WHEN STATE governor B R Bhagat cancelled plans for two major cement plants and banned limestone mining near main roads and tourist sites, he warned, "No one will be allowed to play with the ecology of the environmentally fragile state of Himachal Pradesh."
Now, the environment has become a political football between the ousted Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state government and Bhagat, with the focus on the economic benefits versus environmental costs of mining to the state and to the ecologically sensitive Himalayan region because mineral extraction is certain to create even larger problems.
"Polluting industries and mining," Bhagat told Down To Earth, "are not in the interests of Himachal Pradesh. The hills are too fragile to support these destructive activities." He warned that any ecological degradation in the hills would also affect the plains.
But irate members of the erstwhile BJP government, who had put together an ambitious plan for a series of mega-cement plants and associated limestone mines (Down To Earth, January 15, 1993), dismiss Bhagat's actions as politically motivated. Former irrigation and health minister Vidya Sagar heaped scorn on the Congress party's position on the issue and vowed that if the BJP returns to power in the state, it will reinstate all the projects that have been withdrawn.
Accusing the Congress of playing up the environmental angle for political gains, Sagar says, "It is their (Union) environment minister Kamal Nath who sanctioned the projects with so much fanfare last year. Now, they want to withdraw the projects. Did they sanction the projects without any technical assessment? It is clear the Congress is apprehensive of losing popular support if the BJP gets the kudos for initiating such massive job-creating projects."
Bhagat denies the BJP allegations and insists, "Politics is not involved in this decision. Of the four proposed projects, licences have been given only for a new cement plant and an expansion plan for an existing plant. We are not withdrawing those licences. But at the same time, we will not allow the other two mega-plants to come up in Sundarnagar and Chamba."
Bhagat does not seem unduly perturbed about the revenue loss because of the cancellation. "An eco-friendly enterprise like tourism should be the hallmark of hill development," he maintains. "If promoted in the proper manner, tourism can compensate for any revenue loss from mining and cement plants."
Limestone mining in the state has been a contentious issue for years, but the latest ban "to check aesthetic pollution" -- as Himachal Pradesh chief secretary S Mukherji puts it -- gives it a new dimension. The issue is complex because the rift is not between environmentalists and miners alone: village communities are also split, with some arguing for badly needed income and others warning of dire, long-term, ecological effects. And, villagers in the vicinity of mines complain their livelihood is being given less consideration than tourist sensitivities.
The mining lobby, predictably, is critical of the move and mine-owner V K Walia says, "Road-building and other forms of construction are far more intensive than limestone mining, but nobody is bothered about the amount of waste such activities generate."
The passionate arguments relating to mining make it clear that the environment-versus-economics debate is still very much alive in this Himalayan hill state, whose economy is based largely on the exploitation of natural resources. The fears -- and hopes -- resulting from a total ban on mining are not mere speculation: They are rooted in the experience of Dehra Dun, in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, where environmental pressure succeeded in forcing miners out in 1985. In fact, the Dehra Dun mining ban was a key factor responsible for the mining boom in Himachal's Sirmaur district, the state's major limestone belt.
Much is at stake in Himachal Pradesh: Its proven reserves of limestone amount to more than 550 million tonnes. Last year, more than 800,000 metric tonnes of limestone was extracted, half of which was utilised by industries within the state. Mining is second only to excise and sales tax as the state's revenue-earner, generating about Rs 6 crore of direct revenue last year, with another Rs 2 crore coming from road and toll taxes on the movement of minerals. Of this total, limestone mining alone contributed about half.
For residents in the limestone belt, mining offers jobs, including loading and transport. In addition, mining leases relate to either private land or common land where local people have grazing rights. This means that the leaseholder has to pay compensation to either the owner or the rightholder for each tonne of limestone extracted, plus pay 25 paise per tonne to the village panchayat to finance development. Panchayats protested strongly when some leaseholders recently refused to pay up.
