Mined to death: an elegy for the rivers of Meghalaya

The rivers in the Jaintia Hills have turned deep blue; mines and cement factories have killed all fish and aquatic life in them

By Allwin Jesudasan, Rajkamal Goswami
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

authorNarpuh reserve forest, deep inside the Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya, is among the few good forest patches which has withstood the intense pressures of growth, development and mindless extraction of natural resources like coal and limestone. It also forms an important watershed area with many important rivers originating from the hills. We visited the forest in March and November last year looking for birds and primates as part of an ecological study. The 200 km, nine-hour-long journey from Shillong to Pasadwar village, the range headquarters of Narpuh Reserve Forest Block 1, was dominated by large broom-grass plantations, coal and limestone mines, coal depots and busy, sooty and dusty towns and villages.
Dusty and sooty landscape of Jaintia Hills

To reach the denser forests of Narpuh, it was imperative to boat across the rivers Prang and Myntdu. Thirty odd minutes into our journey, when we reached the confluence of rivers Prang and Myntdu, we noticed that the hue of the water turned blue rapidly and signs of life—fish, tadpoles and weeds—slowly disappeared. According to our boatman, Bah Michael, the river used to teem with life and the fish from the river used to be an integral part of the local staple diet. However, the river started bluing in 2007 and the fish soon disappeared, which according to Michael and other villagers of Pasadwar, is due to coal and limestone mining and cement factories.

'Rivers gave us the first great human civilisations. But what did we give back to our rivers?  Death?'  –Sina Suchiang, a Khasi woman working as a teacher in Brichornot Village, Jaintia Hills, MeghalayaAfter a few days as we went to Block 2 of Narpuh on the northern side of the reserve, we saw another bluer and bigger river, the Lukha, in Sonapur on NH 44. We stopped for refreshments at a small wayside dhaba which stood right on the bank of the blue Lukha. As we were shooting the river from the window of the dhaba, its owner, a man in his early 50s, started to narrate his own tale of tragedy in fluent English. According to him, not long ago the Lukha, a lively river full of fish and other life forms, used to be the main source of potable water for daily use and subsistence income for the local fishers. But all that changed in 2007, when almost all the fish and other life forms died overnight, destroying the local fishery industry as well as the various fishing competitions for which the Lukha was locally famous.

The various dhabas of Sonapur, including his, were famous for serving dishes made from the fish of the Lukha, without which any wayfarer’s journey remained incomplete. Sonapur supported quite a few dhabas as it stands on the busy NH 44, the only all-weather road that connects Barak valley of Assam, Mizoram and Tripura to the rest of India. However, with the fish dead, the local dhabas have also suffered and the villagers in and around Sonapur can’t use the water flowing right through their backyard. Instead, they now have to trek several kilometres to get water for drinking and other purposes like washing, cooking and cleaning.

The problem of acute shortage of potable water is compounded by the complete absence of reclamation of abandoned mines, resulting in the proliferation of unused mine pits and caves in large areas which causes the surface water to percolate and disappear in the pits. As a result, smaller streams and rivers of the area are either dying or becoming seasonal. “The ‘reservoir of fish’ has now become its graveyard,” said the elderly dhaba owner sarcastically after explaining that the word lukha in the local Pnar language meant ‘reservoir of fish’.

Surreal and dead: the blue Lukha

Like the villagers of Pasadwar, he also blamed coal and limestone mining and cement industries as does the Meghalaya Pollution Control Board (MPCB)’s 2008 report, Investigation Report on the contamination of the Lukha River. In unambiguous terms, the report states that the Lukha was polluted and turned blue due to its tributary, the Lunar which came into direct contact with the mixed coal and limestone mines' leachate and effluents. This cocktail of contaminants was so deadly that it not only killed the fish and other life forms of the Lunar river, but also those of the Lukha. However, there was no mention of the precise reason for the bluing. Many villagers found it hard to believe that coal mining was responsible; they felt that it was due to the cement factories that their rivers were dying the blue death. To them this link was quite evident since it was only from 2007 that the cement factories started large-scale limestone mining and production activities in the area.

Since 2007, according to the villagers and news reports, the river water has been turning blue every year during the month of November and stays so till monsoons when high rainfall dilutes the pollutants. Cut back in mining and production during monsoons, also, perhaps helps to cut down on the pollutants. But the question was why this sudden bluing in 2007, whereas mining has been going on since colonial times. Earlier, too, as reported in 2003 by Sumarlin Swer and O P Singh of Centre for Environmental Studies, North-Eastern Hill University in Shillong, the rivers of Jaintia Hills were gravely affected by acid mines drainage (AMD) originating from sulphur-rich coal mines through spoils, leaching of heavy metals, organic enrichment and silting by coal and sand particles. The report said the waters of the rivers were characterised by low pH, high conductivity, high concentration of sulphates, iron and toxic heavy metals, low dissolved oxygen (DO) and high biological oxygenation demand. The advent of the cement factories, thus, was like the proverbial final nail in the coffin for the terminally ill rivers.

