- The foothills of the Brahmagiri mountain range in Maharashtra, where the Godavari River originates, has emerged as a coveted destination for private developers to buy land and build farmhouses and resorts.
- A citizens’ collective of social and environmental organisations, has been protesting against the stone mining and extraction and exploitation of resources in the Brahmagiri and Sahyadri mountain ranges.
- Activists allege that changes to this terrain through land levelling and stone mining could increase soil erosion and destroy the ecosystem that provides water to six states.
The Brahmagiri hills, in Maharashtra’s Nashik district, are considered the origin of the Godavari River, India’s second-longest river. The foothills of the Brahmagiri are now a popular spot for real estate projects such as farmhouses and resorts, which activists claim are destroying the mountain ecosystem and the flow of the Godavari.
In May 2021, during the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic in India, a private developer cleared the land at the foot of the Brahmagiri mountain range to expand one of its projects by blasting through parts of the mountain. This work was done at night, while the residents of the nearby village Suplichi Met, were asleep. After the local media reported this, the district collector of Nashik Suraj Mandhare took note of these events and fined the developer Rs. 15.2 million for blasting through the mountains without the required government permissions. He then ordered a stay on the stone mining and formed an eco-task force to look into environmental offences in the Brahmagiri region.
“This is private land. The forest department has said that there is no violation of forest law. We have imposed a fine because even though it is private land certain government permissions were essential for mining. We have put an encumbrance on the land and taken all possible action to send the right message,” said Mandhare.
After originating at Brahmagiri hills, the Godavari River’s main stream then flows through the states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh and breaks into a delta downstream of Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh, and then joins the Bay of Bengal. The hills where the Godavari originates are considered sacred because of their religious significance and because the river provides water to six states.
Activists and environmentalists allege that such digging, stone mining, and land levelling to expand construction projects has been occurring all over the Western Ghats in the vicinity of the Brahmagiri mountain range and that such human intervention in the natural flow of the Godavari will have a harmful impact on its ecosystems.
“There are two aspects to this: first, rocks and soil are being extracted to be used in construction projects; second, areas around our hills and mountains are being levelled to clear space to build farmhouses and resorts. The stones/soil these developers get when they blast through mountains to clear space is then sold to stone crushers. This extraction and exploitation of natural resources interfere in the natural processes of the river,” Rajesh Pandit, president of Namami Goda Foundation, an organisation working toward reconnecting people with rivers and rejuvenating the Godavari River, told Mongabay-India.
Rajendra Singh, a water conservationist who has travelled along the course of the entire Godavari River to study it, noted that the Brahmagiri region does not have any important minerals which need to be mined. “The mining is for encroachment to develop real estate projects so that they can be sold at exorbitant rates. Real estate of this kind will encroach on our ecologically and environmentally valuable spaces and will eventually destroy all our natural spaces,” he alleged.
The local people fear that the high rainfall in this region could alter the natural landscape of the mountain ecosystem and lead to soil erosion. “The disturbance to this ecosystem could even cause a landslide in this region, triggering another incident like the Malin landslide of 2014,” warned Manish Baviskar, a Nashik-based environmentalist and one of the members of the Brahmagiri Kruti Samiti, a citizens’ collective demanding that the Brahmagiri region and Sahyadri mountain range be conserved.
While Jaydeep Nikam, a geologist and social activist who visited this area recently said that the Brahmagiri mountain range has both soft and hard rock structures, and due to the recent blasting, several rock fractures have been opened up. “They have removed many trees from the area and excavated the land using JCBs and blasted through the rocks. This leads to soil erosion and could lead to even bigger disasters,” Nikam told Mongabay-India.
Pandit emphasised that there is also the fear that the displaced debris of rocks and soil will be swept away with the water when it rains and be deposited in the rivers, increasing the silt on the riverbed and causing floods.
Maharashtra had a target of Rs. 36 billion (Rs. 3,600 crore) for revenue from sand and stone mining for 2020-21, which was about Rs. 12 billion higher than the previous year. Stone quarries operate all over the state in areas such as Navi Mumbai, Pune, Thane, and Kolhapur. In Pune, reports indicate that there are 330 legal stone mines, but it is estimated that the number of illegal mines operating is much higher. In 2016, in Nashik district, 60 stone quarries were shut down by the district administration for not paying royalty worth about Rs. three billion (Rs. 300 crore).
Read more: Bhubaneswar’s periphery is losing its hills to stone mining
Stone mining in Brahmagiri mountains could impact rich biodiversity
The Brahmagiri hill is also home to several species of birds and wildlife. “The Brahmagiri hill area is a leopard, vulture and hyena habitat. I have also seen lichens, which are indicators of healthy oxygen levels. More than 200 vultures nest there and I have recorded 150 forest species so far, and I am sure there are more to be recorded in this region. Most of these species are endemic to the Western Ghats,” said Pratiksha Kothule, project coordinator and wildlife biologist at the Nature Conservation Society, Nashik.
