrigated land. Most of them wanted to continue farming but were presented with a fait accompli.

There have been at least two major protest marches held by villagers since their lands were physically taken over in 2017, soon after which the GPCL started mining operations. Farmers have filed cases challenging the acquisition of their lands and continue to do so.

Prajapati and his colleague Krishnakant have written three letters to the authorities. One was on November 25, after they visited the site, the second was on November 30 as a follow-up, and the third was dated December 18. The letters were addressed to the State Chief Secretary, with copies to the Chief Executive Officer, Gujarat State Disaster Management Authority, and officials of the State Environment and Industries and Mines departments, demanding an immediate cessation of lignite mining activities in Bhavnagar district in order to prevent “further irreversible damage to the environment and the villagers”.
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The letter states: “It is utterly shocking and surprising that even after our detailed letter, dated November 25, 2020, with required basic information available at that point in time with our team, followed by site visit led by the Assistant Collector Bhavnagar, Pushp Lata, with the team members, Mamlatdar, Regional Officer of Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB), Officers of the industries and mining department, Officers of the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited (GPCL) with us, no action has been taken to direct the GPCL to immediately stop the mining activities till the Expert Committee submits its interim report. It is utterly surprising that even fencing of the disaster affected area has not been done by the GPCL despite verbal direction was given by the Assistant Collector Ms. Pushp Lata, during her team visit on November 25, 2020 between 12.15 pm to 3.45 p.m… Are we waiting for a major disaster in the short or the long run by ignoring the ‘Precautionary Principle’ which directs to take measures proactively to thwart a disaster? Are the incidents of December 2019 and now recently dated November 16, 2020 not enough to act upon? We feel very sorry to state that non-serious, casual, and unscientific approach and attitude of the concerned authorities and the company will be fully responsible for the short-term and long-term consequences of the December 2019 and November 16, 2020 disasters.

“The ‘Precautionary Principle’ is often used by the authorities and experts to avoid the risks of serious and irreversible damage to nature, the environment, and the villagers (project affected parties or PAPs) living nearby in such cases. The principle has become an underlying reasoning for a large and increasing number of international treaties and declarations in the fields of sustainable development, environmental protection, health, and safety. We expect that you will not disagree with the facts that mining activities in fault line areas have resulted in number of human-induced earthquakes worldwide.”

The Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti’s letter presents a list of demands relating to safety but as their letter of December 18 says, there has been “an alarming silence on the disaster” from the administration.