Making India's mining sector socially and environmentally viable

A government committee wants regime change to facilitate private investment in mining. What it is oblivious to is the need for more regulation to protect the environment and people displaced and impoverished. chandra bhushan, who travelled through some of the areas affected the most, looks at the options that can make the sector viable--industrially, socially and environmentally

By Chandra Bhushan
Published: Monday 30 April 2007

Making India's mining sector socially and environmentally viable

Down to EarthBy Chandra Bhushan

I learnt an important lesson on my travels in Orissa's Sundergarh and Keonjhar districts. One, the people of one of the most resource-rich areas of the country were also some of its poorest; and, two, this was because their land contained minerals that were important for industrial growth.

My trip was preceded by a visit from two social activists to our office in December 2006--Nicholas Barla of the Gangpur Adivasi Forum for Socio-cultural Awakening and Bharti Naik of the Lok Vikas Parishad, Sundergarh. They told me the reality of India's mining areas was far different from the way we saw it. They had many stories about the impact of mining on people's lives, livelihoods and environment. I had to go.

My trip began from Cuttack, down nh5a. The first destination was Sukinda, the country's chromite mining capital. That I was entering mining country became clear on the road from Chandikhol to Kalinganagar.Lined on both sides of the highway were stone crushers of every imaginable variety. Stone-crushing is a cottage industry in these parts.

We soon reached Bansadole village in Chakardharpur panchayat in Jajpur district, below a hill called Baghua--area of tigers. "There was a time when there were tigers here. Now there is only mining and stone-crushers," said Anant Mallick, a daily wage labourer at a stone-crushing unit. Three decades ago, springs from the hills irrigated the fields. But stone-crushing has taken its toll: springs and rivulets have dried up. "Noise and air pollution is acute," says Mallick. A few years ago the villagers had begun agitating against mining. But the unit-owners and their contractors crushed them too. Pushing on, we turned left from Kalinganagar along a state highway towards Sukinda.

Sukinda: Chromium country
Down to EarthThe road from Kalinganagar to Sukinda was tolerable half the way--then it got rough. Sukinda had nothing to show for the valuable chromite extracted from it for 70-odd years. Potholed roads, dilapidated houses, a scarred landscape, dust and contaminated water have been its reward.

Sukinda's chromite mines were in the news in the 1990s because of high discharge of hexavalent chromium (Cr+6), a highly toxic and carcinogenic substance into water bodies and the Damsala river, a tributary of the Brahmani. The Orissa government's Centre for Environment Studies (ces) and the Regional Research Laboratory (rrl), Bhubaneswar, part of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research network, investigated Cr+6 in Sukinda. Their 1999 report showed high amounts of Cr+6 in surface and groundwater samples, the soil, solid waste and wastewater from the mines and the food chain.

But nothing has changed. Mines continue to discharge untreated or partially treated wastewater. Treatment consists of using ferrous sulphate to convert Cr+6 into the less toxic trivalent chromium (Cr+3). But the large volume of wastewater generated makes complete treatment impossible. So no one, including Tata's chromite mines, supposedly the best of the lot, treats waste completely. What makes matters worse is the use of low-grade ferrous sulphate, which increases the iron content in treated water reducing the efficiency of treatment further. According to S N Das, head of the inorganic chemicals division, rrl, the cost of commercial grade ferrous sulphate is about Rs 70 per kg. But miners use ferrous sulphate that costs Rs 10-15/kg. The Tata mines, part of Tata Iron and Steel Company (tisco), use pickle liquor, a waste product from the steel plant in Jamshedpur. It contains ferrous sulphate, sulphuric acid and toxic metals. tisco does not disclose this.

Down to EarthDuring the ces-rrl study, the latter developed an electrolytic process to convert Cr+6 to Cr+3. Its techno-economic efficiency was proved. It remained unused since there was no regulatory pressure. When I reached the area, I checked water quality using a kit from Das. I did not detect Cr+6 till I reached a drain flowing out of a waste dump of the tisco mines. Thereafter, I detected Cr+6 in every water body in Sukinda.

Mixed reviews
Before pressing on to the mines I visited a few villages. The first stop was Ghushripada hamlet of Ransol, a tribal village. Tests confirmed residues of Cr+6 in the wells. Sarthi Mahapud, a dumper driver with a contractor for the tisco mines, told me the biggest problem in the area was the scarcity of clean water. People depended on the drain coming out of tisco except for drinking and cooking, for which they used groundwater. That had lower levels of Cr+6. Mahapud also complained about the pervasive dust. Blisters, nasal bleeding, tb and malaria were prevalent. Vinod Champia, another resident, told me about paralysis and goitre-like symptoms in animals. No one talked about cancer.

Next I went to Mahulkhal, a high-caste Oriya village. It had been adopted by the Tatas. The villagers gave the Tatas good press. Many of them worked in the mines. During the summers, the management provided drinking water. It also distributed medicines--even to those suffering from chronic diseases like tb. Dasrath Mahanto, a part-time contractor at the mines, was all praise. His only concern was that the mines were being mechanised and labourers were losing jobs. Ravi Narain Mahanto, a labourer, however, said agriculture had suffered. tb and malaria were the only diseases mentioned by the villagers.

