'Red water' forces people in Chhattisgarh's Naxal hotbed to migrate

Madadi village lies in the foot of Bailadila hills where country's largest iron-ore producer and exporter National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC) has been extracting iron ore for last four decades.

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Nandaram Kunjam never imagined that one day he would be forced to leave his ancestral village in the Maoist hotbed, not because of the Naxal terror, but due to the river water turning red due to effluents discharged into it after iron ore mining.

Earlier many from Kunjam's Madadi village, located at a remote location in Dantewada, left the place due to terror unleashed by the Naxals, but this time the reason for people migrating from the place is different.

Madadi village lies in the foot of Bailadila hills where country's largest iron-ore producer and exporter National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC) has been extracting iron ore for last four decades.

The valuable mineral has become a curse for Kunjam and others staying in the periphery.

"My generation has never seen fresh water in Shankhani river (flows in the area)," the 32-year-old villager told PTI.

The villagers call it "Lal Nadi" (red river) rather by its original name, he said, adding that tragically, the villagers have no other option for water which he claimed was posing several health hazards and destroying the crops.

Dankini and Shankhani rivers, the lifeline of Dantewada, in south Chhattisgarh have lost the sheen to iron ore, due to pollution of red oxide discharged from the mines after iron ore extraction.

The two rivers, ranked by environmentalists as highly polluted, originate from Bailadila region of Dantewada, located around 450 kms from the state capital, that has been endowed with rich iron ore reserves.

Kunjam was growing rice like many in other villages of the region depending on the two rivers for irrigation. But a couple of years back, he decided to pack his bags and shift to Kirandul town along with his family in search of work.

About three-acres of agricultural land that has been his asset was destroyed because of the iron ore fines.

The NMDC was allotted four deposits in 1965 and one in 1967 in Bailadila, the name derived from ox humps as it resembles it from different locations. A major part of production is exported to Japan. NMDC's iron ore production during the first half of 2014-15 was about 143.89 lakh tonnes.

In 2006, a private company was granted permission to set up a pipeline to transport iron ore from Bailadila to Vishakhapatnam. The company also received permission to use the water resources to pump iron ore sludge directly from the mine to Vishakhapatnam.

"NMDC has been providing compensation for the loss of land and cattle due to polluted water, but only in those villages which are near the main road," Kunjam said.

No survey has been conducted so far in the interior villages bearing the maximum brunt of pollution in the rivers, he said.

Equally worried about the situation, Kodenar village sarpanch Meena Mandavi expressed displeasure over NMDC's alleged "inaction" in providing certain facilities to the villagers affected by the mining activities.

"Even though NMDC has been carrying out mining in the region for past four decades and earning a whopping royalty, but so far it has failed to provide at least clean drinking water to villagers," Mandavi said.

The rivers, which were once considered sacred by the tribals and worshipped, have now become source of several water-borne diseases because of iron ore mining, she said.

Mandavi fought for compensation for around 30 farmers against their land damaged by tailings of NMDC's mines in Kadampal and Kodenar villages.

"Survey of their damaged agricultural land was done way back in 1997, but after a long wait of around 15 years they were given compensation in 2012-13," she said.

"The locals are dependent on Dankini and Shankhini for including drinking water need, irrigation, fish rearing and other purposes, but the rivers have now turned into red mud due to tailings making the water unfit for use," she claimed.

Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan convener and environmentalist Alok Sukla emphasised the need to protect the ecology from mining activity in the light of the plight of villagers in Dantewada.

He alleged that NMDC has been violating prescribed safety norms for proper disposal and discharge of effluents, slimes or tailings released during the mining process.

"It has been releasing Bailadila mines' tailings--a sludge made of iron ore fines and effluent generated during the mining process --directly into two-three nullahs, including Kirandul nullah, which drain into Shankhini and Dankini rivers," Shukla said.

Besides, a private company also releases its effluents into a nullah in Kirandul, he said.

In the past studies, the content of toxic metals like cobalt, mercury, nickel, etc was found to be high in the rivers which have damaged the water quality, he said.

Even after repeated warnings from district administration and state environment conservation board, NMDC has not done desilting work in its tailing dams, he charged.

"The NMDC claims that it has been carrying out dry screening of iron ore since past four years and not releasing wastes but the ground scene reveals another story. You will always find iron ore fines flowing with river and in rainy season its quantity increases," he alleged.

"Discharging industrial waste without its proper treatment directly into water bodies is a clear violation of environment laws. The Chhattisgarh Pollution Control Board and environment ministry should take stern action against NMDC," Shukla demanded.

Dantewada district administration and state environment conservation board have several times written to NMDC to take up preventive measures to deal with the deteriorating situation owing to the 'red water'.

"We continuously monitor the situation in villages affected by 'red water'. Several measures are being taken by the district administration to ensure clean drinking water in around 65 affected villages Dantewada and Kuwakonda blocks.

All concerned departments have been asked to draft a combined work plan to deal with the menace of red water," Dantewada Collector K C Devsenpathy told PTI.

Under Nal-Jal Yojna, hand pumps are being dug while repairing of hand pumps are also being done in around 70 villages. To reduce the iron content in water, the proposal has been sent to NMDC to install IRP (iron removal plant) with hand pumps in as many as 40 affected villages, he said.

The collector, however, said he has neither received report from NMDC in connection with setting up continuous water quality monitoring station nor report on desilting work.

Notably, NMDC had last year roped in Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad (Jharkhand) to analyse water quality and toxic metal content in it in the region affected by red water.

Meanwhile, a senior health official denied that red water was causing diseases in the area.

"Diseases prevalent in the area are not related to red water. Diarrhoea and malaria are prevalent here and it is seasonal," Dantewada Chief Medical and Health Officer AR Gota said.

"Drinking polluted water causes diarrhoea. The disease spreads not particularly due to iron ore contaminated water.

Although rich iron content in water is also hazardous for human beings and causes severe diseases," he added.

NMDC did not respond to the mails seeking its stand on the issue.

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