Sandur (Karnataka): From a distance, the Sandur Hills west of Bellary resemble the havoc wrought by a child, their tops lopped off haphazardly. The destruction wasn’t the work of children, of course, but mining companies that recklessly ripped apart the hilltops to get at the ore within. They then left the top soil where it lay, covering the slope and obliterating the vegetation beneath.
The epicentre of illegal mining in Karnataka, the Sandur Hills hummed with activity until the July ban. Villagers could not walk on the roads for fear of getting hit by speeding lorries that ran day and night, transporting iron ore as fast as it could be gouged out of the hillside.
Illegal activities in the four hill ranges of Sandur took various forms, said a senior official in the state.
“The quantity of iron ore extracted was much more than permitted, and a lot of the forest areas that were not supposed to be mined were given no-objection certificates,” said Amlan Aditya Biswas, deputy commissioner of Bellary. “Also, the roads were created by ripping off the forest cover.”
The degradation affected at least 12 villages in the area, each with a population ranging between 750 and 3,000 people, Biswas said.
“There was dust everywhere and it made agriculture and farming around this area almost impossible,” said Mulimani Eranna, agriculturist and environmental activist, who is a resident of Lakshanpur in Sandur.
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Biswas said the trucks were overloaded and uncovered, which meant dust was everywhere, smothering the growth of vegetation and wildlife.
“The blasting obviously made the animals move out of the forests and into areas inhabited by humans and there are instances of government hospitals reporting animal bite injuries,” he said. “Even the cattle have respiratory and gastric problems owing to the high iron content in the grass and dust in the air.”
A senior forest department official said that large-scale damage has been caused to vegetation and wildlife, the regeneration of which will take time. “The Sandur Hills do not have high forests, but mostly dry and moist deciduous forests,” said the forest officer, declining to be named. “A lot of the dump (top soil from the mines) was put on the side of the hills and it submerged the vegetation.”
Mining procedure calls for the dump to be put in a safe place and vegetation grown on it to prevent erosion. When the mine is closed after the minerals have been extracted, the dump has to be restored to its original site.
The environmental destruction at Sandur is plain to see with gouged-out areas interspersed with vegetation.
A mountain of problems: Agriculturist and environmental activist Mulimani Eranna at a deserted iron ore mine in Sandur Hills. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
For the locals, the mines were a source of income with farming not an option owing to the pollution.
“Many localites realized that mining was big money and they purposely did not allow proper roads to be laid here,” said Subbanna Kammar, a resident of Sandur. “The dirt roads are bumpy, so when trucks laden with iron ore passed through them, they spilled some of the material on the road, which the localites collected and sold.”
He pointed out several mines, now defunct, including Associated Mining Co. and Lad and Sons, both under the Supreme Court’s scanner.
The mining also led to the depletion of the water in the hills, according to Eranna.
“The miners kept pumping out the groundwater that was seeping while they were mining,” Eranna said. “The water was just drained out of the hills to facilitate mining.”
The areas that are still relatively undisturbed show what the hills would have looked like. On the road to the Sandur Hills, there is a lake, several water bodies and farmland, with the hills towering above. The hills even house a few resorts, popular at one time with tourists.
The jungles around the hills are known to be home to the fox, leopard, wild hare and various species of birds, all of which would have been affected by the mining activity, the forest officer said.
Still, as mining has been on in the hills since the 1950s, the wildlife population was not very large, the officer added.
What will it take to restore the hills? “It might take nine months to one year if you are talking about afforesting these mines,” said D.N. Gulhane, a geologist with Global Environment and Mining Services in Hospet. “Plus, there are so many dumps that have gone outside of the mine areas. Those have to be reclaimed.”
Gulhane said restoration could cost about Rs1 crore per mine.
Since mining was banned in July, the roads leading up to the hills are relatively empty, with hundreds of lorries parked on the side of the road for kilometres on end. This lack of activity will help boost the vegetation and wildlife.
“One needs to bring down the intensity of the mining. Automatically, it will bring down the harmful affects,” the forest officer said. “Nature will have its own way of restoration.”
The current pause in mining has cut down the noise and air pollution as well. “I am already seeing this place looking greener,” Biswas said.
This is the second part of a series on the aftermath of a Supreme Court ban on illegal mining in Bellary. The first part dealt with the plans of steel plants in the area.