Bellary’s red soil is inescapable – its dust clings to your clothes, settles into the creases of your skin and overwhelms you. Blink, and it’s in your eyes. Breathe, and it enters your very being. Red is the cloud of dust that hangs over the region as seemingly never-ending convoys of trucks transport iron ore through villages like Kamthur, in Sandur Taluk of Bellary. Rising from unpaved roads, this redness films the vegetation, adds a layer on village mutts and standing bikes in villages, and changes the colour of the distressed walls of the local temple.
For locals, the dust is pestilence. “People fall sick due to the dust,” said Ponnappa Malagi, a resident of Kamthur. The 15 villagers gathered around him nodded in agreement.
Kamthur is like an island surrounded by a sea of mines. There are no roads leading to this small village, which is a five-hour journey from Bellary City. The only way to reach it is by private vehicle. According to census data, Kamthur has a population of about 3,600 people with 701 households, all of whom are farmers. Malagi, who is about 40 years old, told Newslaundry, “This was a forest area with hillocks. There were lakes, ponds, pasture lands and a cemetery. But the miners used everything.”
Till the 1970s, Bellary boasted of a lush, green forest cover of about 1,38,000 hectares. The district was home to a variety of flora and fauna, many of them of high medicinal value. According to National Environmental Engineering Research Institute’s (NEERI) findings, Bellary’s ecology includes 194 plant species, 16 mammal species, 145 species of birds and nine species of reptiles. It was this ecology and biodiversity that made the state government consider promoting Sandur taluk in Bellary as a hill station in the ’60s and ’70s.
Between 2002 and 2009, illegal mining boomed in this district and when it was finally stopped by a Supreme Court order in 2011, Bellary was left ravaged. By 2009, the forest area had depleted to 77, 200 hectares.
According to an audit report published by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India in 2012, illegal mining took a massive toll on the health of locals in Bellary. Diseases like tuberculosis (TB) and respiratory problems saw a dramatic rise in their incidence. In Sandur alone, incidence of TB increased to 88 from 45 between 2006 and 2010. In the same period, cases of respiratory disorders increased from 14,902 to 20,251.
“We are all troubled by asthma,” Malagi told Newslaundry. He said heart attacks are also prevalent as is allergic conjunctivitis. Another villager, Shanmukh Gowda, said, “There were thousands of buffalos earlier, but now hardly 50 buffalos are spotted. “They have been dying due to dust and by eating toxic substances,” he told Newslaundry. The CAG report of 2012 also pointed out the impact of illegal mining on animal husbandry. Encroachment by miners into grazing and farmlands led to nutritional deficiencies. The CAG report cites the findings from the 18th Census of livestock report published by the Deputy Director of Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Services in 2007. As per the report, the population of livestock in Bellary dropped significantly.
Source: Department of Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Services
The cattle would also be impacted by contaminated water, which increases risks of respiratory, digestive and reproductive problems due to the presence of manganese in water and air, the CAG report notes. Villagers say they now have to drink packaged milk because of the dwindling number of cattle.
Other than iron ore, Bellary also has manganese deposits, priming the district for manganese miners. Mining in this region has led to the prevalence of heavy metallic substances like hexavalent chromium, cadmium and nickel. The presence of these substances in the air could lead to increased risk of cancer to the people exposed to such contamination which in turn contaminates the commodities they consume. Excess manganese in air can cause neurological problems like stroke and paralysis.
Lakshmakkamma, 70, said that no matter what medicines she takes, she remains frail. “Despite taking injections and medicines every day, dust causes problems to us,” she told Newslaundry. “What happens next or doesn’t happen, is up to God.”
Making matters worse is the wretched state of healthcare in this part of the country. The nearest hospital to Kamthur is in Sandur, which is about two hours away. “We have trouble taking patients from here. There are instances of people dying en route,” Malagi said. Another villager piped up, saying one person had died of a heart attack while being driven to Bellary City. Their only support system is made up of “temporary doctors” like Dr Prakash Murali.
Murali was born in Bhujananagar village in Sandur taluk of Bellary, studied medicine at Bellary Medical College and practised in Sandur from 2000 to 2002. He then left for St Kitts where he currently lives. “Since last year, I have been conducting health camps here,” he told Newslaundry. Last December, Murali and 27 other doctors saw “around 2,000 patients”. They came across numerous cases of asthma, irritation in the eye, allergic bronchitis, dermatological issues and even arthritic problems.
“There are no specialised doctors in Sandur because no one wants to settle here,” said Murali. The absence of infrastructure affects everyone across social and economic strata. “I have money but if I want access to medical facilities here, I don’t have any here,” Murali said. “I am risking myself in my own place.”
In Kamthur village, as we sat and chatted with villagers at a local shop, tea was served to us. It was, however, red. “This is what goes into our stomach and lungs,” a villager told us and looked on in cynical amusement as we hesitated to take a sip.
This story is part of the NL Sena project. It was made possible thanks to Arnab Chatterjee, Rahul Pandey, Narasimha M, Vikas Singh, Subhash Subramanya, S Chattopadhyay, Ameya Apte and other members of the NL Sena. We want to do more such stories and you can help. Be a part of the NL Sena and do your bit to keep news independent and unafraid. Click here.