Interestingly, according to the MPCB report, the Lukha turns blue only after merging with the river Lunar. To corroborate this fact, we trekked up to the confluence point and found that the Lukha was just a narrow stream and the bulk of the water was drained by the Lunar and its numerous streams carrying effluents from Umshnong and Lumshnong, two upstream hamlets where the majority of the cement plants are operational. The colour of the Lunar’s water was brownish red and turned blue only after 50-100 meters from the confluence point. The Lukha, before meeting the Lunar, is drained by several streams originating from Sutunga, where the coal mining activities are very high.

What renders the river blue? Why does it turn blue only after the confluence and what does it indicate? As of now neither we nor anyone else has convincing and conclusive answers. However, we would like to reiterate that irrespective of what gives the blue colour, it is an uncontested fact that the rivers are poisoned to death.

Brown to green to blue: transition before death

On our way back to Shillong, after wrapping up our survey, several questions haunted us. If the mines have caused such havoc to such large number of people, how come the mines still thrived? What role does and can the environmental regulating bodies like the pollution control board and Union Ministry of Environment and Forests play? After going through extensive literature on mining and the laws regulating it and talking with various actors holding direct and indirect stakes in mining, what we understood and learnt was deeply disturbing.

Operating at a micro-scale level with thousands of small mines spread across the length and breadth of the state, mining has no doubt contributed to the income of many indigenous people. But this lone silver lining is highly contested today. At its very best, mining activities in Meghalaya are nestled in vague and ambiguous space operating in a nebulous and hazy gap lying somewhere between the legitimate and illegitimate. At its worst, however, it sustains itself on child labour, exploitation, mafia, rampant corruption, administrative irregularities and indiscriminate flouting of legal and environmental regulations, resulting in damage and disruption of natural and socio-cultural environment.

According to the Indian Coal Mines Act of 1973, coal is classified as a major mineral in India, implying that only a public sector undertaking or its associate bodies (sub contractors) can mine an area once it obtains the mandatory licence from the Central government. This means that practically all coal mines in the Jaintia Hills, since they are unregistered, are illegal. Yet the trade of this illegally extracted coal is under an indirect control of the Indian state since taxes and royalties are collected both by the Central and the state government. The situation in the limestone mining and cement industries, too, is no better, a leading environmental scientist who was formerly the chair of the Expert Appraisal Committee of Meghalaya, told us. According to him, most cement companies prefer to install small but multiple factories so as to avoid an environmental impact assessment (EIA).

However, once established, they increase their output capacity which then only require a clearance from the Central government. EIAs in Meghalaya, like elsewhere, remain a cruel joke. Apparently, a multi-national cement giant while in the process of setting up a factory in Jaintia Hills, in its EIA reported the presence of the flame lily (Gloriosa superba) although it occurs only in and around the Western Ghats in India. The company still managed to get the clearance after a second application after correcting the mistake. The above example and the Lafarge controversy, which was highly publicised due to the public interest petition against it in the apex court of India, amply exhibits the culpable nature of the industrial establishment.

Coal laden trucks over Lukha in Sonapur—thousands of them ply across NH 44 daily

Numerous civil rights and human rights activists, other NGOs and eminent personalities from the state have been highlighting such issues for a long time but the debates and the dissent are fragmented over the various issues or are just too small to capture the imagination of the state or the nation. But the sudden bluing of the river has in some way galvanised a larger audience, at least within the state, to think and talk about the issue. However, the fate of the rivers Lukha, Prang, Myntdu remains grim in the absence of political will or united public opinion, determined to set the wrongs of mining right. This is diametrically opposite in uranium mining issue, where people were united in their protests—student bodies, village councils, political establishments, press, local intelligentsia and the middle class—perhaps because the risk of hazards and possible impacts can be very high. But isn’t it also true that the coal mining has also wreaked havoc in terms of issues concerning health, local economy, cultural traditions, demography, biophysical environment? The rivers turning blue, perhaps then, is mother nature’s righteous indignation at the very people who, in spite of possessing the power to determine the destiny of the land, sadly, chose to destroy it.

