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THE ROAD TO HELL IN SWAMIMALAI FOREST HILLS, EXCESSIVE MINING HAUNTS 14 VILLAGES IN SANDUR TALUK

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By Meera Bhardwaj

Even as mining companies continue to mine from the apex to the base of the green hills in Sandur taluk, Ballari district of Karnataka, the Swamimalai (SM)-Kumaraswamy block forest housing protected ASI temples and human settlements, have borne the brunt of excessive mining, political greed, government apathy and indifference.

 Not just our heritage, 14 villages with a population of 20-25,000 people residing in these verdant hills have suffered the utmost and they say mining by NMDC and SMIORE has ruined their lives, livelihood and their health. It is not Corona but ore dust that is eating our lungs, they add.

Presently, mining is going on in Swamimalai-Kumaraswamy block forest wherein eight (8) companies out of 14 are operating here. Out of this, THREE ARE C-CATEGORY MINES that were allotted in 2017. 

Till date, 6477 hectares of forest land have been diverted in Ballari district for mining of iron and manganese ore.

Local residents say the road to Swamimalai hills is hell as it is marked by continuous movement of ore-laden trucks and as we traverse these villages, we can observe how the spewing ore dust has completely degraded the forested hills, air and water sources. 

Eight (8) out of 14 villages, Kamatur, Devagiri, Dharmapuri, Lakshmipura and others are the most affected as five mining companies – NMDC, Nandi Mines (JSW), KSMCL, MSPL and SMIORE have been mining here for decades without a care. 

NMDC which is a central government company, villagers bitterly complain, “It is the worst polluter and till date, provided no jobs to local people.”

KAMATUR VILLAGE’S PLIGHT DUE TO MINING

Speaking to Green Minute, Malliswamy of Kamatur village says, “We are most affected and it is an over-mined region. It has affected our cropping pattern and production of millets and paddy, going to school is a daily hazard for children, water sources are contaminated and health is a big zero. Kamatur is an unsettlement survey village and although survey was done in 1954, no mapping or settlement done. We cannot identify our lands which were granted by the erstwhile rulers as Seva for Kumaraswamy temple. Now both the temple and our village are in dire straits.”

Malliswamy adds, “Drinking water is completely contaminated due to mining by NMDC and whenever we complain to authorities, they plead helplessness and say they cannot do anything as it is a public sector unit. In fact, this place is ideal for nature and temple tourism and if mining is stopped, we could earn a livelihood through tourism. If we protest against mining, the police and DC take us to task…there is no justice.”

ENTIRE TREE COVER IN SANDUR IS SWASHED IN IRON ORE DUST

Every tree with its leaf, branches, trunk and the Sholas of Central Deccan Plateau are carpeted by ore dust and the haze is so thick that visibility is almost zero. One cannot see anything except a dusty haze and a feel a metallic taste in our mouths. One feels as if we have landed in one of the districts of Beijing that is known for its orange hazes, zero visibility and acute breathing problems.

Driving to the Kumaraswamy temple or any of these villages is impossible as one has to cross thousands of smoking and ore dust spewing lorries who don’t give way to other vehicles. Also, it is impossible to avoid the huge lorries as they are parked haphazardly on way to the temple. The iron ore mining companies and their ore laden lorries rule the roost in this spiritual and forested lands.

LOCAL PEOPLE ARE FORCED TO COVER THEIR FACES

Even as we come out of our vehicles with our heads covered to see the ASI temple, not only this monument but also the biodiversity rich hill ranges that are home to a variety of flora and fauna is bombarded with the heavy sounds of blasting while the visiting devotees are overwhelmed by the dust and unbearable noise. 

Also, the native herbs and aromatic plants around the hills are withering away. This region is home to diverse wildlife ranging from leopard, sloth bear, four-horned antelope to jackal, pangolin, monitor lizard and star tortoise but they will have to look for new habitat, says Santosh, a local naturalist. 

Our visit to Sandur brings back the horrors of what illegal mining and the Reddys’ did to “Republic of Ballari” between 2003-11 and we hope Sandur taluk is saved from unsustainable mining. People from Devagiri and other surrounding villages add continuous blasting, clearance of forests and dust pollution in the sacred valley of Vibhuthi hills has killed natural springs, evergreen patches and medicinal herbs and shrubs. 

Disturbed by the prevailing conditions, a Muslim Youth organisation have come in support of the temple. Syed Hussain Peer says the Kumaraswamy temple should have no mining activity two kilometres from its periphery. In fact, their organization has submitted a memorandum to authorities for protection of the temple.

SRI HARISHANKARA TEMPLE’S TEERTHA IS LONGER SWEET

Water resources in the Swamimalai-Kumaraswamy block forests including natural spring waters are now contaminated with iron ore dust and filings for the last two years. One devotee at the Sri Harishankara Temple adds, “Earlier, we used to carry the pure waters from this temple as Teertha as it was so sweet, pure but now it has turned orange and bitter.”

As we conclude our visit to Sandur, a visitor to the Swamimalai hills, Rakshith bemoans, “The Kumaraswamy temple is about 100 metres away from the main road but the overloaded ore trucks that thunder by without care or concern, I am sure, it will be weakening the foundations of the 1200-year-old ancient temple complex.” 

NATURAL WATERFALLS LOSING THEIR PURITY

Once the forests in Sandur taluk were full of waterfalls, natural streams and many visitors, bird watchers and tourists stopped to take a peek and quench their thirsts but now these water sources are all becoming undrinkable. The saga of mining in Sandur is pretty long and for the people living in the villages of Swamimalai forest block, life continues to be a permanent nightmare.