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'Ecological disaster': Aravalli mines causing NCR, Haryana, western UP desertification

By Bharat Dogra* 

Recent preliminary findings of important research conducted by the Central University of Rajasthan has identified over 31 hills in the upper Aravalli range that have disappeared during just the last 20 years or so. This has been recorded in the context of Naraina, Kilwar, Kotputli, Jhalana and Sariska (Rajasthan), with heights of 200 to 600 meters above sea level. The number of hills similarly affected in the lower and middle ranges of the ancient hills are many more.
This alarming rate of disappearance of hills has taken place largely due to indiscriminate mining and urbanization. It is shocking indeed that hills which had existed for tens of thousands of years can vanish so fast in just about 20 years. This will not only have very adverse local environmental impacts, in addition this will also be very harmful for the National Capital Region (NCR) as the sand and dust filled winds from desert areas will be able to lash the NCR area more and more once the protected cover of hills is gone, thereby spreading desertification to the NCR region as well as the fertile farmland adjacent to it in Haryana and Western UP. Already the intensity of dust storms in the NCR area has become more intense.
What is more, this is not an isolated case as the ecologically crucial hills of Bundelkhand region have also seen similar ravaging by indiscriminate mining at several places such as in Mahoba and Chitrakut districts. These mining belts are characterized by widespread ecological havoc, very adverse impact on farms and water sources in an area already affected by water scarcity as well as shocking exploitation of workers. Some time back this writer had visited some of these mining areas as a member of a team of the National human Rights Commission and it was shocking to see the condition in which the workers had to toil.
Coming back to the Aravalli Mountain Range, this extends for about 670 kms from Delhi to Ahmedabad, with most of its area in Rajasthan and Haryana. This is one of the oldest geological formations in the entire world. Yet it has taken only a few decades to damage it extensively, the single most factor responsible being indiscriminate mining and quarrying, mostly to meet the ever rising demand for construction stone and related materials. This has flattened several mountains that stood firmly for thousands of years and prevented the further spread of the Thar desert.
There is evidently a strong case for protecting the Aravalli mountain range from indiscriminate mining and deforestation. Some time back this writer studied the impact of stone mining in several villages of Neem Ka Thana area in Sikar district. What villagers told me was a shocking story of terrible ruin of farming, pastures and water sources. A river Kasavati had almost vanished. Blasting led to cracks in houses and stones being hurled dangerously far and wide. 
There had even been some deaths due to his. Not just workers but even several villagers suffered from silicosis and other dust related diseases. As their livelihoods based on farms and pastures were fast eroding, as daily life was becoming dangerous, as even houses were not safe, as water sources were being destroyed or depleted, people said with good reason that their right to life was badly threatened. However when they protested against this, they faced lathi blows and arrests.
In addition the villagers here spoke about another factor which is important in the context of several other areas of indiscriminate mining as well. They told me that an activist who opposed all this -- Pradeep Sharma from a family of freedom fighters -- had been murdered. More recently there have been reports from other parts of Aravalli region that even police officers who tried to check indiscriminate mining were not spared.
In particular attention may be drawn to the reports from Haryana of DSP Surendra Singh being mowed down by a stone dumper just a few weeks before he was due for retirement in Nuh district (Haryana).The fact that those indulging in illegal mining in these badlands do not hesitate to attack even police officials -- they have done this before too -- speaks volumes for their power and linkages at higher levels. 
Workers have been frequently employed in quarries, mines and stone crushers in very exploitative and unhealthy conditions
The police on their part say that they have registered a large number of cases of illegal mining and initiated action. The judiciary has also been quite active and several strong orders over the recent years testify to its efforts to check illegal mining and encroachments to protect the Aravallis. Several citizen groups, environmental and wild life groups too have been active on this front. Despite all this, unfortunately, ecological havoc in the Aravallis has still continued.
In addition we must look at some other factors too. Workers have been frequently employed in quarries, mines and stone crushers in very exploitative and unhealthy conditions. Organizations like the Delhi based Bonded Labor Liberation Front and its Alwar Branch have been involved in rescuing several workers who were toiling in conditions of bondage.
Hence apart from environmental issues, justice based issues should also be considered. This was highlighted last year when in the middle of adverse weather and pandemic related difficulties, over 10,000 houses were demolished in Khori, district Faridabad, causing immense distress to working class people, in the name of removing encroachments. 
However a different approach could have been to make the working class communities responsible for greening some of the surrounding area, probably also making them some wage payment also for this from the afforestation budget, in the process contributing to protection of environment as well as to protecting the shelters and livelihoods of weaker sections. No one can green the area as well as the people living right there, particularly women.
Similarly when parks and sanctuaries have been created in the Aravalli region, this has often involved the displacement of people (particularly tribal communities) or substantial erosion of their livelihood prospects. Why not instead provide them more livelihoods in the protection of wild life and its habitats?
In areas that have been devastated by mining and then abandoned, why not launch big ecology rehabilitation drives that can provide very satisfactory livelihoods to people?
There are several badly degraded forests in the region. Communities from tribal groups and various other weaker sections can be involved in regeneration of these forests, initially paying them for this work and later when mixed indigenous species forests, which resemble natural forests of the region, have grown, they can be given rights over the sustainably harvested minor forest produce of these forests, while at the same time giving them responsibility for protecting these forests and its wild life.
Another consideration is that of making available construction material on a sustainable basis. While areas which have suffered heavy ecological damaged caused by over-exploitation in the past deserve to be completely rested from mining at least for some years and need ecology-rehabilitation schemes as well, in other areas systems should be created for sustainable practices of obtaining limited quantities of stones or other minerals. 
There may be excessive demands in market during some phase for construction materials, but in various parts of these hill ranges the supply should not exceed what is sustainable, as decided in close consultation with local people. Similarly the technology should be the least disruptive for ecology, even if is slower or more labor-intensive. 
In fact labor-intensive methods should be preferred in the interests of more employment, as well as going slow on extraction. Clearly such choices can be made only in conditions of real decentralization, with much more decision making power vesting with the gram panchayats and particularly the gram sabhas, with access to expert advice on technology, environment and related issues. 
What is more, a certain share of the earnings should be kept aside for ecological rehabilitation. As mining continues at a relatively slow pace, it should be accompanied by well thought out efforts to increase greenery, including soil and water conservation and stabilization works, using this part of the earnings from mining.
In this way at least a part of the need for construction materials can be met, keeping away the illegal and indiscriminate, get-rich-quick practices used by the mining mafias and hence the criminalization of vast areas associated with the operations of these mining mafias can also be avoided. In addition, by following labor-intensive technology, more sustainable livelihoods can be generated. Any harm to agriculture, animal husbandry and water sources by mining, quarrying and stone crushers can also be minimized.
Such a development path is relevant not just in the context of Aravalli hills, it is also relevant in the context of saving other hill ranges such as those of Bundelkhand region which have been increasingly threatened by indiscriminate mining and deforestation.
---
*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include ‘Planet in Peril’, ‘Man over Machine’ and ‘A Day in 2071’

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