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Sandur in September

Print edition : Oct 21, 2011 T+T-

Karnataka: With a ban on mining, the barren hills are turning green again in Bellary, but not all are happy.

in Bellary

MANY stories that resonate across the hills and plains of Bellary district in Karnataka have a common preface: China boom. Everybody in the mineral-rich district be it a farmer, truck driver, steel mill worker, schoolteacher, doctor, bureaucrat, politician, small shop owner, hotelier, mine owner, journalist or social worker has been affected in one way or the other by China's rising demand for iron ore since 2004 and the rampant illegal mining that left the earth scourged. The turning points in these stories are the Supreme Court's order on July 29 banning mining and the arrest of the mining baron and former Karnataka Tourism Minister G. Janardhana Reddy in the first week of September.

Janardhana Reddy and his brothers, known as the Gali Reddy brothers, along with their friend B. Sriramulu, were in control of much of the mining in the district. A report of the Karnataka Lokayukta on July 27 revealed hazy dealings that had shrouded the mining activities of the Reddy brothers (Final blow, Frontline, August 26, 2011). So powerful were they that many people in Bellary, Hospet and Sandur (BHS) taluks in the district thought that the arrest of any of the Reddy brothers was improbable.

With a ban on mining in place, many people hope that the next chapter in the saga of Bellary could be bright. A Supreme Court-appointed committee consisting of scientists from the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE) and other environmental bodies was in Bellary in September to evaluate the situation ahead of preparing an Environmental Impact Assessment report. This EIA will form the basis of the next course of action in Bellary.

The court has also directed the State government to submit a reclamation and rehabilitation plan for the district. However, responses are mixed as to what should be the next step. Moolimane Eeranna, a farmer from Sandur, who owns two acres of land (one acre is 0.4 hectare), is vociferous in opposing mining. He told Frontline that the iron ore dumped on his land had killed all hopes of continuing with farming. Bellary has a rich agricultural tradition, which got sidelined when mining began in full swing. Rain is the major source of water here, and crops that are less water-intensive, such as maize, jowar and a variety of vegetables, are grown in the area. Parts of the region with richer sources of water grow paddy. Mining has changed the nature of agriculture in this area and it should not be restarted, Eeranna said.

The change that Eeranna refers to has happened at various levels. The first is the problem of dust. Proper roads are a rarity in the BHS region; even those connecting major towns such as Toranagallu and Sandur are potholed mud tracks. According to the Lokayukta's first report, submitted in December 2008, more than 5,000 trucks transported iron ore every day from the pitheads in the region. All this meant that a shimmery red dust hung in the air all the time and the surface water was a muddy red. Farming was practically impossible on landholdings close to the paths on which trucks plied.

During Frontline's visit to the only active mine in the area after the Supreme Court's ban the National Mineral Development Corporation's (NMDC) mine at Swami Malai in the Hospet sector there were 300 trucks waiting to be loaded. The court has allowed the NMDC to operate its mine in the region. A year ago, there were nearly 120 active mining leases in the BHS belt, with each lease varying from a few acres to several thousand acres.

The second factor that affected farming in the areas was surface mining. There have been reports in the past about farmers digging their land manually to collect the easily available ore. Baskets of such iron ore were then sold to passing trucks. This was expected to pay more than core agricultural activity. None of the farmers that Frontline spoke to admitted to this practice although iron ore lay heaped near their agricultural plots.

Amalan Aditya Biswas, the Deputy Commissioner of Bellary, told Frontline that the practice was very much prevalent. An agricultural scientist from a reputed university in Karnataka, who has been doing an independent survey of the region, explained how surface mining destroyed the topsoil, which would take several hundreds of years to regenerate naturally.

The third factor that affected agriculture was the number of people working in mines rather than on agricultural fields. According to information provided by the district administration, only about 7,000 people were employed directly in the mines. Reliable data on casual and contractual employment are not available. By different estimates, several thousand local and migrant labourers worked in the mines on daily wages. Many other local villagers were employed in the transportation of iron ore, which was the next best source of employment. The migrant labourers, except those working in sponge iron units, have left the area since the ban was imposed.

Another factor was the social change following the sudden inflow of money and migrants. Crime increased as did the number of accidents. With the rise in disposable income, cases of gambling and prostitution were on the rise. According to Biswas, the number of gun licences issued went up in the wake of the China boom. Thayappa, who was drying his jowar crop on the road between Sandur and Ramgarh, said: These people [local people who were working in the mines or as transporters] had no value for money. A Rs.1,000-note was like a Rs.100-note for them.

TRANSPORTERS' PROBLEM

The ban on mining has affected transporters the worst. Many local people, especially young men, bought trucks to cash in on the opportunity offered by the mining of massive quantities of ore. With no work now, the loans on the trucks remain unpaid and the outstanding amount keeps growing. Kumar Nayak is a resident of Sushilanagar village, which has a population of 1,500, mainly from the Lambani caste (categorised as a Scheduled Caste in Karnataka). He has to repay Rs.35,000 a month for the five trucks he owns. But the trucks are mostly idle. His is not an isolated story.

Truck drivers who owned a vehicle easily made Rs.30,000 a month, but they are jobless now, said Veeranna Arahunashi, a resident of Papinayakanahalli village on the Torangal-Hospet road. This village of 6,500 people has 175 trucks lying idle. People who have farmlands have returned to them, but the landless have nowhere to turn to. Evidently, people like Nayak, who were dependent on transporting ore for a living, want legal' mining, in the way it existed before the China boom, to recommence immediately. Many people in the transport business, including drivers of smaller transport vehicles, echo this sentiment. Panchakshara C.M., the driver of a 12-seater vehicle used for local transport, said his business had fallen by more than half from last year.

