If soil quarrying is a threat in the terai, mining poses huge hazards in the hills of Kumaon. Soapstone or talc and magnesite quarries have been taking over commons for over two decades, depriving local people of large tracts of the forestland, pasture, watersheds and farming land.
Eastern Bageshwar is the hub of soapstone mining. Mines dominate the landscape with a blinding whiteness, while magnesite mining flourishes in Pithoragarh district.
In the Kapkot tehsil of Bageshwar, mining has taken over big time. “The number of active mines (here) has grown from six in 1980 to over 40 in recent times spreading over 2,733.66 ha of productive farm land,” says Naren Singh Bhandari, reader, department of chemistry, Kumaon University. Most mining companies are owned by outsiders. In Bageshwar, 15 are owned by outsiders.“About 200-250 trucks ply daily to transport soapstone and some 1,500 hired labourers from Nepal work in these areas,” says Mahesh Chandra Joshi of a local fortnightly, Nainital Samachar. At Kanda Parav village there are five companies. “Nearly 1,000 tonnes of soapstone is mined a day. Every farm with soapstone can yield up to 5,000 kg,” says Sunder Singh Garia, gram pradhan.
The Mines and Mineral Act, 1957, says only common property land can be leased out for mining. But miners encroach upon agricultural land. As farmers started to profit from leasing out land, mining on agricultural land got entrenched. The Mineral Concession Rules, 1960, says that one mining unit cannot exceed 200 metres lengthwise, says Girish Gunwant, the subdivisional magistrate of Bageshwar in charge of mining. In reality, however, no restrictions are adhered to. “Mining of soapstone continues to a depth of 30-40 feet since there is no limit to excavation,” says Keshav Bhatt, a Bageshwar journalist.
Social activists say there are 150-200 mines in Bageshwar. Of these, many are illegal. “Weekly meetings are held in the posh bungalows instead of the villages where the mines are. On-site inspections are also undertaken in the offices of officials,” says Bhatt.
This frenetic activity is happening without any reference to environmental regulations. The National Mineral Policy, 1993, clearly says “mining operations shall not ordinarily be taken up in identified ecologically fragile and biologically rich areas”. It adds that a mining plan should provide for controlling environmental damage, restoring mined areas and afforestation, where possible concurrently with mineral extraction. But this injunction is followed more in the breach than the observance. “There are no specific mining policies for the state and miners are taking advantage of the situation,” says G S Joshi, district magistrate, Bageshwar. “Trees are not planted and mining areas not filled up to avoid expenses. What we get after the mining are gaping craters filled with water, which increases the threat of landslips, and dwindling natural springs and barren land,” says Diwan Singh, a farmer from Kirauli village. Between 1957 and 1976, three major landslides occurred in Chaurashtal village in Bageshwar. “Soapstone is soft and slippery and has a triple-sheet, layered structure. Wherever it gets exposed due to mining, large landslips are bound to occur,” Bhandari argues. Chand agrees. “As a slope is destabilised, slumping occurs, triggering landslides. Since mined lands are not taken care of after being abandoned, large and devastating landslides can strike in a few years.”
Mining operations also disrupt the flow of water through aquifer zones. They create large fissures through which water seeps out, depleting the aquifers. This contributes to the drying up of springs and ultimately, rivers, says Chand. “Every village has two or three stepwells and springs. Earlier we used to get water through the year. Now, during summer our village springs become a trickle,” adds Diwan Singh.
“These lands can support nothing other than dispersed, stunted shrubs. The farmers have no option but to abandon these unproductive lands," says the village head of Kanda Parav, Bageshwar. The impact of mining has been felt over 12 sq km. “Our village is very poor. We have only about 0.5 to 1 ha each. After mining there has been a 50 per cent reduction in yield. Wheat production has been the worst affected,” adds farmer Jagdish Ram. Farmer Ramadevi has given a portion of her land to leaseholders, but the meagre money she gets from mining is not enough. “Earlier, farming was a secure source of income for our family. Now, I do not know what we will do once the soapstone in our land is exhausted,” she says.
“For short-term monetary gain the farmers are forfeiting their livelihood security,” says Janki Shah, a Gandhian social worker. “While geologically mapping out the locations of mining fields, no estimate has been made about how much agricultural land will be affected and what will be the impact on local economy and livelihood,” adds Chand. As a result, hill agriculture is in shambles.
