After the Supreme Court’s green bench ordered the mining ban in Bellary on Friday and instructed firms that already had mining leases to halt mining, there was gloom in parts of the district.
“What next?” That is the question that those engaged in mining activities or related businesses are asking.
Sandur, Hospet and Bellary taluks have vast areas where mining is the predominant activity. Even though it is only about a decade since mining became rampant in the district, there are thousands of households that now are dependent on mining.
Before 1999, agriculture was the main occupation of the people of Bellary. Since mining became so widespread, agriculture has been relegated to the second-option means of earning a livelihood. Agricultural labourers took to working in mining companies, and it was hard to find hands to work in the fields.
Water from the Tungabhadra Dam, which was constructed over 50 years ago, was also used by mining companies. The Tungabhadra reservoir now has iron ore silt, indicating the scale of the mining activity in the region.
Many of the farmers, who earlier grew sugarcane, paddy, banana and cotton, and also onion, groundnut, and green leafy vegetables, drawing water for irrigation from the dam, have now abandoned agriculture. Even crops of tur dal, jowar, and other grams were earlier cultivated here.
Agricultural land in Sandur taluk was taken over by mining. ‘Attractive prices’ were offered by the miners for the acquisition of the land, and unsuspecting farmers, who had little clue of the huge resources that lay beneath their fields, were happy to sell their land for twice its market price. As the Lokayukta report notes, even private lands and forest areas were taken up by iron ore mines.
Mining has destroyed top soil. In areas like Kurekuppa, Toranagallu, Bhujanganagar and Sandur, earlier rife with agricultural activity, the soil is now infertile. The upper crust of the earth in these areas is now the silt of iron ore and manganese.
Farmers sold fields, invested in mines
Farmers who sold their lands to the mine owners, later invested their money in lorries, JCBs, bulldozers, crushers and other machinery that could be used to dig mines, and transport ore. Now, with huge investment in mining machinery, the farmers are staring at a situation where all that money has gone down the drain.
There are fears that Jindal Steels, which did not get sufficient iron ore for its steel plant in Toranagallu, could shut. Thousands of employees will then be thrown out of work. Ore has been drawn from Tumkur and Chitradurga.
Labour union leader Mundragi Nagaraj, said, “The mining industry has been killed by politicians. The people, who suffer, however, will be those working in these companies, and poor people who invested their money on vehicles and machinery to support the work of the mines.”
Monitor pollution with your naked eye
Environmental pollution in Sandur, Hospet and Bellary has reached an extreme. Air and water pollution is visible to the naked eye. The Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) has not properly documented the violation of pollution control norms, as some board officials too were hand-in-glove with the violators. Suspended particulate matter in the air is more than 50% over acceptable limits prescribed by KSPCB.
Forest land has also been encroached upon by miners. Over 100 companies were involved in mining forest tracts, and nearly 8,000 hectares of forests in the district have been affected. Tanks and ponds in the district, and also the reservoir of the Tungabhadra Dam, have been polluted by iron ore silt. The frequent movement of vehicles laden with iron ore has left pits in the road, many of them five feet deep.
Gandhiji, on one visit to Sandur, had described it as the Kashi of the South. That air of piety and greenery no longer exists in the taluk. With its tree cover nearly entirely stripped, and the air almost red with iron ore dust, Sandur is quite a different land now.
“People suffer diseases of the skin, kidneys and heart here. Blood pressure problems are rampant. All this is on account of the iron ore mines,” says Tapal Ganesh, the son of a mine owner who has been struggling against the illegal mining activities in Bellary.
Firms in trouble
Nearly 20,898 hectares of land have been taken over by iron ore mines in Bellary. While mining leases have been granted to nearly 200 firms, there are about 150 active mining companies.
The Supreme Court appointed Central Empowered Committee has been investigating the activities of 99 mining companies. For the past two months, activity has been halted in the mines of these firms. Only six firms, including Jindal Steels and MMTC have been functioning in the last two months.
Firms using iron ore have been facing a shortage. Now, with the total ban on mining in the district, even the mining companies that have been functioning in the past few months are set to shut.
Jindal Steel (steel factory): It has permission to produce 10 million metric tonnes in a year. There are ancillary units too, attached to the work of Jindal’s steel factory, Thousands would be thrown out of work if Jindal shuts production.
BMM Ispat (steel factory): Situated in Mariyammanahalli near Hospet, it is the second-largest steel plant in the district, after Jindal. Over 1,000 people are employed here.
MSPL: A large firm that has acquired 1,000 acres of land in Koppal district recently. Workers here fear retrenchment.
Kalyani Steels, Koppal: This firm is dependent on iron ore from Bellary, and could shut. There are more than 250 sponge iron-ore factories in Bellary which already face shortage of ore.
Migrants support families elsewhere
“I came to Bellary eight years ago from Uttar Pradesh, in search of a job. Now, I may have to return. My family depends on my income,” said Sudheendra, an employee in a mining firm.
Bellary district CPI(M) secretary U Basavaraju, said, “The Supreme Court order is welcome. We need to conserve our resources for generations still to come. Mining is an activity that the government should undertake of its own.”