- The Khurda region, which is just outside Bhubaneswar city, is facing the brunt of extensive stone mining.
- Due to unabated mining activities, several hills in the region are now completely broken down and the change in the landscape could also impact the local biodiversity.
- Experts caution that the transition that the area has undergone could have a serious impact on land and water sources, air quality and the health of people living in the nearby area.
In mid-2020, photographers, travel bloggers and youth thronged a hillock at Nijigarh Tapang (Khurda), just outside Odisha’s capital city, Bhubaneswar. They termed it as a hidden tourist site that had now gained popularity for its picturesque views and bluish-green waters. However, most of the visitors were unaware that the beauty was just a remnant of a degraded hillock that had been stripped of its green cover and broken down to almost half its size, with huge machines, for stone mining activities, over the past few years.
Images from Google Earth show that, in 2006, the hillock, which is locally termed as Hathia Mundia (elephant hill) in Odia, was standing tall with green cover and had no water around it. However, slowly, stone quarrying for the supply of stones for construction activities degraded it to almost half its size.
Shankar Prasad Pani, a lawyer who fought the case about illegal stone and laterite mining of Tapang before the National Green Tribunal (NGT), explained that now, the remaining hillock was surrounded with deep water which had oozed out allegedly due to the deep extraction of stones beneath the hillock.
“When there was a mandate to drill only six metres below the earth, several miners went on to illegally drill beyond six metres and carved out artificially created deep lakes. This is just a living example of the illegal work of those mining the stones of Khurda hills,” Pani told Mongabay-India.
However, Hathia Mundia is not the only hillock in Odisha that was degraded due to mining activities. There are several others, which in the last decade, were stripped of their greenery and the local landscape was changed.
Residents of Nijigarh Tapang, which is about 25 kilometres away from Bhubaneswar, told Mongabay-India that after local protests, litigation and action by the government, mining activities in the major hillocks in that area have stopped but instead, they have started in other regions of Khurda later.
“The whole human settlement living in Tapang faced the wrath of the miners. Our standing crops were damaged, blasting in these sites broke buildings nearby and the whole area which connects the National Highway-16 with nearby villages was engulfed in dust,” said Kahnu Charan Chhualsingh, a resident of Tapang.
Others claimed that while some people from the local community protested, many others remained quiet to the plundering of natural resources. “Most of the norms related to stone mining were ignored and the local communities faced the impact. Later, cases were filed before the NGT too into this regard,” said Madhusudhan Chhotray, a resident of Nijigarh Tapang.
During a visit, Mongabay-India found that while stone mining, at least in Tapang, came to a standstill by major excavations in the past few years, the ancillary industries dependent on them still are adding to the woes of the local community. Several stone crushing units operating without any green belt, boundaries and other restrictions are constantly releasing dust into the air.
Prafulla Samantara, who works for the mining-affected communities, said, “Slowly, Khurda lost several of its mountains to stone quarry and saw increased penetration of mining-related ancillary units like stone crushing units and others which increased the quantum of dust and air pollutants in the area which was earlier filled with greenery.”
“This was made possible due to the lack of attention and monitoring of the government,” Samantara, who is also the winner of the 2017 Goldman Environment Prize, told Mongabay-India while talking about the transition that the region witnessed over the years.
Stone mining could impact local biodiversity
Though mining activities have stopped in Tapang, the hillocks near the National Highway-16 that connects Kolkata to Tamil Nadu are becoming the new victims of stone mining. Experts note that this is resulting in the degradation of the land as no norms are being followed.
Local experts cautioned that rampant stone mining in the area could have a cascading impact on the local biodiversity. “There are many issues linked to the degradation of land due to stone mining as we have seen in Khurda district. First, the breaking down of mountains for quarry works leads to change in the natural landscape of the local areas and also deprives the local region of the green cover the mountains host before being killed for mining,” Jaya Krushna Panigrahi, a Bhubaneswar-based environmentalist, told Mongabay-India.
He stressed that after quarry activities, such mountains become barren from a natural ecosystem. “The blasting and quarry activities are also responsible for interfering with the local vegetation and wildlife,” Panigrahi said.
While another environmentalist S.N. Patro said the “mountains and hillocks are known to maintain a good grip on the local soil and helps in preventing soil erosion in the area.”
“The damage to mountains could lead to increased siltation to the nearby vegetation, which could affect farming there while it could also lead to contamination of nearby water bodies,” Patro told Mongabay-India.
The Google Earth images showed that one of the active stone mining sites, had a green cover in 2010 with no scars, but the current pictures show major cuts made by the heavy machines deployed to cut down the hillocks.
Impact on public health
According to the Khurda District Survey Report, the total mineral reserve of road metal/building stone/blackstone/white stone is 79.5 million cubic metres. It also claims that the cases of tuberculosis (TB) are rising in the district each year since 2015-16. In 2015-16, the total cases of TB were 1,025 which increased to 1,701 in 2019-20.
Though the cases of tuberculosis are not directly related to exposure to mining, public health experts claim that poor immunity among the workers from the economically weaker sections of the society working in such mining areas could make them more prone to develop or see increase effects of the disease.
The district survey report also claimed that there were no cases of silicosis in Khurda when the study was prepared. However, experts claimed that there is a dearth of a comprehensive study on the transition these areas undergo including people getting diseases such as silicosis or other occupational health hazards.
Sreedhar Ramamurthy, from Mines, Mineral and Policy (MMP) told Mongabay-India that dust, silicosis were some of the common consequences of mining.
“There is a lack of study in such areas to estimate the impact of mining activities on the local population. Moreover, the degradation of hillocks and mountains due to the stone mining activities are directly linked to depletion of water quality in nearby water bodies and also interferes with the course of natural drainage systems,” he said.
Bijaya Biswal, a public health expert from the Citizens Collective for Public Health working on public health issues affecting mining communities, said, “The major health hazards that we have seen in workers and local communities facing direct exposure to the mined areas are silicosis and chronic kidney disease. While the former is triggered by the direct exposure to the dust emanating from the mined areas, the latter is a result of consumption of contaminated water in mining areas.”
She said both these diseases are “irreversible and causes severe harm to the body.”
“There is no good treatment for them and prevention is the only solution. Due to these mining-triggered diseases, the workers in the mining areas often die in their 20s and 30s and we then often hear about ‘silicosis widows’ – a term popular in mining areas,” Biswal added.
According to experts, who have witnessed mining activities in such areas claim that the safety norms prescribed by the government include measures such as workers wearing personal protection kits, gloves, masks, they are largely flouted.
Stone mining is governed under the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act (MMDR Act), and the power, to manage mining sites and ensure norms are followed, is with the state government.
In this, case the local district administration claimed that stringent measures are taken to thwart illegal mining activities and those violating the official norms.
“We have formed committees with officials from several departments including police, revenue, forest, mining and others to monitor and undertake surprise checks. They also collect fines from erring miners for flouting norms. In 2020-21 alone, we were able to collect Rs. 40.5 million (Rs. 4.05 crore). There is strict monitoring of the activities,” a senior official from the Khurda district administration told Mongabay-India while wishing anonymity.
Banner image: An active stone quarry near the National Highway-16 in the Khurda region. Photo by Manish Kumar.