Rajkamal Goswami and Allwin Jesudasan are affiliated to ATREE, Bengaluru and can be reached at rajkamal@atree.org

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  • Congrats! Rajkamal and Allwin

    Congrats! Rajkamal and Allwin for bringing up a strong environmental issue through your article and making people aware what can ultimately happen to the natural resources like clean water and air which are very essential for life, if mining and other forms of destructive activities takes place at the rate it is taking place today. It is evident that the surface mining can lead to many environmental problems, like in the case of coal mining, the acid drainage leads to the precipitation of iron hydroxide in river waters making it non potable. Each day we read the newspaper reports on illegal mining which is being carried out all over India. But what are the authorities doing about it? The recent news on the illegal mining in the Makarana marble mines of Rajasthan shows that even the govt. officials are involved in such illegal activities. Here mining was done even below the railway track leading to its collapse! The authorities should take strong action against such activities and strict regulation should be made to prevent such extraction activities, lest what we can leave for the coming generations will be a dead crust of the earth, with nothing inside nor on the outside.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • A Very well researched & well

    A Very well researched & well written article.
    Kudos to Allwin Jesudasan & Rajkamal for a thought provoking write up.

    The photos of the unreal blue river and the sadness in
    Sina Suchiang's face bring out the intensity & realness of the issue.

    Looking forward to more articles like these.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • A well written article which

    A well written article which highlights the ground reality of development projects in India and their environmental impacts. I am working on a similar issue and find it really interesting to having read this article which is actually based out of the two researchers' experiences. Nice job Rajkamal and Allwin.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • The article highlights an

    The article highlights an important issue that human society is suffering today and that is greed. I am happy that people from outside are writing about the issue. And also sad that our own people are almost quiet. Being a Khasi from Shillong I am very sad about the whole issue. And we cannot blame others for it. I hope my friends here had the passion of the authors. As long as the dirt donot reach our doorstep we donot complain. I think thats why there is silence in most places even today. And politics in Meghalaya is fought and played with coal and limestone money so the leaders won't do anything about it. Even KSU's attitude in this whole issue is questionable. But afterall KSU is also about politics so it is not surprising. My main concern is that is it possible to make the rivers alive again?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Well researched and well

    Well researched and well written article.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • A very original and diligent

    A very original and diligent effort to bring before us the exploitation of matchlessly beautiful land in our country. There are other countries which are not gifted with such breathtaking natural beauty and they must be lamenting over the fact that our country is doing such a bad job of protecting the ecology here. These natural resources and bio-diverse land is a world heritage and the government bodies should understand the fact that it is their responsibility to protect and nurture the land on behalf of the world. Don't let us down in front of the world.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Brother, why the river turns

    Brother, why the river turns blue when polluted?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Dear All, Thanks for the

    Dear All,

    Thanks for the solidarity. We need a group of people with a single minded commitment to reverse the current super-fast express trends of demolition, destruction and devastation.

    Dear Mr. Dkhar,

    Yes, the rivers can live again if source of pollutants is disrupted since it is a flowing ecosystem. With the right amount of time the river can replenish itself back to a state where the ecosystem would start nurturing life once again.

    Dear Saranya,

    Like we tried to articulate in the article, one is not sure about the exact reason or reactions which renders the river-water a deep aquamarine tinge. I am keeping track of the ongoing investigations and will be glad to share once and when something concrete emerges.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • very well written and

    very well written and comprehensive article. re: your comment to Bah Dkhar, i would say in general, yes, rivers can be restored, however this takes some work as well, especially if mercury and other heavy metals get into the soil. Also, given that most rivers in the region are increasingly suffering from sedimentation, oil and grease washoff and othr pollution, the fish populatoins are undoubtedly coming under greater stress. So the repopulation of a reclained river by fish requires some form of exsite conservation efforts. Which is challenging for fastwater fish like the masher, which are found in the area.

    Re: rivers turning blue, we'd need to research this, see if there exist such problems elsewhere in the world, as cement is made everywhere. In the US, the EPA finally agreed to regulate mercury emissions from cement plants after a lot of fight from citizens and NGOs. Claims by Meghalaya dpty minster for mining and geology, that cement plants are not responsible for river pollution were just based upon a visit. There are many ways in which fly ash, a byrpoduct of cdment manufacture can leach into groundwater which then enters rivers. Hope this research can be carried on, and solutions found to at least treat the wastes and not pollute rivers.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Could the mining be due to some sort of (blue) algal bloom which happens after the right nutrients are available in the water at the confluence of the river and the algal activity flourishes.
    The pattern matches a general algal bloom which kills all the riverine life.
    The bloom also goes off after the nutrients are diluted enough after the monsoons.
    (off-course its arm chair investigation) but while reading the article this somehow latched to my mind.

    Saddening to read the destruction of such a Pristine riparian ecosystem.

    Posted by: Sainath Zanwar | 4 years ago | Reply