Two years ago, Vasudeo Balwant Desai of Kalne village in Maharashtra's Sindhudurg district had 10 cashew trees that fetched him a good income. Today, five of them have died as waste from an adjacent mine is poisoning his land. Sampada Desai, the woman sarpanch of Kalne and two other villages, can only watch helplessly as excavators and earth movers gouge the lush green mountainside.
Hundreds of villagers in the Sawantwadi-Dodamarg area, opened to mining in 2007, face an end to their way of life. Their only hope lies in a directive from the Ministry of Environment and Forests, or MoEF, in October 2010, which put an eightmonth moratorium on 49 mining leases given earlier. The ministry has asked the state to review the leases as these were allegedly based on faulty environmental impact assessments, or EIAs.
But the villagers know that the excavators cannot be kept at bay for long. Politically connected miners are hungry for the iron ore, manganese and bauxite that lie beneath the forests. In their trail will follow hunger. The villagers have so far been completely self-sufficient in meeting their food and water needs. But the mining will wipe out reserved forests, fruit orchards and crystal-clear streams.
On a visit to the area, BT's first halt is at Dongarpal, a small village in Sawantwadi taluka at the southern end of the district. The nearby forest abounds in wildlife, including the shekru or Indian giant squirrel, which is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of endangered species. Dongarpal is among the 30 villages sitting on land leased out to mining companies.
Dongarpal, with a population of just 325, covers 350 hectares (ha), of which 319 ha have been leased out for mining. Ladu Gavas, a former sarpanch who owns cashew plantations, says 80 per cent of Dongarpal's income comes from cashew. The rest comes from coconut and areca nut.
The villagers also grow vegetables, rice and millet for their own use. "On an average, the village earns up to Rs 1.25 crore a year from all sources. Cashew itself earns us Rs 80 lakh a year," says Gavas. "Almost all of us have land."
The 49 leases cleared included 30 in Sawantwadi-Dodamarg, the last densely-forested areas in Sindhudurg. These 30 threaten 200 sq. km of forests mostly owned by village communities.
The 5,207 sq. km Sindhudurg district, which gets its name from the sea fort built by the Maratha ruler Shivaji in 1664, serves as an elephant and tiger corridor, linking two sanctuaries in the state and a tiger reserve in Karnataka. It has a green cover of 49 per cent, the highest in the state. Sindhudurg ranks 10th in Maharashtra by per capita net district domestic product. The literacy rate is 80 per cent. People restrict their farming to flat land near water sources and avoid clearing forests.
Asaniye village, in a valley of cashew, coconut, mango and betel nut plantations, is similarly selfsufficient. Nearly 55 streams run through it and it has 389 ha of private forests. "We do not buy even rice, pulses and vegetables from outside," says Snehlata Damale, 26, a resident of Asaniye and a graduate in forestry who is preparing a public biodiversity register for Asaniye that village bodies are empowered to draw up under the Indian Biodiversity Act.
At Kalne, excavators have been at work for a year. Desai, the sarpanch, takes us to the terrace of her house. The view says it all: a long red gash in the green mountainside getting longer as excavators and dumpers work busily. "Every morning, the first thing I see through my window instead of the forests is the exposed red earth. Despite our fight against the system and the company, mining continues here," she says.
She adds that the mining firm did not mark its boundaries when it began work. Now, it is dumping debris in adjacent farmlands, flouting rules requiring miners to build a chain link fence and prevent pollution of the surroundings.
Every morning, the first thing I see is the exposed red earth ...Despite our fight against the system, mining continues here
Sampada Desai, Sarpanch
The mining will cut off the Kalne river, the villagers' lifeline. "Without it, we will not have any existence. We have never had to look beyond the village for anything," says Desai. Villagers say most leases were granted on the basis of biased EIAs prepared by private agencies. Satish Ghotge, a Kalne schoolteacher, says: "The EIA report said there is no water source within a 10-km radius of our village, when a river flows within 50 metres."
In January 2009, the MoEF allowed mining, power projects and quarries in Sindhudurg. On April 26, 2010, the state's industries department notified 130 industries that could be allowed in Sindhudurg. Curiously, the list does not mention mining, since it is apparently not considered an industry.
The miners have offered villagers large sums in exchange for their land and promised them jobs as well. Villagers who accepted the money were given contracts to operate the trucks that carry away the heaps of dug-up earth.
The Kalne mining site sports the name of Minerals & Metals Co., a 30-year-old company. But it is learnt that the lease is in the name of Samruddha Overseas Ltd, a new company owned by Vinay Patil, son of Rohidas Patil, a Congress leader and former minister. A Samruddha official in Mumbai claimed Minerals & Metals was not flouting any rules: the closest the mine boundary came to Kalne village was 600 metres, when the rules require just a 50 metres gap.
How do the Kalne mines continue to operate despite the MoEF moratorium? "The moratorium is not on mines operational prior to August 16, 2010," replies Valsa Nair, Maharashtra's environment secretary. Nair confirms a review of the 49 leases suggested by the MoEF is underway. So how are mining leases still being given? "I am told there are no mines in the wildlife corridor," she says.
The mine itself is illegal, going by the Indian Bureau of Mines' list as on January 1 this year. The list says Kalne mines plea to carry out mining was "rejected/returned" on December 15, 2009. Operations started here in September 2009. Nair says she is unaware of this.
Non-governmental organisations, or NGOs, say the nearby Redi port shipped out ore worth Rs 80 crore in 2010 from the region. Redi is home to mining companies like New Indian Mining and Gogte Minerals, which have been in the business for decades. At the Redkar Charitable Hospital outside Redi village, Dr Mohan Jagtap is studying the effects of mining on people's health. "Our research project is looking into health hazards, but we have not arrived at any conclusions yet," he says. However, most of the villagers have respiratory disorders, he adds.
New India Mining denies being the cause of any health problems. An official says the company has been operating in Redi for four decades and 90 per cent of its workers are locals. It has been taking good care of them, he claims.
NGO activists dif fer. "At Sindhudurg alone, we are talking of a Rs 25,000-crore mining industry. Mining companies never fill up the hole left behind or replant vegetation," says D. Stalin of Vanashakti, an NGO. The old players also blame the new ones for the mess. "All mining companies have to follow regulations such as sprinkling water to check dust levels, creating a green belt and avoiding inhabited villages. But the new companies are not adhering to these and are bringing a bad name to the industry," said an official of a mining company at Redi who did not want to be named.
Vaishali Patil of the Konkan Vinashkari Prakalp Virodhi Samiti, another NGO, questions how mining was allowed next to a reserved forest. "There is no buffer zone ...The boundary of the mine has not been marked," she says.
Environmentalist Madhav Gadgil, who is also Chairman of the Western Ghats Ecology Experts Panel, had suggested development with a human face in his draft report on Ratnagiri-Sindhudurg. Villagers are now awaiting his final report, and see a glimmer of hope in a recent MoEF directive asking all states to send in their proposals to demarcate ecosensitive areas or ESAs in and around national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and corridors, which would include a belt with a radius of 10 km around their outskirts. Dongarpal and 21 other villages have already petitioned the government to declare the region an ESA.
For now, it is a toss up between better EIAs and an ESA belt.