Indiscriminate mining by unscrupulous companies in Chhattisgarh renders fertile land barren, wreaking havoc on man and environment. A ground report by Ankush Vats

Buddhram Kadati, a farmer from Kirandul in BastarChhattisgarh, is busy fishing from the village reservoir. He is one of the thousands of local tribals whose fertile lands were turned barren by the extracted iron ore deposited over it.

Kadati says that the locals have no choice but to use the waters of the Sankini river — polluted beyond recognition by years of mining in the area — for their daily needs, which comes with serious health risks. The presence of iron ore in the river is so high that its waters have turned red in colour and toxic to boot.

“It’s not easy for us to raise our voice. And when we do so, the mining companies conduct their own surveys and release the compensation through the state government, but it rarely reaches us,” complains Kadati, who had to pay 50,000 to agents to get a 1 lakh compensation for his lost land.

There is no dearth of media reports on how indiscriminate mining has contaminated the Sankini river. In contrast, the issue of how fertile land has been turned barren due to indiscriminate mining by the National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC) and one of its clients, Essar Steel, and the depositing of tonnes of extracted iron ore and mining waste on farm land is yet to find a place in the public discourse.

Bastar is one of the most mineral-rich regions in the country. The NMDC, a central government undertaking, has been operating two iron ore mining projects — Bacheli and Bailadila — in the region for over five decades. The NMDC extracts iron ore from six mines; the annual production of one mining project is pegged at around 90 lakh metric tonnes.

The NMDC has little or no infrastructure to process the mining waste, which is released into the river and the adjoining fields. This, when no company is permitted to deposit or stock iron ore on the farmers’ lands. The repeated protests by the locals against this practice have been ignored.

So much silt is released from the mines that, in one incident, five children were buried under it. The children were playing by the riverside when they were trapped under a pile of silt released from the Bacheli mines. Incidentally, the children’s father worked as a driver with the NMDC.

Killing the soil Iron ore extracted from the mines is deposited on farm lands, turning them barren

Essar operations

Essar Steel is not involved in the mining operations in Kirandul but it buys raw iron ore from the NMDC and pumps the slurry from its beneficiation unit near Kirandul to its pellet unit in Visakhapatnam (Andhra Pradesh) via Odisha through a 267-km-long pipeline, which is the second longest in the world.

Since Essar Steel needs large quantities of water to turn the iron ore into slurry so that it can be transported through the pipeline, it is also accused of ‘stealing’ water from the village reservoirs. In Madadi village of Kirandul, Essar Steel has set up a water pump to extract water from a reservoir, the only source of water for the locals. Anil Dahariya, the secretary of the Madadi Panchayat, says that the company is extracting water without permission.

“It is necessary to seek approval of the panchayat before extracting water from the reservoir. We have not given any approval to them,” says Dahariya, adding that the farmers have not been compensated yet in spite of a survey of the land affected by the indiscriminate extraction of water.

Incidentally, the pipeline passes through a Maoist stronghold. (The Maoists regularly target the pipeline; they damaged it in October 2011.) The locals allege that Essar gives protection money to the Maoists. In fact, a former general manager of Essar Steel in Kirandul was arrested for exactly that in 2011. “If they can give crores of rupees to the Maoists, why can’t they compensate us for our losses?” asks a young tribal who did not wish to be named for fear of a backlash from the Maoists.

Raghavulu, the general manager of Essar Steel in Kirandul, refuses to comment on the matter of land pollution and extraction of water beyond saying that the company has a separate department to deal with the media. TEHELKA made repeated calls to Varsha Jha, a press relations officer of the company based in Raipur, but without success. The NMDC’s general manager, Louis Ekka, was not available for comment either in spite of multiple visits to his office in Kirandul.

The Chhattisgarh government, too, has turned a blind eye to the matter. It claims that the farmers are paid compensation for the crop that is damaged due to the laal paani (red-coloured water; so because it has a high iron ore content). But the state of farmers reveals otherwise. Many of them allege that the compensation does not reach them. The estate officer in Dantewada, Surendra Thakur, under which falls the Bacheli mining project, says the farmers have been paid compensation till 2012. “The compensation is paid on the basis of the market price of the crop. The survey is on for the period after 2012. Once it is completed, the authorities will release the compensation,” says Thakur.

Left behind Tribals have benefited little from the mining activity

While thousands of acres of fertile land are buried under the extracted iron ore, the authorities are busy playing the blame game. BK Sori, a mining officer of Dantewada, says the area comes under the forest department. “The forest department will have to look into the issue. Also, the stock of iron ore has to be taken care of by the companies themselves; whether they sell it or not, is their choice,” says Sori. Not once did he mention, leave lone acknowledge, the issue of land pollution.

The estate officer in Kuakonda, Dilip Kumar Vahni, under whose jurisdiction the Belladila mining plant falls, accepts that there is no provision yet to compensate the locals for the wasted land. “People keep saying that surveys are being conducted by the higher authorities to identify how much of the fertile land has been polluted but I am not aware of any survey,” he says matter of factly. “The issue of water being extracted by Essar has not been reported to us, either. Our main concern is that the villagers should not face a shortage of water.”

Asked how he feels about the exploitation of thousands of tribals, Vahni retorts, “Jahaan vikas hoga vahaan vinaash bhi hoga (development comes at a cost).”

