NATION IN A STATE Improper waste disposal in Malanjkhand’s copper mines is affecting farmland, waterbodies and the health of people and livestock

Acres of pristine white sand spread around turquoise waters, on a hill surrounded by lush greenery — one could be forgiven to think these words describe a beautiful atoll in some island nation. They don’t.

This actually, is a description of the waste dump at the Malanjkhand mining project in Balaghat’s Birsa block.

The Malanjkhand Copper Project (MCP) of Hindustan Copper Limited (HCL) accounts for 70 per cent of the country’s copper reserves, making it the single largest copper deposit in India.

Location

The project lies within the Birsa and Damoh forest divisions, Baihar taluk in Balaghat district, which is a 189 km south of Jabalpur. The mines cover a total area of 115.225 hectares, while the waste dump is spread over 120.23 hectares. Forest villages inhabited by the protected Baiga and Gond tribes lie beyond the dump. Currently extracting two million tonnes of copper ore from an open-cast mine, the MCP will soon be digging an underground mine which will expand the extraction to five million tonnes. The project, therefore, is crucial to the country’s copper requirements.

For the tribals living in surrounding villages, however, this open-cast project presents a mine of problems.

While about 500 people from these villages are employed as contractual labour in the project, these Schedule-V villages pay a heavy environmental price in order for the project to run successfully. MCP’s waste dump site is a vast spread of extremely fine white sand — mine tailings — and a reservoir of highly acidic bluish-green water. Whenever there is a strong wind, the sand rises into a dust storm and deposits itself on the villages downhill. Residents of Chhindi Tola and Borkheda, two such villages visited by this correspondent, claimed they had to live under the suffocating influence of this dust storm every day.

Standing at the dump for half an hour, this correspondent saw the sand become a thick storm and remain suspended over the villages downhill on two occasions. The six workers at the dump site had absolutely no protective gear to shield themselves.

When it rains and the sand settles down, the dust storms cease. However, the loose sand and the acidic water are carried down to the farm lands and water bodies in these villages and deposited there.

This caused acidification of farm lands and water bodies, said Rahtam Singh Marawi, former sarpanch, Chhindi Tola.

“Besides skin itching and laboured breathing due to the dust, other skin diseases caused by the water are becoming common,” he said.

“Cattle health is a major problem here. Livestock drink water that runs down from the waste dump into the ponds, causing several diseases and even kills them at times.” MCP officials have arranged for mobile medical vans to visit the affected villages once every month but the villagers say the vans just complete formalities by distributing free drugs and hardly follow up on treatment.

The Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act 1999 confers wide ranging powers to the gram sabha over issues of mining, livelihood and environment. However, the villages around the Malanjkhand project do not benefit from these as the project falls under the Malanjkhand Nagarpalika, an urban self-governance body not covered under PESA. “Everybody understands it is an important project for the country’s development. But does development have to come at the cost of the environment and of the tribal populations in this region?” asked Sanjay Uike, former president, Malanjkhand Nagarpalika.

“The company’s waste recycling plant is non-functional and all the waste eventually goes into the Banjar that flows through the Kanha Tiger Reserve,” said Mr. Uike, who plans to contest in the State Assembly elections next year.

Problems caused by the MCP will be a major part of his election agenda, he said.

What officials say

While project officials do not agree with the villagers complaints, they do admit that waste disposal is an issue. “Even we want to dispose of the sand, it has limited use and so not many people are interested in buying it,” said O.N. Tiwari, Deputy General Manager, MCP.

“The Manganese Ore India Ltd (MOIL) project in nearby Ukwa had agreed to use it to fill their mines, but the State government wanted a royalty of Rs.54 for transportation of this sand, making it economically unviable for anybody. Compared to this, royalty in Rajasthan is Rs.10,” he said. Last year, after the tribals sat outside the company gate, forcing the project to shutdown for more than a month, MCP officials agreed to distribute water purifiers to all affected households.

“The purifiers could only remove the dust particles from the water but it still remained acidic. So we returned them to the company,” said Ramesh Dhurve of Chhindi Tola.

According to project officials, environmental pollution and health hazards are exaggerated and the villagers are actually unhappy for totally different reasons.

“All of them just want jobs in the project. When the project started, 90 per cent of affected families were provided employment but have all accepted voluntary retirement in return for a lump sum of money. Now the younger generation feels it has been left out and so it keeps blaming the project for everything,” said Mr. Tiwari.

The project authorities have commissioned the Nagpur-based National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) for an environmental assessment. NEERI has collected samples but the report will be out only next year.

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