“All this biodiversity is disturbed by the blasting. The dust and noise disturb the animals, that could get displaced and venture out to the nearby highways and get killed,” she told Mongabay-India.
To protect biodiversity, the Brahmagiri Kruti Samiti (Brahmagiri Action Committee) was formed when several environmental and social groups joined forces to protest against the stone mining, real estate projects, and land-use changes in the region. With slogans such as “Save Brahmagiri, Save Sahyadri” and “Khaankaam, baandhkaam, khodkaam mukt Sahyadri (Stop mining, construction, and digging in the Sahyadris)” they call for minimising human interference in the mountain ecosystems of the Western Ghats.
Since May 2021, the action committee has intensified protests to stop stone mining and blasting at Brahmagiri hills and Santosha and Bhagadi hills, which are hill ranges in the Western Ghats around 10 kilometres from the Brahmagiri hill. Nandini River, now also known as Nasardi River, originates on Santosha hill which is around 10 kilometres from Brahmagiri hills.
Santosha and Bhagadi hills are both rich in biodiversity, and the base of these hills has stone quarries, which activists allege are posing a threat to the biodiversity and the ecosystems of the region.
Rajesh Pandit said that Nandini River was once Nashik’s main source of water. “The British Gazetteer does not list River Godavari as the main source of water for Nashik. It listed Nandini/Nasardi because it was a perennial river; the Godavari was not perennial in those days.”
However, Dattu Dhage, who is the head of Belgaon Dhaga, a village 3-4 kilometres from the Santosha hill, said that the stone mining is acceptable if done within permissible limits on barren land, but the quarrying in Sarul village encroaches upon the hills. “This is dangerous because we fear that they may blast through the hill and destroy it. The side of Santosha and Bhagadi hills that face Belgaon Dhaga are full of biodiversity. We have peacocks, leopards, wild boars, snakes, and several species of flora. The side facing Sarul, however, has been destroyed by stone quarrying,” Dhage told Mongabay-India.
The task force put together by the district collector found that nine mining leaseholders had breached the 15-metre no mineable zone limit of the forest boundary, of which three leaseholders had come less than one metre from the forest boundary. This is punishable under the Indian Forests Act, 1927, noted the task force.
But the district collector of Nashik, Suraj Mandhare, defended the mining while emphasising that action will be taken against illegal mining.
“Quarrying definitely damages the earth but certain damages have to be borne. The quarrying at Sarul started in 1997 and brings the government Rs. 400 million (Rs. 40 crore) in royalty. Wherever quarrying is illegal it will be stopped and dealt with sternly. However, legal quarrying cannot be stopped as it provides employment to over 8,000 people,” Mandhare told Mongabay-India.
He said that quarrying has side effects such as dust and noise pollution but these cannot be prevented. “Wherever we have stone quarries, dust and vibrations cause problems. But what is the alternative? If we move the quarries to a different location, the people there will object. Many construction activities depend on the material extracted from Sarul and we cannot completely stop these quarries. We have imposed certain conditions on the quarrying to minimise its ill effects,” said Mandhare.
Read more: [Photos] In the dark world of white clay
Effects of mining on the flow of Godavari
In Nashik, the Godavari River is recharged through aquifers in the kund parisar (area with traditional ponds), which are built on rock fractures. Environmentalists emphasise that concretisation in this kund parisar is one of the factors obstructing the ecological flow of the river. This is resulting in both floods and water shortage in Nashik.
Devang Jani, a Nashik-based environmentalist working on reviving the 17 kunds (traditional ponds) along the course of the Godavari River said that development and concretisation in the catchment area of the river is preventing the aquifers from getting recharged, and this will eventually dry up the river.
“Where any river originates, the surrounding area is always an ecologically sensitive zone. This is because it is the catchment area of the river. The latest fad to build weekend homes and resorts in these areas will destroy our ecosystems. Development activities in such areas must be regulated,” Jani told Mongabay-India.
Shashikant Gudsurkar, retired principal of Gokhale Education Society’s RYK Science College, Nashik, said the concretisation along the course of the river in Nashik city has increased flooding in Nashik city. “Earlier Nashik would get flooded only when there was continuous rainfall for 10 days. Now one day of heavy rainfall is enough to cause floods in the city. And even though flooding is a common occurrence, we still have water shortage problems because the river has dried up in many places. This is because all the natural ponds and springs of the river have been blocked,” Gudsurkar told Mongabay-India.
Maps by Technology for Wildlife.
Banner image: Quarrying near Brahmagiri hills that is the origin area of river Godavari. Photo by Roshan Kedar.