Labourers search for precious stones in shallow pit mines in the Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh state.  Photo by Gagan Nayar / AFP)
Labourers search for precious stones in shallow pit mines in the Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh state. Photo by Gagan Nayar / AFP)

Spread across 13 districts in the neighboring Indian states Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, the Bundelkhand region has suffered from drought for over a decade. This has caused an exodus by the majority of its working population who have left to seek a living in other parts of the country.

With agriculture starved by the drought and an absence of alternative industries, mining is one of the few sectors that provides a semblance of regular income to locals. This helps keep a lid on popular opposition to mining activities in the area, even when the industy is also a major cause of environmental degradation and disease in the region.

Silicosis, a form of lung disease caused by the inhalation of crystalline silica dust, is common among people who work in mines or live near stone-crushing plants.

But an insidious and even more harmful impact of mining is on the ground-water table of the region, say environmentalists who are angry that no substantial study has been undertaken to assess the  environmental impact of mining in Bundelkhand.

Mining-induced drought

The use of explosives to blast underground mines damages the aquifer—an underground layer of water-bearing permeable rock—causing the water to leak away and leading to depletion in the water table, said Dr. Anil K Gupta, associate professor at National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM).

“In developed countries, trenchless technology is being used for mining which has a minimum impact on surface and ground-water levels. Here in India, due to the destruction of surface with explosives, underwater aquifers develop cracks which affect the water-retention capacity of the aquifers,” says Gupta.

Gupta further says that even in India, people are aware of mining technologies that could minimize damage to the earth surface. But since their use are not legally enforced and no political will is available to promote their use, miners still resort to their old ways of working. The result is drought.

Drought, according to Gupta, has multiple dimensions in its occurrence and impact. It can be categorized as meteorological, hydrological, and agricultural depending upon its stages such as rainfall deficit, and level of impacts on the hydrological cycle and agro-ecosystems.

Another environmental blow from mining comes when large numbers of trees are felled while digging up hills for stone quarries.

Environmentalists say that a thick forest cover helps in the precipitation of rain, an important condition to ward off meteorological drought.

“Stone quarrying in Bundelkhand has been flattening hills with dense forests and ruining the chances of their afforestation, which is important for the formation of clouds and their precipitation,” says Dr. Abhimanyu Singh, assistant professor at Institute of Environment & Development Studies, Bundelkhand University.

Rendering lands barren

Mining’s impact is visible around stone-crushing units, where a large expanse of agriculture land is rendered barren due to the blanket of stone dust that emanates from the nearby crushing units and settles on the crops, trees, and water bodies.

“Dust produced by hundreds of stone crusher units being put up by various mining companies in the region settles on the leaves and stems of the plants and blocks the evaporation of water vapors,” Singh adds.

Rising demand for granite and other minerals for the construction industry along with the availability of cheap labor makes more and more private players lease mines in the region. This results in the denudation of hills making them look like construction sites.

Ashish Sagar, a social activist from Banda who has been fighting illegal mining in the area for a decade, said that miners openly flout rules while installing stone-crushers as they are hand-in-glove with government officials.

“Government rules permit installation of stone crushers at least 500 meters away from a highway. But you can see the units are very close to the roads. The rules say there should be boundary wall around the crushers, greenery and regular sprinkling of water to kill the dust, but hardly anyone follows the rules,” he says.

Bhartendu Prakash, a senior environmentalist operating in the area for the last four decades, and also a co-author of a government backed-study titled, Problems and Potentials of Bundelkhand With Specific Reference to Water Resource Base, concurs with the view that mining is one of the biggest man-made reasons behind the drought-like situation in the area.

Plunder as a business practice

“Granite business has now become a highly lucrative business because of which there is a furious urge to flatten the hills and also to remove the granite from deeper levels. As granite mining goes deeper, considerable quantities of groundwater flow to the areas of mining operation. This is considered a hindrance, hence, [it is] pumped out on the surface causing waste of large volumes of water,” says Prakash.

“Where the granite (is) detected under cultivable lands, the earth cover has been removed allowing it to get washed down to the rivers, rivulets and the dammed reservoirs and to silt these up. Mining starts with deforestation and leads to groundwater wastage, soil erosion, silting and pollution of rivers and streams,” Prakash adds.

Successive governments have pumped in billions of rupees in the region in the form of rehabilitation packages without producing any signs of tangible change.

“From a forest-based economy the region has changed into a mining-based economy,” said Gupta, adding that “Mining per se is not a bad thing but to what extent it should be allowed and what technology should be deployed must be studied and debated. It’s high time a comprehensive study was initiated.”