Village representatives contend this finance is vital because "the government has done little for us. It is only our organisational efforts that have made it possible for our children to study in the schools we have built and for our people to be more mobile due to the better communications facilities we have provided." One example of the benefits of this finance is in Sirmaur where the truck owners' association runs buses bought with the proceeds of tolls collected from limestone-carrying trucks.
Mining is a recent activity in the Sirmaur area and miners from the mid-1970s recall the amazement of local people at the removal of the white stones. Even in the early 1980s, there were barely six quarries, apart from those run by the government-owned Cement Corporation of India (CCI), which owns about 70 per cent of the mined area in Sirmaur. But by 1987, about 68 leaseholders were operating in the area, most of them outsiders with capital.
Two developments in the mid-1980s -- the ban on mining in Dehra Dun and the decontrol of cement marketing in 1986 -- boosted mining in Himachal Pradesh. Miners and contractors displaced from Dehra Dun came to Sirmaur and several small cement plants were set up there to mine small deposits. The local people quickly learned of the economic value of limestone and their involvement increased when they were encouraged to take up short-term permits to quarry large limestone boulders unearthed during road excavations or small deposits left outside mining lease plots. There was strong opposition when the state government attempted to discontinue the system of short-term permits and permit-holders formed a union.
Initially, the mining wing of the department of industries paid little attention to the selection of sites for leasing. Areas of upto 4 bighas, often in the middle section of the hill, were allotted. This made strip-mining in top-down fashion difficult as it required removal of considerable overburden in the form of soil and shale found above deposits of limestone. In addition, short-term leases (5-10 years) discouraged leaseholders from developing infrastructural facilities.
Debris was invariably dumped into drainage channels or thrown over slopes because removal was otherwise expensive. Debris from Kamraon mine is reported to have choked a nearby drainage channel and affected water supply to about 1,000 people. Elsewhere in Sirmaur district, villagers report choked drainage channels have caused flash floods or increased the chances of their occurrence. Villagers also complain that their ginger, paddy, potato, and turmeric crops are small due to the erosive impact of the mines. Says Avdesh Kaushal of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, "Ecological audits will show that the villagers are losing their livelihood."
Matters came to head when debris dumped in a channel near Sangraha village in Sirmaur washed onto farms and damaged crops. In 1987, angry villagers took the miners to court, which brought all the limestone mines in Sirmaur within the scope of the case and thereby made it into one of the country's most controversial environmental legal battles. Four years later, in 1991 the Shimla high court ruled that mining should continue, but with adequate environmental safeguards.
Other villagers, too, were concerned about the effects of mining and the panchayats of Kandoh, Sara and Kal demanded the quarries be closed because their houses were being damaged by vibrations from blasting. Their complaints were confirmed by a court-appointed team headed by Kaushal, which noted blasting had greatly weakened rocks and slopes, increased the risks of landslides and some huts had already been damaged by landslips below the mines. In addition, lush forests had disappeared and grasslands near quarries had been damaged.
There have been warnings of even worse to come. "If a 951-m high hill is reduced by quarrying to 600 m, as could happen in the captive mines owned by CCI at Rajban in Sirmaur," says Kausal," the sub-watershed of the Giri river -- a tributary of the Yamuna and a major drainage channel in the area -- will be devastated."
The local mining lobby consistently dismissed environmental concerns as sensationalist and exaggerated. Says R Tiwari, manager of the Baldwa mines: "The area under limestone mining is too small to make an impact of the magnitude projected by environmentalists." Mining leases, he noted, cover only 889 ha -- or 0.31 per cent of the land area -- of Sirmaur district and only 25 per cent of the total lease area is being mined.
Remarkably, little has been done despite the hue and cry over environmental fallouts, to assess the ecological damage and define a safe upper limit for mining. Even four years of litigation was unable to generate sufficient information on the environmental impact of limestone mining.
