In the mining town of Hospet in Karnataka’s Bellary district, clouds of red dust no longer billow from the trucks speeding between mine face and factory. But the enforced calm has also shattered Shahina Banu’s biggest dream.
An illiterate woman in her late 20s, all she wanted was for her two small children to be educated. As income surged during the iron ore mining boom in 2008-10, her aspirations also rose and she and her driver husband sent their boys to an English-medium school that cost Rs 1,100 a month for each child.
Even during the downturn after the state banned exports in July 2010, she had been able to scrape enough money together to pay the fees. But the total ban on mining by the Supreme Court in July this year put her husband out of work and ended their children’s schooling altogether.
“At one time, I used to pay Rs 25,000 in one go for their school, now I don’t even have Rs 25,” she said. “Even getting food is difficult, let alone their studies.”
At Taranagar village, in the vicinity of NMDC Ltd’s Donimalai mines, almost every household had sons, fathers and even grandfathers working as drivers or operators at the mines. As the jobs have dried up, every family in Taranagar has been forced to cut down on food and school expenses.
“I earn Rs 75 a day working in a boating resort,” said Neelamma, in her late 30s. “When I am sick, I am scared to tell my employers as they could sack me because even their business is not running well.”
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Neelamma has four children, but is educating only one at a government school as she can’t afford to buy books and uniforms for all of them, in sharp contrast with the times when incomes were comfortably high enough for parents to send their children for private tuitions.
Both Banu and Neelamma say couples in every household now eat just two meals a day to make sure there is enough nutrition for children and the old. But other villagers in Karnataka face even bigger problems as many of them took loans and are now being harassed for repayments.
Bellary’s superintendent of police Chandragupta (he uses only one name) told Mint the number of complaints has increased in the last few months with several of them pertaining to loans taken for property financing. Much of this financing came from local moneylenders at exorbitant interest rates and now there was concern that conflicts over repayments could turn violent.
Livelihood concerns: Trucks lie idle in Hospet, Karnataka. (Photographs Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint)
“We took loans. We thought we could work and return the money. But now that (mining) has ended. Now even the interest is growing on our loans. How do we pay it back?” said Mallekku in Devagiri village. “We were getting Rs 75 a day in the mines. Now everything is difficult. How should we take care of our children? We have no land of our own. Where should we go? What kind of lives should we lead?”
Mallekku, in her 40s and Annamaya, 50, crushed stones and did miscellaneous office work at the Deccan Mining Syndicate mine in Donimalai.
Mallekku (left) and Annamaya, who crushed stones at DMS mine in Donimalai, now worry about loan payment and their children’s education.
Karnataka chief minister D.V. Sadananda Gowda told Mint last week that up to 150,000-200,000 people in Bellary and the districts of Chitradurga and Tumkur were unemployed as a result of the mining ban. Locals say the impact is even greater, with the sharp drop in incomes hitting several businesses across the state.
The Supreme Court, which has been hearing a case highlighting the environmental degradation caused by iron ore mining, has noted that the large-scale destruction to the areas and illegal mining needs to be fixed before the activity can resume.
Villagers say they will track the next hearing, likely on Friday, and pray the judge is moved by their plight and allows mining to resume in at least a small way.
“This is most unfair. When a factory worker goes on strike, he has to give advance notice,” said Mohammad Khalil, a 31-year-old lorry owner in Taranagar. “So when a business gets closed, should we also not get some advance warning? At least the court should have banned it in phases.”
Even villagers in Taranagar who own farm land are gripped by uncertainty. They did not cultivate any crops as the red dust—the colour comes from the iron content—destroyed the crops.
But the mines in the vicinity would pay compensation of Rs 1,500-3,000 a month. With the stoppage in mining, no compensation is forthcoming, but the farmers are not sure whether they should go ahead and sow crops.
Madarsa, 67, a mining equipment operator who has two sons, also in the mining business, and one in college, is struggling to meet domestic expenses. “My wife had a bangle selling business, but that is not working as people are not buying anything,” he said, worry lines forming deep furrows on his face.
Shahina Banu is working as a maid while her husband has become a labourer. But she’s disconsolate because her children, aged 7 and 8, can’t go to school anymore.
She said the government school in Hospet hasn’t been of any help, denying admission in the middle of the term and insisting that they be admitted in the junior most class. She’s not sure if they can go back to their original school at all.
With inputs from Archana Thiyagarajan.
This is the fifth part of a series on the aftermath of a Supreme Court ban on illegal mining in Bellary. The fourth part dealt with NMDC facing a challenge to produce enough iron-ore to meet demands.