Unregulated legal mining and rampant illegal mining in Rajasthan has systematically destroyed forests, devastated the Aravallis, and played havoc with the water resources of the state, says Centre for Science and Environment’s Sixth State of India’s Environment report, “Rich Lands, Poor People” – Is sustainable mining possible?
With the industry ready to pounce on mining leases in schedule V areas – banned for the last nine years and opened by the previous Vasundhara Raje Scindia government in 2008 – it could be only a matter of time before the current government gives in to industry pressure and lure of the money. Rajasthan is sitting on a potential outburst of mining activities. The state release of the report took place in Udaipur today, by the Justice of Jodhpur High Court, Shri Govind Mathur. Co-organised by the Jodhpur-based Mine Labour Protection Campaign (MLPC), a public dialogue followed the release to discuss issues related to mining in the state.
Extensively researched and richly illustrated, this 350-page report has been prepared as a state-of-art tome on mining in India, its impacts on environment and people, and the way ahead. CSE’s ‘State of India’s Environment’ reports have been widely acknowledged as the most comprehensive and authoritative series of publications on the subject of environment and development in India. The report on mining lives up to that reputation and the promise. It details the issues of mining in different states of the country – including Rajasthan – the impacts on environment and people, and policy reforms that are essential to practice more ‘sustainable’ mining.
Rajasthan has the highest number of mine leases in the country – 1,324 leases for major minerals, 10,851 for minor minerals and 19,251 quarry licenses for mining stones. The state earned about Rs 590 crore royalty from major minerals like lead, zinc and limestone in 2004-2005. But the sector contributes only three per cent to the state’s revenue.
Rajasthan holds reserves for 44 major and 22 minor minerals and is the only producer of garnet, jasper, selenite, wollastonite and zinc concentrates. It is also the leading producer of calcite, lead concentrate, ball clay, fireclay, ochre,
phosphorite, silver and steatite. But it is best known for its production of marble, sandstone, marble and other stones. It produces 10 per cent of the world’s and 70 per cent of India’s output of sandstone. Ajmer, Bhilwara, Bikaner, Dungarpur, Jaipur, Pali, Rajsamand, and Udaipur are its main mining districts.
….but regulation poor
But major minerals do not reflect the true picture of mining in Rajasthan; minor minerals and stone quarries do. Rajasthan has thousands of unorganised mines, which can be as small as one-twentieth of a hectare. They fall out of the purview of government control and there are no accounts of these mines.
Illegal mines have no mechanism in place to implement environmental protection measures. For instance, sandstone quarries may be as small as 200 x 100 feet and employ as few as five to eight people who make Rs 30-50 per day (for men) or Rs 15-30 per day (for women). “Because these mines operate beyond the law, workers’ rights are not recognised. Basic facilities such as toilets and water do not exist, nor do safety procedures or compensation for accidents,” says the report. In Makrana mines, there is an average of one death a day. According to the MLPC, there are three deaths every day from work-related illnesses like silicosis and tuberculosis.
The state government has failed to regulate illegal mining in forest areas. Udaipur, the most forested district of Rajasthan is also the most mined. The government has issued leases for hundreds of mines in Sariska National Park. Despite repeated Supreme Court orders to close them down, mining continues unabated in Sariska and Jamwa Ramgarh sanctuary. This has had a devastating impact on the forest cover of the state. In the Bijola area, there were 23,800 ha of dense forests in 1971; by 1991, only 12,800 ha remained, and only 2,700 ha was dense. The National Centre for Advocacy Studies reports that about 4,996 ha of this forest land has been converted for mining since 1980.
Further, Rajasthan continues to dabble with asbestos despite a worldwide ban on the mineral. Rajasthan, which has 54 per cent of India’s asbestos resources, still has five to six operational mines. According to the World Health Organisation, all forms of asbestos causes cancer, with chrysotile asbestos increasing the risk to cancer. This is a major health risk for workers, especially since these illegal mines do not provide safety equipments or compensation in case of accidents or deaths.
Mining in the Aravallis
In Rajasthan, extensive mining of sandstone, marble and other minerals has converted the Aravallis into a rocky wasteland. Soil erosion is rampant, natural recharging of groundwater has been affected, and riverbeds have been flooded with coarse sand. This is despite they being notified as an ecologically sensitive area (ESA) more than a decade ago in 1992.
Despite Supreme Court orders and threats since 1996, mining has continued unabated in the Aravallis. Aravallis may have got a breather in Haryana with miners refusing to bid for the lease of 110 hectares of mining area in Khori Jamalpur and Sirohi villages. Bidders say that Supreme Court’s hearings and Chief Justice K G Balakrishnan’s pledge to prevent further degradation of Aravallis has been the main deterrent. But in Rajasthan they have no respite. Mining in the catchments has also played its part in threatening the region’s water bodies. The limestone mines of Chittor have breached the region’s water table. The mines have been operational since 1987, and the unit has excavated pits as much as 40 metres deep. In New Surjana village, located near the mines, there is acute water scarcity and recession in the groundwater table. Residents claim that water could earlier be found at 25 feet, but now the water table has fallen to as low as 400-500 feet.
At the same time marble slurry imposes serious threats to the ecosystem in the state. When dumped on land, it adversely affects productivity due to decreased porosity, water absorption and water percolation. Slurry dumped areas cannot support any vegetation and remain degraded. When dried, the fine particles become air-borne and cause severe air pollution. During the rainy season, the slurry is carried away to rivers, drains and local water bodies, affecting the quality of water, reducing storage capacities and damaging aquatic life.
Chittorgarh city is getting choked due to marble slurry being dumped in Chhatriwali khaan, an abandoned mine since 2004. “Today, the result of such deliberate dumping is apparent. The area’s groundwater is unfit for drinking and cooking and food cooked in such water literally churns the stomach. The Government Higher Secondary School at Senti, a nearby village, had the Public Health Engineering Department laboratory test its groundwater. The level of total dissolved solids was found to be 5,040 milligram per litre (mg/l) when the acceptable limit is 500-1,500 mg/l. Total hardness (calcium carbonate) was 2,550 mg/l when the acceptable limit is 200-600 mg/l),” says the report.
Is sustainable mining possible?
The CSE report points out that mining cannot be sustainable or truly environment-friendly: one, because all ore bodies are finite and non-renewable and two, because even the best managed mines leave “environmental footprints”. But it also concedes that mining and minerals are necessary. Adds Monali Zeya Hazra, coordinator, Industry and Environment unit, CSE, “The issue is not whether mining should be undertaken or not. Rather, it is about how it should be undertaken. It is about ensuring that mining is conducted in an environmentally and socially acceptable manner.”
The report goes on to recommend a range of policy initiatives that could help India meet this challenge. Some of its main recommendations include recognising people’s right to say ‘no’ (mining should not take place without the consent of the people); independent, impartial preparation of EIA reports; disallowing mining in forests; framing stronger mine closure regulations; and “doing more with less – a key to sustainable development”.