Controversy

Illegal stone quarrying in Karnataka’s Mandya region

Print edition : August 27, 2021

A stone-crushing unit at Bebibetta. Photo: Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

Kumar (in the foreground) and Venkatesh, residents of Sindaboganahalli village, showing the quarries that have scarred the hills. Photo: Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

Sumalatha Ambareesh , Member of Parliament from Mandya, visiting the Krishnaraja Sagar dam along with officials on July 14. She alleged that the stone mining in the region had caused structural damage to the KRS reservoir. Photo: SRIRAM M.A.

Ravi Kumar, a resident of Bebi village, pointing to the crack that has developed in the wall of his house due to stone mining in the neighbouring Bebibetta. Photo: Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

Nasir Pasha, a resident of Bebi village, pointing to the crack that has developed in the wall of his house due to stone mining in the neighbouring Bebibetta. Photo: Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

Allegations of illegal stone quarrying in Karnataka’s Mandya region are linked to the politics of the State, but they also raise environmental concerns and questions about the stability of the KRS dam.

Over the past few decades, stone quarries in Pandavpura taluk in Mandya district have met the burgeoning needs of the construction industry in parts of south Karnataka including Mysuru, Mandya, Kodagu and Hassan districts. Of these, the largest set of quarries (more than 300) can be found in Bebibetta (‘betta’ means hill in Kannada) and the surrounding hills in Pandavpura which are spread over 1,623 acres (an acre is 0.4 hectare). This range of hills, which have been quarried extensively over the past century, is just about 140 kilometres from Bengaluru.

Sumalatha Ambareesh, an independent Member of Parliament from Mandya, the constituency that her late husband and Kannada actor M.H. Ambareesh represented in the Lok Sabha for three terms, alleged that most of the stone mining in the region was illegal and caused “structural damage to the KRS [Krishnaraja Sagar] reservoir”, which is a few km away in Srirangapatna taluk, apart from having a “severe environmental impact” in the region and causing “damage to the houses” of villagers living nearby. During the campaign for the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Sumalatha had promised to take steps to end illegal mining in Mandya. She said later that she had taken up the issue with several leaders at the State and national levels.

When Frontline visited Bebibetta on July 15, a day after Sumalatha visited the site, mining activities had been halted temporarily. Kumar (who goes by one name), a farmer and resident of Sindaboganahalli, a village at the foot of Bebibetta and part of the Honaganahalli gram panchayat, said that mining activities at Bebibetta had ceased “only 15 days ago when Sumalatha made a big issue about it”. Walking around the hills that have been deeply scarred and furrowed by the intense quarrying that is often done with heavy explosives, Kumar stopped at one of the highest points of the hills. His younger brother Venkatesh pointed to the horizon where the embankment of the KRS reservoir could be made out.

Kumar, who is also a member of the ‘Bebibetta Ulise, KRS Rakshisi: Raita Horaata Samiti’ (Farmers’ Movement for Saving Bebibetta and Protecting KRS), described the flurry of activity at the site when quarrying is in progress. “Day and night every few minutes there is a mega explosion that shakes the earth. There are hundreds of JCBs [excavators] that lug the stones to the ‘crushers’ [stone crushing plant],” Kumar said, pointing to the crushing units that surrounded the hills. At the crushing plants, stones are separated by size and even crushed into powder (M Sand), which is used as a substitute for river sand.

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Despite the fact that all mechanised quarrying had stopped at Bebibetta, primitive quarrying continued in one of the quarries visible below. A group of Bhovis, a Schedule Caste in Karnataka whose traditional occupation is stone-cutting, was using hammers to dislodge small chunks of rock. Ramesh Vasudev, who lives in the neighbouring Kaveripura village, explained that members of his caste migrated to the region around 100 years ago. “When the Maharaja of Mysore was building KRS, he used stone that was quarried here and our ancestors migrated from the region of Tamil Nadu as stone-cutters were required for the work. All the land of Bebibetta was granted to our ancestors but parcels of land were slowly sold over the decades and we are left with nothing now,” Vasudev said.

Houses damaged

Residents of Bebi village, which lies at the foot of Bebibetta, showed structural damage to their houses that they claimed was caused by the high-grade explosives used for quarrying. “This house is only two years old,” said B.S. Lokesh Murthy, pointing to a crack that ran from the floor to the ceiling of his house in Bebi.

Nasir Pasha, another resident of Bebi, also showed several cracks that ran along the walls of his house. Kumar explained that the constant movement of vehicles made any agricultural activity difficult because of the lingering dust. Venkatesh went on to say that the people in the villages suffered from severe health conditions such as asthma.

Quarrying around the dam

While the villagers’ problems are independent of the supposed structural damage to the KRS, they have joined the larger demand to save the KRS, which, as a crucial dam on the Cauvery, facilitates water supply to the agricultural hinterland of southern Karnataka that lies in its basin and to urban centres such as Bengaluru and Mysuru.

M. Lakshmana, convener of the Cauvery Technical Advisory Committee and a member of the Mysuru chapter of the Institution of Engineers, told Frontline that cracks were seen on the structure of the dam. He attributed this to the “vibrations caused in the structure due to explosions used in the stone mining activities”. Lakshmana said: “The safety and structural stability of the KRS, which is threatened by the incessant and illegal mining in contravention of the Supreme Court order that banned quarry blasting activity in and around major dams, has to be protected because it is 90 years old and it feeds almost four crore people in three States.”

A report of the Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Centre (KSNDMC), submitted to the Deputy Commissioner of Mandya district on September 25, 2018, stated that “quarrying activity using uncontrolled explosives will create lots of ground vibration and further, may induce cracks in the dam”. The report also emphasised the “need to inspect/survey the area within a radial distance of 20 km from the [KRS] dam and propose a plan to regulate any activities which can harm the dam structure in a longer course of time”.

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K. Jaiprakash, managing director of Cauvery Neeravari Nigam Ltd., disputed the report’s findings. After an inspection on July 2, he stated in a press release that “there was no structural defect to the wall [of the KRS]”.

While district authorities have stated that mining has been stopped within 20 km of the dam site, villagers such as Kumar and Venkatesh allege that mining continues in connivance with lower-level district officials from the Revenue, Mines and Geology and Police departments. “These bans only have a cosmetic effect. The quarrying takes place at night and the quarry owners who don’t have permits are forewarned if there is any inspection,” Kumar claimed while showing videos on his phone of quarrying activity at night. (Frontline could not independently confirm the veracity of these videos.)

Lakshmana stated that it was “business as usual at the quarries as bans are announced through the media but never implemented”.

Political hue

According to him, the “quarries carrying out the blasting activity are owned by MLAs belonging to the Janata Dal (Secular) and other politicians”. His implication was that the illegal stone mining activities were immune from penalisation because of the JD(S)’s massive influence in the region.

Considered to be the heartland of the powerful Vokkaliga caste group, Mandya has elected all eight of its MLAs from the JD(S). Sumalatha’s accusations thus have taken on a political hue as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had supported her in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. After her victory, Sumalatha repaid the favour by supporting the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance at the Centre. Sumalatha defeated Nikhil Kumaraswamy, the son of the then Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy of the JD(S), in the election. The bitterness among the JD(S) cadre and leadership is yet to fade as this is considered a political bastion of the Vokkaliga-dominated party.

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In early July, JD(S) members threatened to release “an audio bomb” if Sumalatha continued her campaign against “illegal” mining in the region. Her visit to survey quarrying activities in Srirangapatna taluk was briefly marred when miscreants, supported by quarry owners, dug up a portion of a road leading to a quarry in the area. Kumaraswamy was criticised widely for an impolite remark in which he said, “If there is seepage, make her [Sumalatha] lie down in front of the gates [of the KRS] and protect water from leaking. Mandya never had an MP like her nor will it get one like her in the future…. She has been elected on sympathy.” Sumalatha said Kumaraswamy’s statements showed his “intolerance towards women”.

Malavalli Shivanna, president of the Lohia Thinkers’ Forum, who is from Malavalli in Mandya, told Frontline that “it is clear that illegal mining is going on in different parts of Mandya district, but this spat between Kumaraswamy and Sumalatha is also a precursor to the 2023 Assembly election and 2024 Lok Sabha election as Kumaraswamy is desperately trying to retain his party’s stronghold and wants his son [Nikhil Kumaraswamy] to win”.

The BJP, which is keen to make inroads into this Vokkaliga stronghold of the JD(S), is playing it safe as of now on this complicated issue that is layered with political concerns. Murugesh Nirani, Mines and Geology Minister, whom Sumalatha petitioned to halt illegal quarrying in the region, said that “action will certainly be taken if the MP provides documentary proof of illegal mining”.

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