Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh's recent statement that no economic activity, including illegal mining, would be allowed in forest areas has sounded alarm bells in Bellary.
One of the largest mining hubs in the country, Bellary is the mining capital of Karnataka. Moreover, the 240-page report of the Karnataka Lokayukta, now in the state government's possession, is a clear indicator that there is more illegal mining when compared to legal mining in Bellary district.
Justice N Santhosh Hegde, Karnataka Lokayukta and former judge of the Supreme Court, who has prepared a report on Bellary told rediff.com that there is definitely more illegal mining in Bellary compared to legal mining.
"I have gone through the statements of the minister and I would like to add here that he was specific about illegal mining The Lokayukta report, which calls for an immediate halt to illegal mining in Bellary, also goes on to state legal mining should go on but it should be used to produce value-added products. Illegal mining is disastrous to the welfare of both the environment and the people of the district and before matters get any worse, it should be halted immediately."
Not only has illegal mining in Bellary proved fatal to the environment, but a close look at various reports available in Karnataka on illegal mining point out the state exchequer has been denied of at least Rs 4000 crore.
Another report prepared by the Karnataka forest department, goes on to show that just Rs 80 crore has been earned as royalty by the state. The Lokayukta says that the very fact that the government has earned just around Rs 80 crore from mining is proof enough to show that there is so much illegal mining activity in the state.
The statement is sure going to have a large impact at least for mining activity in Bellary provided the same is implemented in toto.
The reports prepared by the Lokayukta and the Mines and Geology department show that there are over 10,000 cases of illegal mining that have been reported from Bellary itself in the past three years.
On paper, the mining and geology department has issued a little over 60 licences which means that there are just those many number of legal mines in the district.
Justice Hegde says that illegal mining has had a serious impact on Bellary in particular. However, it is sad to point out here that there has been a lot of damage that has been done which cannot be rectified. By shutting down mines which operate on nearly 10000 illegal mining licences, we could only ensure that no more damage is done.
During a recent visit to the district, this correspondent noticed that in areas of illegal mining people were largely affected with several problems such as breathing problems. Some of them had their skin peeling off their hands. A particular variety of herbs has vanished due to illegal mining. Bellary used to be famous for bears once, but thanks to illegal mining that too has vanished. There have also been a number of birds that have vanished in this belt.
People, who reside in the vicinity illegal mining area, say they breathe more of metal dust rather than fresh air most of the time. They also say large area of forest cover has been lost in Bellary.
People undertaking mining activities have thrown caution to the winds and have set up illegal mining activity in areas within forest and close to human habitation. This is what has begun to spell doom for Bellary, they say.
Justice Hegde says mining activity should be restricted to the foothills only. Iron ore should be produced in those areas.
The problem occurs when they dig and then transport it. It is during transportation that most of the damage to human life is caused as there is a lot of dust kicked up.
When the state issues licences, it should ensure that it is done in accordance with the Forest Conservation Act.
"I would not, however, say that there should be a complete ban on mining. If everything is done in accordance with the law then there should be no problem. I would not completely rule out zero damage during mining activity. But when there is a sustainable development policy then there is bound to be some amount of damage. If mining is done with restrictions, then I don't see any sort of problem, Justice Hegde adds.