S Juneja, member-secretary of the Himachal Pradesh State Pollution Control Board, concedes the mining plan prepared by Roorkee university for CCI, which has the largest mining area, contains only "a modicum of scientific assessment of the impact of mining on drainage and pollution levels." The Roorkee report named Nadi, Sara and Kandon as the villages most affected by dust, with lime kilns and the movement of loaders, bulldozers and dumpers adding to the dust level. The report identified 11 springs in the area and warned, "Because of the mining operations, discharge of some springs may be adversely affected." However, the report did not find any appreciable difference in silt-load data for the Giri river, between pre- and post-mining periods.
State government officials stress the importance of scientific mining and proper rehabilitation of mining sites. Says Arun Sharma, a geologist in the mining wing of the Himachal department of industries, "It is unrealistic to say no to mining. Instead, the focus should be on scientific management of mines. If a ban is the only solution to environmental problems in the hills, then stop all mining activities right away. But if mining should continue, then let us have more constructive dialogues with environmentalists."
And,Subash Sharma, state geologist responsible for enforcing the state's mining plan adds, "Scientific mining is the only option for forest-based development which Himachal has followed so far." Given the natural and infrastructural constraints, Himachal cannot go in for large-scale industrialisation."
But environmentalists think otherwise. Says Kaushal: "If mining is allowed to continue, Sirmaur will turn into a desert in four years. Large-scale quarrying of stones in the sensitive ecosystem of the Himalaya will disturb the drainage system and the fine-tuning of the ecology."
Environmentalists also have little confidence in the effectiveness of measures intended to ensure safe and scientific mining. Says Kaul, "I do not advocate a total ban on mining in the Himalaya. But we are compelled to propose a total ban on mining in Sirmaur in view of the total mess there, despite the mining rules."
And, Kaushal agrees, saying: "Even CCI mines evade rules. Instead of using haulage roads, they throw extracted material down the slope for collection from the lower roads in order to cut transportation costs." CCI was also accused of dumping its overburden on the slope descending to the Kandu nalla and failing to erect check dams to confine debris. Other smaller, privately-owned quarries in the area continue to operate in an ad hoc manner.
Unskilled miners pay little attention to mining guidelines, opting instead for methods that appear easy and cost little. Kaul says, "They mine in total disregard of the Metalliferous Mines Regulations, 1961. Ignoring the norm of systematic strip mining, they picked and carried the best and left the rest as waste." Contrary to the rules, he notes, mining was done in a bottom-top fashion, proceeding upwards from the base of the hill along a dangerous slope angle of 60-80 degrees. This created large overhangs, which could topple at any moment.
"The quick-quarry approach has been so popular that high blasting charges are used," says Kaushal. "The miners blast beyond permissible levels, causing dust and noise pollution." Generally, 400-420 gm of explosives are used per hole, when the approved charge is 140 gm, he adds.
Fear of ban
On the other hand, litigation has made many mine-owners take the rules seriously, for fear of provoking a total ban. Irrespective of size, all mines must have a mining plan that includes bench terracing to check debris flow, construction and widening of haulage roads with easy gradients, maintenance of safe distance of mining activities from roads and the establishment of plantations around quarry sites. CCI and Baldwa mines and a few others in the district show definite signs of improvement.
The administration, however, continues to find it difficult to enforce the rules, provoking scepticism over the effectiveness of enforcement agencies. Several agencies are involved: The state pollution control board monitors pollution levels, the office of the state geologist enforces the mining plan, the ministry of environment and forests conducts environmental assessment studies and the Indian Bureau of Mines (IBM) monitors enforcement of laws and regulations.
Several cases of rule-evasion by lessees were reported recently. One person was found mining illegally under the pretext of carrying out a contract for widening a public works department road near Kamraon village. But no action was taken because he had political clout. Collective action can be more effective than government measures to check errant miners. The fear of possible closure of mines is so great that the miners are willing to bring law breakers among themselves to book on their own. Recently, the Sirmaur miners' association imposed a penalty on a defaulter of mining rules and fined two lessees.
But local collective action is often foiled by corrupt authorities. Lamented Laik Ram Tomar of Kamroan village, "The second time the miners' association tried to act, the culprit got away with political help. We can help in policing, but we need honest help from the department."
There are other grouses, too. Jagmohan Bhardwaj, of Pamta village, says, "Clandestine blasting is carried out very close to the tunnel of the Giri hydropower project." He also alleges that "as mining leases are not easily obtainable, some people get permits from the agricultural department to develop agricultural terraces and use them to mine small deposits."
Local mine-owners claim the rules are used by mining inspectors to blackmail them and Kamroan villagers ask pointedly, "How is it that the mining officer cancels our transit permit on the grounds that the pit mouth is higher than the permissible limit and the very next day renews the permit on the grounds that he is satisfied with the height? Is it possible to reduce the height of the pit mouth overnight?"
Leaseholders make it clear that without proper institutional support systems, the safeguards will only remain on paper. They feel the major bottleneck is the unavailability of institutional finance to implement the mining plan. "Institutional finance can come only if mining gets the status of industry," says Waha, who is preparing a proposal for facilitating institutional loans for mining. "If this does not happen, then only the rich will be able to afford to stick to all the clauses of a mining plan. But the small leaseholders who are mostly locals, will be left out."
Small leaseholders complain that even the preparation of a mining plan has become cumbersome and expensive. Private consultants have mushroomed, demanding exorbitant fees to prepare plans. One leaseholder also alleged, "The official-consultant nexus is such that the mining plans that are made by the state mining department at nominal rates come back repeatedly for revision, whereas those made by private consultants are cleared immediately by the IBM."
Much emphasis is being laid now on the rehabilitation of quarried sites. But leaseholders complain that most of the suggestions are unrealistic. "We have been asked to plant trees around quarry sites, but it is impossible to grow trees in limestone. Nobody tells us what species can grow on these skeletal soils," says Chattar Singh Tomar, a leaseholder from Kamraon village. The miners also don't know how to preserve the fertility of soil removed from quarries and collected in pits.
Rehabilitation information propagated by IBM and other agencies does not reach the small leaseholders. Asks one official, "How can we expect small miners to comprehend suggestions from visiting officers of IBM, Dehra Dun, on how to use bacteria and insects to preserve soil fertility?" And Jalam Singh Fauji, another Kamraon leaseholder, complains, "Sometimes we are told about tree species that do not occur here."
For villagers, the mining dilemma is acute. While there have been local environmental protests against mines, there has also been resistance to attempts to ban mining because of the perceived benefits. "It would not be as easy to implement a ban here as it was in Dehra Dun, where local involvement in mining was minimal. The spin-offs from mining in the trans-Giri area are considerable," says Tiwari.
The villagers' stake in mining in Himachal is so high that only a few of them are ready to concede its negative impact. "There is no environmental problem in our area. We get the same amount of rain," was the defensive answer of Zati Ram. And comments Heera Singh, "After quarrying of all stones, the place will become a huge maidan (parade ground) on which we can spread soil and start cultivation."
A number of villagers like Laik Ram Tomar concede mining can be damaging, but they say it must be allowed to continue. "The court case has generated considerable awareness. But mining must not stop. We will mine the way we are asked to do." The voices of dissent are mostly from villages that don't gain from mining. Complains Jagmohan of Pamta village, "We are still without clothes, while a few rich mine-owners from outside are cornering the benefits."
Politically, the mining lobby may emerge as an important electoral factor in Himachal Pradesh, alongside the apple and forest contractor lobbies. When the environmental controversy broke out in Himachal Pradesh in the late 1980s, none of the major political parties in the state supported the criticisms. Indeed, politicians vied with each other to secure mining leases for their favourites in order to create a vote bank. The lone political protest came from Shyama Sharma, the Janata Dal (S) assembly member from Nahan in Sirmaur, and a few of her supporters. But even Sharma does not favour a total ban on mining, counselling instead, "There should be a blanket ban on mining for at least 10 years so that nature is able to revive and regenerate. And then it should be done on scientific lines,".
As mining issues are already on Himachal's political agenda, if enforcement systems are not strengthened and the support of mining's beneficiaries obtained to ensure adoption of adequate safeguards, the hills will go the same way as the trees.