- Despite National Green Tribunal’s orders to the contrary, illegal industrial activities continue in the habitat of critically endangered great Indian bustard (GIB) in Shrigonda taluka of Ahmednagar.
- Over the years, mining activities have contaminated and drained underground water, affected crop output and reportedly triggered respiratory troubles for the locals.
- Recently, a sugar factory and an electricity plant have been set up in the same area, within a few hundred meters from the GIB habitat.
Illegal stone mining and stone crushing in the eco-sensitive zone of the great Indian bustard (GIB) sanctuary in Ahmednagar, Maharashtra has caused irreparable environmental damage and affected water sources, locals and experts point out while alleging that such activities continue unabated even after a National Green Tribunal (NGT) order last year.
The GIB sanctuary in Shrigonda taluka of Ahmednagar district is an eco-sensitive zone and doesn’t permit any anthropogenic (human-related) activity within the 10-kilometre radius. Nonetheless, illegal stone mining and stone crushing units have been active here, affecting the habitat of the nearly extinct GIB.
Vinaykumar Jathar, a farmer who has been fighting to protect the environment of the region, filed a complaint with the NGT in 2019. He told Mongabay-India that the permissions for stone mining were sought in 1994 for one block of land. However, the permission continued being misused for years and Jathar claimed that not enough action has been taken to curb the damage to the environment.
He stated that many farmers and villagers have complained to the local authorities but there has been no respite so far. “About 12 different complaints got registered over the years, with no relief in sight,” Jathar told Mongabay-India.
Baykar Datta, a farmer in the Shrigonda village, stated that he lost his only water source over the years, owing to mining-related activities. “The problem started when the stone mining started about 250 feet away from my well. The water from the well got contaminated and eventually drained out owing to fissures and cracks caused by the blasting of rocks,” Datta told Mongabay-India.
He emphasised that even his 4.5-acre farm was impacted as the water pumped out from the mine and released after mining and excavation activity in the area, polluted the entire area. Datta said his friend Satish Gaikar had planted about 250 lemon shrubs, which he lost completely due to dust and polluted water.
Similarly, Machindra Dange, a farmer from Wadali village, who stated that his 13-acre farm was ruined as dust from mining activities would settle on the crop, making it unfit for harvest and added that the yield had also declined over the years.
Dange told Mongabay-India that his family members suffer from respiratory illnesses repeatedly due to dust from the mining activity and noted that many members of the community started having breathing troubles and complained to the authorities demanding mitigatory measures.
Human activities impacting GIB’s habitat
Sujit Narwade, a project scientist at Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), explained that grasslands are a vital part of the GIB’s habitat and since great Indian bustard is a shy bird, it needs a more secluded and quiet environment, compared to a crow or a sparrow.
“A hill, slope, or barren land is also a part of biodiversity. Having such areas with less vegetation doesn’t mean that they don’t need to be preserved, especially in the case of birds,” Narwade told Mongabay-India while emphasising that vibrations, transport activity, crushing and other activities around the mining areas only disturb and damage the ecological factors in the area.
The GIB is a critically endangered bird and its estimated population is about 150, a drop from 1,260 in 1969, even as governments are making efforts to recover their population. The majority of its present population is in Rajasthan.
Meanwhile, Jathar stressed that every time they reached out to the authorities regarding the illegal activities, they were told that necessary permissions had been taken. But requests filed under Right To Information (RTI) Act 2005, then helped them realise that the mining is being carried out illegally. He said that it was revealed that out of the 12 blocks where mining was carried out, permissions for only one block was approved years ago and even its term had lapsed.
According to locals, the mining took place on the banks of an irrigation canal and the blasting of the ground affected the water recharge capacity of groundwater sources, wildlife and cattle. The locals also found that the water meant for irrigation purposes was pumped for the quarry works which is a violation of the environmental norms.
“We also realised that illegal stone mining zones cropped up and land got exploited through just consents and not formal permissions. The electricity bills showed that more stone mining was conducted than the approved amount,” Jathar said.
After Jathar approached the NGT, the environmental body ordered an inquiry and asked for a joint report from the collector and Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) only to find the allegations were true. Subsequently, the NGT ordered action against the concerned and instructed the mining to shut.
Asim Sarode, the lawyer who represented the case and presented in August 2019, explained that stone is usually considered to be a minor mineral and often permissions are taken in the form of consents and treated as public property. He said while the mining on these quarries goes uncontrolled, no assessment of damage to the environment has been carried out.
“The sanctuary is the only habitat that needs to be protected for the safety of the GIB. The noise, blasts, clouds of dust and continuous vibrations of mining activity done within the eco-sensitive zone of 10-km radius shows the poor management and weak efforts of monitoring agencies, which in the case is the MPCB and the district collector,” Sarode told Mongabay-India.
An official involved with the Maharashtra government’s legal team said, “The mining work was ongoing at only one site when the orders were passed, and the work is entirely shut, as per the NGT orders issued in December 2019. The assessment on the environmental damage caused is still undergoing, and the NGT will direct the fine imposed after the same is submitted.”
Recently, a sugar factory and an electricity plant have been set up in the area, and within a few hundred meters from the GIB habitat. The electricity plant has not sought the required set of permissions from the National Board of Wildlife, the NGT had noted in December 2019 order. The mining company had told the green tribunal that the newly revised guidelines of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest have relaxed the eco-sensitive zone from 10 kilometres to 400 metres and as per those, the sugar factory now does not violate any environmental norms.
The author is a Pune-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.
Banner image: A representative image of a great Indian Bustard in Nannaj (Maharashtra). Photo by Madhukar Bangalore/Flickr.