Such stories are common across Sandur, Bellary and Hospet. Dharmendra Mishra, a migrant from Bihar who works as a waiter in the G.N.N Residency hotel in Sandur, said that business was much better before the ban came. Hotels in the area have seen business fall by over 70 per cent in the past year.

ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS

There is a strong sentiment among the people in the backward district that mining should recommence. They want it to be practised more responsibly and the benefits to be shared more equitably. Environmental concerns are secondary to them against the more fundamental monetary interests. However, there are a few like Eeranna, who describes himself as an environmentalist, opposing any such move. This is also the broader philosophy of the Samaj Parivartana Samiti (SPS).

The SPS, which had been waging a quiet legal battle against illegal mining, emerged into the limelight only towards the end of 2010. S.R. Hiremath, its founder, works with a small group of committed people. Hiremath and people such as Vishnu Kamath of the National Committee for the Protection of Natural Resources (NCPNR) have a broad agenda vis-a-vis the vexed question of mining. Nature cannot be managed well unless people closest to it are involved in its management and a healthy relationship is established between nature, culture and society, said Hiremath.

With this philosophy guiding them, the SPS and the NCPNR have written a letter to the ICFRE team that while accepting the July 28 report of the Central Empowered Committee, which says rampant illegal mining was causing considerable environmental damage in the region, the EIA report should recommend that agriculture be brought back to earlier levels in addition to recommending the closure of all non-active mines. While the SPS understands the importance of the EIA, it shares the scepticism of several environmentalists about the objectivity of the EIAs of the past. The SPS has also facilitated the formation of an alternative team consisting of agricultural scientists and ecologists to put forward their views as well.

SEVERAL STAKEHOLDERS

The process of reclamation and rehabilitation means different things to different people. There are many who, according to the Lokayukta, have benefited from illegal mining. Their different interests will definitely not concur with the environmental concerns.

Vikas Sharma, senior vice-president (commercial and services) of JSW Steel Limited, against which the Lokayukta had made references in its report, said that for reclamation and rehabilitation, ore export needed to be banned completely and a conglomerate of mines formed for responsible mining to take place on a large scale. He also pitched for abolishing the transportation of ore by road.

The representative body of non-fossil mineral industries in the country, the Federation of Indian Mineral Industries (FIMI), however, has a different concept. D.V. Pichamuthu, director, southern region, of FIMI, is for opening up more areas for prospecting and subsequent mining so as to demolish the myth of finite reserves. Even though it is a representative body, FIMI does not have a say in how its members should behave. Obulapuram Mining Company, owned by the Reddy brothers, was a member of FIMI. To its credit, FIMI did try to point out some instances of illegal mining, but its protests were ineffectual.

One would imagine that FIMI and the steel industry would work in tandem because theirs is a symbiotic working relationship as iron is required to make steel, but each holds the other partially responsible for the current situation. For FIMI, reclamation and rehabilitation means permission to mine under the relevant mining laws with no restrictions on export.

SMALL MINERS

Among the 120 mining lease holders in the BHS region, there are several miners with a small lease area. Tapal Ganesh's mine is 27 acres in size and employs 22 people directly. He had waged a lone battle against the Reddy empire without adjusting, as he said. For this, he was apparently assaulted in 2010. Ganesh is strongly opposed to the idea of a conglomerate of mines. He sees in this a conspiracy to rid small mine owners of their leases.

What is this suggestion that small leaseholders should not be there? It is only the large conglomerates that commit irregularities because they can get away with their political contacts, he said. To him, the solution is not to ban exports but to regulate it through Central bodies where iron ore can be pooled together for export.

These various bodies only add to the babel of voices like those of the farmers and transporters and non-governmental organisations. It is true that many residents of Bellary have got used to a certain level of money flow linked with illegal mining. With the ban on mining, their very livelihoods are at risk. For these people, the question of either recommencing mining or getting alternative means of livelihood is of immediate concern. The State government should devise a comprehensive package for the immediate development of the devastated region as thousands of people, particularly young men, are sitting idle in the hope that mining will restart.

An immediate source of funds for this package could be sourced from the mine owners who have benefited significantly over the past 10 years. Justice N. Santosh Hegde, the former Lokayukta of Karnataka, has recommended that this source of funds be tapped for the reclamation and rehabilitation of the environment, but a part of such funds needs to be also used to generate jobs for the local people.

District Commissioner Biswas said the enrolment for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) had gone up in Bellary over the past few years and that cultivable area had more or less remained steady from 2008 to 2010. These figures are reassuring enough. Any solution in Bellary should take into account the fact that while mining is important in the district, agriculture is equally, if not more, important as a source of livelihood.

The team conducting the EIA also needs to engage strongly with the question of what sustainable mining would mean and how finite mineral reserves can be saved for future generations while generating sufficient employment to sustain the local economy. Mining should also necessarily lead to a more equitable distribution of wealth rather than providing space for the emergence of those like the Reddy brothers.

For now, the red dust has begun to settle in Sandur and the barren hills are turning green again. It was not like this last year. It is worth recollecting what Mahatma Gandhi, who was enchanted by its beauty, said about Sandur: See Sandur in September. Will Sandur be worth seeing next September? Only time will tell.