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Indiscriminate quarry operations are on at full swing in the South Andamans, where a 3 square kilometre (sq km) stretch houses as many as 35 quarries. With a lot of rebuilding and reconstruction work happening post-tsunami, and new buildings coming up, the demand for stone and stone products like granules and dust has increased in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Since there are no quarries in Nicobar, villages like Brooksabad, Prothroepur and Birchgunj located on the outskirts of the capital Port Blair have become the centre of the island's quarrying activities.
Blasting, stone crushing, lorries ferrying stone products, skyline covered with dust, drying water reservoirs, withering trees and plants, depleting water table, choked streams and nalas, homes covered with dust, and sick children are some of the results of indiscriminate quarry operations in these three villages, which are spread across 3 sq km.
Birchgunj, Brooksabad and Prothroepur were predominantly agricultural villages. However, the entire stretch is lined with quarries now. Some have even come up inside residential areas. Crushers have not been allotted fixed timings during which they can operate. As a result, some run through the night.
The Corbyn's Cove quarry was started in 1975-76. From here quarry operations slowly spread towards the three villages. Initially, the Andaman Public Works Department operated Corbyn's Cove quarry. The Military Engineer Services joined in later. Thereafter, the government privatised quarry operations, and kept issuing licenses to operators without sparing a thought about the consequences. No attempt was even made to conduct surveys and find other suitable sites.
As a result of indiscriminate quarrying, the northern flank of the Birchgunj hill is now bare. Earth is currently being removed from its western flank. As and when a rock appears, a fresh license will be issued for yet another quarry.
Needless to say, residents of the villages have been paying a heavy price. "When we came here in 1985, one could get water by digging just one-and-a-half feet. Now boring 40 feet doesn't fetch water," says Shibu Verghese, a resident of Prothroepur. "A lot of children suffer from bleeding noses," he adds.
"Earlier rocks were bored to a depth of 2-3 feet. However, now with powerful machines, 3-meter deep holes are dug. The whole of Birchgunj village shakes during the blasts. Fissures, which have developed in the rocks, allow sub-soil water to seep down... And this is not a post-tsunami phenomena," says H P Roy, a resident of Prothroepur "Most of the plants in my garden are dying due to layers of dust."
Blasters are not the only culprits. Due to the great demand for stone dust, the number of stone crushers has increased. One quarry uses about five crushing units. Stone crushers do not need licenses. Numerous stone crushers dot the Corbyn's Cove junction and the Austinabad-Prothroepur road.
Due to the unregulated use of crushers, the nala running parallel to the Austinabad-Prothroepur Road has turned into a dirty drain. Its water was earlier used for agriculture and by industries. "If things continue like this, after five or six years most of the perennial sources of water in this area will become permanently dry," says Amlanjyoti Kar, a hydro-geologist with the Central Ground Water Board.
Villagers, who depend on these perennial sources of water, are worried. "During the earthquake and tsunami of 2004, the pipelines carrying drinking water were disturbed. At that time, the perennial nalas had supplied water to most parts of Port Blair and adjoining villages. How can anyone allow such unplanned development then?" asks Dinesh Ram, a member of the Birchgunj panchayat.
There are 41 licensed quarries in South Andaman. Out of these, 35 are concentrated within the 3-sq km area, while six are spread out. Some quarries do not have licenses. However, villagers say that despite this, they are operational.
Among the dust and the grime, one thing is clear the vision of the licensing authority has been flawed. How the revenue authorities allowed quarries to be concentrated in a small area remains a mystery. "The deputy commissioner never visits the sites before granting licenses... if he did, this won't happen," says Ajesh Ram, a resident of Birchgunj.
Political clout is another reason behind the immunity of quarry operators. Businessmen (with allegiance to political parties) operate a majority of the quarries. Some politicians also own quarries, while their relatives and friends run around 26 of them.
Krishan Sharan Singh, deputy commissioner, South Andamans, believes there is no alternative. "We need stone chips and dust for development and post-tsunami reconstruction work. What will we do if we close all quarries? The construction boom will continue only for the next couple of years when reconstruction will get over," he says. Singh refused to comment on allegations that most politicians in the Andamans were getting their funds from the area.