No study
Down to EarthB N Mahapatra, a doctor who had worked at the mines, informed me that no serious health study had been done. A study by the Orissa Voluntary Health Association in the late-1990s found signs of Cr+6 poisoning. But it did not undertake extensive cancer-related investigation. Mahapatra added that the health impact on workers was difficult to track because of their fast turnover.

When I reached Tata's chromite mine, I met E Lakra, manager (quality assurance). He had an interesting spin on pollution. Most of the chromite ore from the mines was exported to Japan. It had a plant to wash the ore to increase its chrome content and reduce Cr+6. According to Lakra, Japan was strict about Cr+6, once rejecting a big consignment. Lakra now certified all consignments for Cr+6. He claimed wastewater from the Tata mines was treated, though my tests revealed the opposite.

Lakra blamed the Orissa Mining Corporation's (omc's) mines for not treating its wastewater and causing chromium pollution. omc's mines are, indeed, notorious. An officer of the Orissa State Pollution Control Board (ospcb) said the corporation's mines did not have consent to operate, but did so because they were profitable state government ventures.

Keonjhar: Contractor country
My next destination was Keonjhar. I took the district and forest road through the Daitri hills and Hadgarh sanctuary to reach nh215 at Harichandanpur. It was better than the highway. From a distance, I saw the Tata chrome refinery. I reached Keonjhar late, finding no accommodation. I was told there had been an explosion of contractors and traders. The hostelries were full.

Next morning was my first encounter with nh215.Down to Earth At its best, it was a narrow, metalled strip, a quarter of the width of the wheel base of the Bolero in which I was riding. At intervals were equally potholed bridges allowing the passage of a vehicle at a go. The saving grace was that from 7 am till 7 pm trucks were not allowed.

As I left Keonjhar, I saw a small airstrip. I was informed that a 20-seater shuttle was to start soon from Bhubaneswar to save miners the trouble of travelling along nh215. The flight operator, local newspapers wrote, was confident of filling every seat since taxis from Bhubaneswar were more expensive. From Keonjhar we reached Rimuli and took a left turn to Joda.

I had not imagined the road could get worse. We had to leave it and take to the fields, which was far more comfortable. Unfortunately, every now and then a shop or a house forced us to move back to the road. Two kinds of establishments ran successfully along the roads: dhabas and repair workshops, mainly for trucks. I met M D Sajjad, from Bihar. He had seven workshops.

I also met Ganesh Mahlakur and Susanto Makkur. Both drove trucks transporting iron ore from Joda to Paradip. They had severe back problems and spoke about the bribes they had to pay not only to the police, but to local villagers, who levied an 'inconvenience' tax because the trucks had ruined their fields and houses. Kasinath Mahato, a farmer from Batepur, Sukinda, told me his fields had been destroyed by the dust from the road, near which he lived before being forced to relocate. The 50-km journey from Keonjhar to Joda took us nine hours.

Illicit trade
Iron ore mining began in the 1950s in the Joda-Badabil area, which yields large quantities of iron ore and manganese. Every large business house worth its salt has a presence. While they earn fabulous revenues, the region itself remains underdeveloped.

The Joda-Badabil-Koera area has more illegal than legal mines. Mines are not operated by leaseholders; they sub-lease it to contractors, who in turn work the seams unremittingly. There are few signs indicating that a mine exists. A worker told me that for every truck of legal iron ore removed at least two illegal truckloads are also sold (see box: Lawless prospects). Worse, sub-subsistence wages, appalling working conditions, and disregard for the safety and health of workers are common.

In Koera I met Ranjit Kar, a social worker who worked with labourers on health and safety issues. He told me that tribal people called Koera chora bhuian, the land of theft, and miners doko, meaning dacoit.

Koera is one of the most mined blocks of Orissa and one of the poorest. Land has been wrested from tribal people for mines, ore crushers and sponge iron plants. The town doesn't have a rudimentary medical facility, leave alone water supply, sanitation and roads. Trucks and truckers dominate their lives.

I also met Madusudan Singh Mankee, a local boy who studied in the government school for tribal people and became a doctor. He came back to the Koera community health centre and remained there since 1993 and is revered for this. The centre has little by way of infrastructure or manpower. Last year an x-ray machine was installed but there was no one to operate it. The incidence of malaria was very high. "Other than malaria, tb, asthma and bronchitis have increased significantly due to high dust levels in the environment," said Mankee. "A few months back we had sent a patient to Bhubaneswar. We were told he had aids. We had no facility to check."

In this area, the topic of conversation invariably shifts between mines and roads. My conversation with Mankee was no different. Down to Earth"The pain suffered by pregnant women on these bumpy roads when they come for delivery is worse than the pain of delivery, so we try our best to reach their homes," he said.

Next was a visit to mines in the area. The mines in Koera I visited are owned by the Essel Mining and Industries Limited, part of the Aditya Birla group. These were as bad as the illegal ones. They were right in the middle of agricultural areas. Dumps were spread everywhere. It was raining; and I could see the red slush from the mine getting into the agricultural fields.

The worst part was the workers' houses: four to five feet high, they were just big enough to cram in a few people, in stark contrast to Essel's claims about 'peripheral area development'. And, as far as the big boys of mining are concerned, Essel is hardly unique in failing the places it mines and their people.

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