“Bomb, bomb, bomb!” shouted the miner, and his warning echoed off the walls of the decapitated hillock. Seconds later, an explosion sliced off yet another chunk of limestone, which crumbled into a pile somewhere near where the centre of the hill used to be.

The mines owner, Alldrina Nonglamin, 40, barely noticed the explosion. On that morning in early January, she wore her slippers and a sarong tied over her shoulder as she surveyed the pile of rock that had once underlaid her orange and betel nut garden, her former source of income.

Proudly showing off the mounds of ammonium nitrate she uses as an explosive, she said, I want to finish the hill quickly so I can level the land and build a big house. It might take 20 years, but maybe less also.

Ms Nonglamin is one of the many new mine owners in the Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya who were surprised to find out that the pile of rocks they were living on might as well be made of cash. In the last few years, her village, Nongtalang, like so many other communities across this hilly north-eastern State has become home to an increasing number of family-owned limestone mines, whose owners are seeking wealth unheard-of in a region accustomed to subsistence farming.

Nonglamin took loans of more than $150,000 to purchase mining equipment after seeing the profits her neighbours were unearthing. In just one year, she has paid back more than half of the initial loan.

“My earnings are now 100 times better, and the loans are easily paid,” she said. “My kids go to private school in the city. I’m a businesswoman with more than 100 employees, while earlier I was a farmer and sometimes a tailor.”

With so many villagers rushing to mine the hills, small-scale miners are now extracting more rock per year altogether than huge multinational corporations would in a smaller network of bigger mines, environmental activists say.

Just under 1,000 trucks of the low-grade rock are exported from the small mines to Bangladesh daily. There the world’s largest cement manufacturer, the French company Lafarge, buys most of it, processes it, and churns out the fine cement powder that is ultimately transformed into the building blocks of that country’s infrastructural development.

Very few in this village of 2,000 resist the lure of mining in these hills, but those who do say runoff from the mines often goes straight into rivers that provide drinking water. The Rev. Helpme Mohrmen, a local Unitarian minister who has organised poorly attended local protests and travelled to Delhi to speak to distant advocacy groups, refers to himself as the Lone Ranger.

“Our people have always had a deep reverence for nature,” Mohrmen said. “We give our rivers personalities. We call the animals our brothers and sisters. Each plant carries some meaning. I cannot understand why we have gone about killing our rivers for this mining, but now no one will join me because they don’t want to fight against their clan members.”

Nongtalang is Mohrmens home village, but he can count his allies there on one hand. One is Brightstar Pohsnem, 26, an elementary school teacher and president of the year-old Nongtalang People’s Unity Movement, which has about a dozen members. They contend that the village can survive on farming alone and that the mines are not sustainable.

Workers in the mine can earn as much Rs. 3,000 a day. That is on a par with what they could earn on a market day selling oranges or betel nuts if they are lucky, but markets are held only once a week and only during the harvest period. — New York Times News Service