But these arguments don’t wash with many farmers. “Farmers are making a fast buck. In place of making Rs 100 in one season from farming, they earn as much as Rs 1,000 from mining soapstone,” says a Kirauli farmer. But this windfall hides an exploitative system. “A farmer gets Rs 5-8 for every sack of soapstone lifted from his field, when its selling cost is Rs 50-100,” says Mahesh Joshi. With difficulty a farmer may earn Rs 5,000 from mining a year. Even this payment is usually delayed. The soapstone is transported all the way to Haldwani where it is graded and priced. Farmers get their payment after a month or two. Even then they can be shortchanged because they have no idea about quality and prices. “Mining soapstone is not profitable. I get only Rs 38 per 100 kg,” Ram says. He and fellow farmers have filed several complaints, but no action has been taken.
Villagers of Chaurasthal, however, have a different story. A non-violent movement was mounted by them in January 2005. After nearly two months, officials intervened, assuring the villagers that mining leases would not be issued. “In other villages, the community bond is weak and the voices of the villagers are being muffled by bribes or threats,” says Mahesh Joshi. Easy money has created problems. Gambling and alcoholism have become pervasive, and rape, theft and the death of labourers inside mines never get attention. “Nearly 25 per cent of the money earned through mining is spent on alcohol and 60 per cent goes to Nepali labourers,” says Garia.
Not content with taking over agricultural land, mining is threatening rivers by unsustainably lifting gravel and sand from their beds. The Gaula, Sharda, lower Kosi, Dabka, Panar, Saryu and Alakananda in the terai-bhabar regions are being damaged in Haridwar, Champawat and Nainital districts.
“The Gaula river flows through a tectonically sensitive zone. Its course is much shorter than other Himalayan rivers like Ganga and is highly prone to flash floods,” says Chand. These rivers have a colossal quantity of gravel and coarse sandy deposits most of which are offloaded at the point where the river enters the terai. Mining in these zones invite the risk of increased erosion, changing courses and heavier floods and is posing a grave threat to downstream habitations. At Amritpur near the Jamrani dam in Nainital district, illegal mining is rampant. In the steeper upper reaches of Gaula, there is a threat of landslips. “If mining continues on such a massive scale on this river which is prone to flash floods and landslides, disasters are inevitable,” says forest officer Ram Singh. He recalls a landslide in 1993 that brought down the whole mountainside and a flash flood about five years back which washed out many villages. “In most of these rivers, sand and gravel extraction happens on a scale exceeding the natural depositional rate,” says Govind Lal Shah. “This in turn increases the flow capacity of the river and invites more flash floods and channel changes.” There is no scientific basis for determining how much sand and gravel can be lifted.
The effects of river erosion are discernible. “The width of the Gaula between Haldwani and Lalkuan was 50 feet from 1963-1964. Now the river is more than 2 km across. The river leaves its course frequently and erodes its banks with a ferocity never witnessed before,” says a retired government officer, Lakshman Singh Deopa. Fertile land, forests and wildlife habitats are lost. The forest department spends large sums to construct boulder spurs, which could be counterproductive.
The upapradhan of Almia village strikes a different note, however. “Mining must take place so that the sand and rocks from the river bed is removed. They cause floods,” he says.
The Uttaranchal Forest Development Corporation is formally in charge of the mining of sand and gravel from terai rivers. “The marketing of the mined materials fetches a lot of revenue for the state,” says K Vidya Sagar, district forest officer at Haldwani. “For more than two decades, indiscriminate and illicit mining of the Gaula riverbed was going on unchecked. We have put brakes on this. Annual revenue has increased from Rs 21 crore in 2004-2005 to Rs 56 crore in 2005-2006,” Vidya Sagar says. But illegal mining continues, especially in the monsoon when legal mining stops. Permits granted for removing sand and gravel from fields are used to mine the riverbed. Almia’s villagers used to farm, now they earn between Rs 500-2,000 a week for the use of the permits.
Mined stones and gravels are crushed into construction materials. Crushing units are often located near residential colonies and close to agricultural fields. Their fugitive emissions, create new health problems, besides affecting agriculture. The siting of stonecrushers violates mining rules, which say “mining activities must be at least 500 metres away from academic institutes, hospitals, religious places and irrigation canals”.
Rawat filed a petition in the Uttaranchal High Court on March 27, appealing for a review of the new industrial policy. It demanded a ban on all unscientific mining on agricultural land to protect farmers. Charges made in the petition has been denied by the State Pollution Control Board. In an affidavit it said “the allegations are vague, arbitrary, and imaginary”.