Just outside Sandur town in Bellary district, Karnataka, a narrow dirt track branches off from a winding, dust-laden road. It leads to the Hari Shankara Temple, which stands under the shadow of a hill. A stream runs past it. Legend has it the temple was established 600 years ago by Adi Shankaracharya. It’s a picture of serenity – until everything shudders because of blasts carried out by Karnataka government-owned Mysore Minerals Limited’s Subarayanahalli Iron Ore Mine (SIOM).
“There are two to three blasts every day,” the temple priest told Newslaundry. “Everything shakes when it happens.” He has also noticed that that the volume of water in the stream is gradually diminishing. A small statue of Nandi, Shiva’s mythological mount, spouts water from the stream into a tank. The quality of water, the priest alleges, is also deteriorating.
The Hari Shankara temple isn’t the only ancient temple threatened by mining activities in Sandur. Just a few kilometres away is the 1,200 year-old Kumaraswamy temple complex, in which one temple is dedicated to Lord Kumaraswamy (Shiva and Parvati’s younger son) and the other to Parvati. These are protected monuments and have been declared to be of national importance under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958. Like the Hari Shankara Temple, the Kumaraswamy complex too is less than a kilometre from SIOM’s boundary. Its walls were once the grey of stone, but are now red because of the dust that’s hanging in the air because of mining activities.
TN Shivakumar, a lawyer from Sandur who has been working to curb illegal mining, told Newslaundry that conducting mining operations this close to the temples is not allowed, as per the directions of the Supreme Court. “One kilometre area around the temple is core zone and further one kilometre area is the buffer zone,” he said.
Shivakumar is referring to the SC judgement in K Guruprasad Rao vs State of Karnataka in 2013, in which the apex court directed the state government to undertake the creation of core zones and buffer zones for the protection of “ancient monuments”. The SC constituted a “total ban of mining with or without blasting” in the core zones along with “implementation of immediate conservation measures”. It also held that while mining activities can be carried out in the buffer zone, but only under the supervision of an “expert body or agency”.
However, as we saw when we visited Sandur, the SC ruling is being blatantly violated and mining by SIOM is in full swing. Moreover, SIOM has failed to fully implement the reclamation and rehabilitation (R&R) plan drawn up by the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE) to ensure environmental damage caused by illegal mining is reversed.
R&R plans were put in place on SC’s direction after it banned mining in Bellary in 2011. Dr UV Singh, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (APCCF), who was a part of the Lokayukta investigation, is now a member of the monitoring committee that tracks the progress of implementation of R&R plans in Bellary. His work exposing the nexus between mine owners, politicians and the transport mafia made him a local legend. However, as part of the monitoring committee, his reputation has lost its gleam.
While each mine has its unique R&R plan, there are several common environmental issues all of them must address. The recommendations are chiefly aimed at stabilisation of areas where waste material is dumped (by constructing walls that will retain it). Also outlined are measures to control soil erosion in the lease areas through surface water management which involves building of check dams and settling tanks. Another crucial element of R&R plans is afforestation, which would help limit soil erosion and restore natural vegetation. Further, the plans require lessees to sprinkle water on roads leading to and from the mine, in order to tackle the dust which gets thrown up due to the movement of trucks.
Adequately following the R&R plan is essential for resuming mining operations, Singh explained. “If they (lessees) implement R&R plan around 70-80 per cent, then they can be allowed (to resume mining),” Singh said. He shared records with Newslaundry that show the official go-ahead for resuming mining has been given to 30 lessees in Bellary district, but only after they satisfactorily implemented their respective R&R plans. The lessees are supposed to inform the monitoring committee about the efforts being made to execute the R&R plans. “Lessee has to submit reports on a weekly basis,“ he told Newslaundry.
Although mining officials claim that the R&R plan has been completely implemented, there were few signs of its execution. There was hardly any tree cover visible at SIOM, despite the R&R plan directing afforestation be carried out over an area of 74.19 hectares within the lease area. Check dams for surface water management were also conspicuously absent. And then there is the dust. The haze in the area suggested that adequate sprinkling of water wasn’t being done on the roads leading to and from the mine.
Locals claim that the monitoring committee is simply content getting reports in Bengaluru. In Bellary, the situation is quite different from what the reports suggest. SIOM isn’t the only mine not implementing R&R plans, alleged Shivakumar. “No one is interested in reclamation and rehabilitation,” he said. AG Sreeshaila, district secretary of non-profit Jana Sangrama Parishath (JSP), said, “R&R is only on paper, not in the mines. Even public sector mines are not doing R&R till today.”
Singh, however, dismissed these allegations saying that the monitoring committee has personnel on the ground to “verify” whether R&R plans are being implemented.
With Singh unwilling to look into what locals in Bellary are alleging, at present there is no one to guard Bellary’s environmental and cultural heritage. Meanwhile, with each blast from SIOM, the walls of the Hari Shankara temple shudder and weaken.
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.