Tribal welfare ignored

While the NMDC has built two huge townships for its employees with all the modern facilities, it has largely ignored the welfare of the tribals on whose land the townships stand. There are hardly any good schools or hospitals for them.

The only English-medium school in a 60-sq-km area is run under a central government scheme. The schools in the NMDC townships hardly admit the tribal kids. The NMDC has built a hospital, but for any major treatment the patient has to be transferred to a multi-specialty hospital in Jagdalpur, some 100 km away. NRK Pillai, a local CPI leader, learnt it at great cost to himself. Pillai’s son met with a road accident and succumbed to his injuries on the way to the hospital in Jagdalpur. “If only the NMDC hospital here had good doctors and facilities, he would have been alive today,” rues Pillai. “There have been several cases like this.”

In the name of CSR (corporate social responsibility), the NMDC and Essar have built bus stands and parks in the area and organised sports tournaments. A source in the Dantewada collectorate says that the NMDC and Essar also transfer crores of rupees every year to the collectorate for their CSR activities. “But how that money is used is a moot point. Lakhs of csr money was spent on organising an inter-district kabaddi tournament while thousands of tribals went hungry,” says the source.

The NMDC and Essar spend precious little on infrastructure development in the area. A second source in the collectorate says the area is sensitive (euphemism for Left-Wing Extremism) and therefore lacks development.

“If any developmental work is undertaken by the government, the Maoists are likely to attack it. Therefore, the government has to think before carrying out any developmental work in the region,” says the second source, justifying the slow pace of development there.

The practice of companies giving some money from their csr funds to the collectorate for carrying out development works often leads to misuse of the monies, which the locals have flagged many times in the past but to no avail. “It is a matter of priority. They think bus stands and parks are more important than health and education,” says Pillai.

Is it a job or a joke?

In the name of employing the locals, Essar Steel contracts 12 men per month from the Madadi village of Kirandul in Chhattisgarh who are each paid about 5,000 for one month’s work. Their job entails working in shifts to guard the water pump which the company has set up to extract water from a reservoir. Each of those 12 men has to wait over a year for his next turn. Essar claims that the logic behind doing so (employing 12 locals per month for only one month’s work) is that it is providing employment to more locals than would otherwise have been the case!

Ecology affected

Mining on a large scale has disturbed the ecology, too. Farmers, who sell dairy products to augment their income from farming, complain that the lifespan of the livestock has been shortened over the decade. “Two years ago, I bought a cow from Jagdalpur but it is now dead. It’s all because of the [polluted] water,” says Jagjivan, a farmer.

He laments that fish are also a victim of the pollution. “I remember that when I was a kid, we would collect as much as 5 kg of fish every day from the reservoir and sell it later. But today we rarely find fish,” he says.

Cash for jobs

Leave aside monetary compensation to the locals, the NMDC  has not given any jobs to the locals in return for the thousands of acres of land it acquired over five decades ago. The locals claim that none of them was given jobs when the NMDC was set up in the region over 50 years ago. The first batch of recruitment from among the locals was done only in 1985 when the NMDC acquired another 600-700 acres of land to build a dam. Even then, only four people were employed. “In fact, I don’t remember anyone else working in the NMDC before 1985. As far as I can recall, ours was the first batch of four people who got a job in the NMDC by way of compensation,” says Mangal (name changed.)

For its part, the NMDC claims that it is a central government undertaking and hence follows the national reservation policy. According to an NMDC official, candidates from all over India are considered for employment but recruitment is done on merit; there is no provision to give preference to locals as mentioned in the Land Acquisition Act.

If that were not enough, it is now alleged that some trade unionists connive with the NMDC officials to charge lakhs of rupees from the locals to get them jobs in the company. Mangal’s son is a case in point. His son tells TEHELKA that he paid lakhs to get a job in the NMDC as a mechanical assistant. “I tried for a job for about four years without success. I had one last attempt to make. I was sure that I would not get the job unless I pay a bribe. Therefore, I had to shell out the money,” says Mangal’s son. (The bribe could range from 5 lakh to 8 lakh depending on the position applied for.) The locals covet a job with the NMDC and the reasons are not far to seek. For instance, a mechanical assistant employed with the NMDC takes home around 40,000 per month in addition to various benefits.

While no trade union leader is willing to speak on the cash-for-jobs scam, some local youth who missed out for want of money demand a thorough enquiry into it. “Why would the trade union leaders accept the scam? If we are lying, let the CBI investigate the recruitment process; then the truth will come out and many people will be put behind bars,” says a youth.

Bumpy ride ahead

For the NMDC, its lease of five of the six iron ore mines will expire by December 2015. It is trying hard to get the approval from all the villages concerned; however, two villages have declined. According to the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, or PESA, the consent of a gram sabha is required for any industrial activity, including mining.

Yet, two Bills recently passed by the Lok Sabha, namely the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2015, and the Land Acquisition Bill, seek to give a free hand to the mining barons.

Under the new mining Bill, now a lease will be given for 50 years and the lease of existing mines will be extended to 50 years. Similarly, the Land Acquisition Bill removes the clause of consent of landowners for acquiring land for private and public-private infrastructure projects, mining included. The proposed Bills, when passed, could further alienate the tribals and be a source of conflict.