On 18 may, 2,500 tribals gathered outside the Kirandul project office of the State-owned National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC) in the Maoist-hit Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh. Holding placards, the tribals from 55 villages, including women, were protesting against the iron ore mining projects in the region, which, they allege, are endangering their lives by causing rampant pollution.
In the eye of the storm are the NMDC’s iron ore mines near Kirandul and Bacheli villages. According to the tribals, the mines have led to the contamination of their water sources, so much so that “the water has turned red”. Not only is the polluted water killing livestock, many villagers have also contracted serious ailments because of drinking it.
“We will not tolerate this anymore,” says Ramesh Samu, who led the protest. “The mining corporation has fooled us by promising jobs. Our children are dying because of the polluted water. Our fields are becoming barren and the cattle are dying, too. The mining must stop.”
Besides demanding safe water supply and compensation for the damage they have suffered, the villagers are also asking for employment opportunities, healthcare and education. Moreover, they are opposing a double-track railway line being laid from Koraput in neighbouring Odisha to Bailadila in Dantewada district. The protesters claim that the railway line would add to their woes by facilitating more mining projects.
Though the tribals have been opposing mining projects in the region for a long time, things came to a head when the NMDC was given the forest clearance to start iron ore mining in Bailadila Deposit 13. This decision was taken in a meeting of the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the Union environment ministry on 29-30 April. Earlier, the NMDC had permission for mining in four (two near Kirandul, and two near Bacheli) of the total 14 iron ore mines in the area. According to an NMDC official, Deposit 13 has 300 million tonnes of iron ore.
Chief Minister Raman Singh had written to the FAC, requesting clearance for the new mine as it would provide ore to the sponge iron and steel industries in the state. He had argued that it would boost steel production and provide employment opportunities in the Maoist-hit region. Currently, the NMDC mines provide only half of the ore required by these industries.
On the flip side, however, is the impact of mining on the tribal population. Despite the check dams constructed by the NMDC to reduce water pollution, the Shankini and Dankini rivers, which flow through the area and are the villagers’ main source of water, have turned into reddish marshes. Nearly 35,000 hectares surrounding the mines have been adversely affected and the forest cover has been lost.
VK Satpathi, NMDC’s director of production, told TEHELKA, “We are doing everything that we can. It’s the government’s job to provide employment, health and education, not ours. Yet we are providing facilities to the local community as part of our corporate social responsibility activities.”
According to official figures, Chhattisgarh accounts for a fifth of India’s coal and iron ore reserves. The Bailadila hills in Dantewada are considered to have the best iron ore deposits in the country. Together, the 14 mines in the hills are reported to have 1.2 billion tonnes of iron ore deposits. The NMDC extracts around 60,000 tonnes of iron ore every year from its mines in Dantewada and has been operating in the region since 1960.
With the tribals living in the region seeing the NMDC’s mining projects near Bacheli and Kirandul villages as a nuisance, attempts to extend the mining activities are bound to face stiff opposition. The government has a tough task ahead: to address the tribals’ concerns while removing the roadblocks to the state’s industrialisation, without letting the Maoists take advantage of the situation.
Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman