Indian farmers pay high price for mining boom

Farmers watch helplessly as iron dust and mining mud dry up the springs on which they depended.

Powered by automated translation

NEW DELHI // The sugarcane on Rama Velip's farm is darker than it should be, stained by the iron dust that blows from hundreds of mining lorries that pass through the south Indian village every day.

"I see red everywhere," said Mr Velip, whose village lies along the transport route from a series of iron and manganese mines to a cluster of smelters and refineries. "It's not just the dust. Mud from these mines gets washed down the Zuari River and trickles into my fields."

The 49-year-old farmer has lost more than half his harvest every year since India's mining boom began in the early 2000s, watching helplessly as iron dust leeched moisture from his cane plants and mining mud dried up the springs on which he depended.

Over the past 10 years, he has seen the price of iron go from US$10 (Dh36.7) per tonne to $130. He has also watched as his wife and two of his three children have become asthmatic.

The plight of Mr Velip's family is shared by thousands of people in the states of Goa and Karnataka, where irresponsible mining has damaged the health of thousands of people, interfered with their livelihoods and poisoned the water, according to a human rights group that blamed the troubles on a systematic failure of governance.

In a report released yesterday, the New York-based Human Rights Watch blamed the Indian government for failing to enforce key human rights and environmental safeguards in the mining industry.

The 70-page document found that existing laws have "effectively left mine operators to supervise themselves" and described in detail how regulations rely heavily on dubious assessments of the environmental effect proposed mining projects would have.

The report studied communities in Goa and Karnataka but said the troubles there reflected problems in the mining industry across India.

"Mining operations often cause immense destruction when government doesn't exercise proper oversight," said Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "India has laws on the books to protect mining-affected communities from harm, but their enforcement has essentially collapsed."

Ritwick Dutta, a lawyer who heads the EIA Response Center, an environmental group, noted that all mining assessments must be cleared by the federal Ministry of Environment and Forests' appraisal committee - until recently headed by ML Majumdar, who sits on the board of at least four mining companies.

"There are glaring conflicts of interest throughout the system," Mr Dutta said. "For instance, these assessments are conducted by hired consultants [paid by the mining companies]. That's why no mining project in this country has ever been rejected."

Experts have also questioned the criteria for environmental assessments.

"They are based on data collected over just three months," said Sujeet Dongre, head of the Centre for Environment Education, which is studying mining in Goa. "For mining operations that will last several decades, seasonal changes at the site need to be incorporated - which is not possible without at least a year's data."

The Indian mining industry, which produced about US$44 billion (Dh161.48) of minerals in 2010-11, has been overrun by corruption scandals in recent years. A bill on mining regulation, which proposes profit sharing between firms and local communities, remains blocked in parliament.

For now, many farmers like Mr Velip are considering going into the trucking business.

"Our fields keep drying up, and so many people in my village have switched from farming to trucking for the mines," said Velip, speaking over telephone from Goa.

"But what will I do if I take a loan of 1.5 million rupees [Dh99,000] to buy that truck and the government finally agrees to shut down these mines?"