"Smoking one cigarette a day reduces lifespan by six years. We breathe in stone dust 24 hours a day"
Whether it's the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, the Vishwanath Corridor in Varanasi, or the monuments devoted to political leaders in Lucknow, it is hard to ignore Mirzapur's contribution to the coveted pink sandstone. But the real cost is borne by the district's villagers who suffer diseases including tuberculosis, due to stone mining that has turned the region into a toxic dust bowl. A ground report.
Brijendra Dubey 4 March 2022 9:07 AM GMT
Marihan and Ahraura (Mirzapur), Uttar Pradesh
For as far as the human eye can see, there is dust – clouds of thick grey dust with tiny stone particles hanging in the air, getting into the lungs and eyes, and depositing layers of dust everywhere. Hills abound in this region of Mirzapur district, Uttar Pradesh but there is barely a shred of greenery to be seen. Years of blasting have left them barren, some hillocks have disappeared altogether, as if a meteorite struck them, leaving behind a crater full of blue and green groundwater.
Far away on the horizon, yellow dots appear – the JCB machines furiously digging and mining whatever is left of the hills in the Marihan tehsil of Mirzaur, about 300 kilometres from the state capital Lucknow. Even with a double layer of gamcha, masking one's face, it is impossible to not breathe in the toxic dust that causes constant itching and irritation in the nostrils and throat.
"They say smoking a cigarette per day reduces one's lifespan by six years. What about us? We breathe in stone dust twenty four hours a day," lashed out Jatashankar Pandey, a 26-year-old resident of Sonpur village in Marihan tehsil. "Imagine the future of the children born here, who start breathing in polluted air immediately after birth," he said.
Whether it's the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, the Vishwanath Corridor in Varanasi, or the cluster of monuments devoted to political leaders in Lucknow, it is hard to ignore Mirzapur's contribution to the coveted pink sandstone used to build them.
But, the quarries in the Marihan and Ahraura tehsils of the district, where the sandstone is mined and supplied far and wide, has left its rural inhabitants with diseases and breathing disorders including asthma, silicosis, and tuberculosis.
A population of over 50,000 rural inhabitants in these two tehsils eat and breathe dust daily. It is rare to find a household that doesn't have a family member suffer due to a respiratory disease. Pandey's parents are both silicosis patients, a lung disease caused by breathing in tiny bits of silica, a common mineral found in sand, quartz and many other types of rock.
As part of the ongoing seven-phase elections in Uttar Pradesh, polling is to be held in Mirzapur district on March 7, in the last phase. And politicians are busy levelling accusations at each other for the mining activities in the district.
"The government is protecting the mining mafias. The locals are dying of diseases like silicosis and TB as mining is being carried out extremely close to the villages," Abhay Yadav, the district incharge of Samajwadi Party, told Gaon Connection. According to him, the ruling party (the Bharatiya Janata Party) was responsible for allowing illegal mining in Mirzapur. "When voted to power, my party will take necessary steps to curb mining beyond the area allowed for lease," he promised.
When contacted, the BJP member of the legislative assembly (MLA) Rama Shankar Singh Patel from Marihan constituency declined to comment on the matter. However, Ganga Sagar Dubey, BJP's provincial incharge in Mirzapur told Gaon Connection that these quarries are vital for the district as they provide livelihood and revenue.
"The quarries that you're talking about are important to Mirzapur as they provide revenue and villagers depend on them for their livelihood. Almost every quarry in the district has measures to cut down on air pollution, if there are some who don't comply with these norms, we will ensure that action is taken against them," Dubey told Gaon Connection.
Meanwhile, the residents of Marihan and Ahraura tehsils said that elections don't change their fate.
"As you can see, the dust from the mines is all over our home. Everything we touch, eat and breathe is covered in dust," Budhram Bind, a 28-year-old resident of the Sonpur village, told Gaon Connection. "The quarries are so close that sometimes when there is blasting of the rocks, they land on our roofs," he added.
Pandey said that the villagers had stopped believing in the promises and assurances given by politicians at the time of elections. "Their interest ends with asking for votes after which nothing happens," he said.
Where once forests stood are now denuded hills
The Ahraura and Marihan tehsils of Mirzapur are surrounded by the Vindhya range which is an irregular chain of hills and ridges spread across the central parts of the country covering eastern part of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and the southern region of Uttar Pradesh.
These hills in the districts of Mirzapur and Sonbhadra in Uttar Pradesh are extensively mined for the extraction of the sandstone.
Paras Yadav, a resident of Ahraura, who has been crusading for environment protection in the region, told Gaon Connection that the mining has erased the forests and the wildlife in the region. "It all started in the 1960s. The forests were cut for mining and the result is that dust and pollution are all we are left to live with now," he said.
Mirzapur-based Debadityo Sinha, an environment activist from the Vindhya Bachao Movement, seconded the villagers. "Mining activities have degraded once lush forests in these two tehsils that were connected to the Chandraprabha Wildlife Sanctuary which is situated in the neighbouring Chandauli district," he said.
"Animals like leopards and bears were once found in these forests but they vanished once mining commenced. The land is now a barren wasteland," Sinha told Gaon Connection. The mining in Ahraura has severely hampered the wildlife in the region, he added.
As per the District Survey Report of the Uttar Pradesh Geology and Mining Department published in 2018, an area spread over 674.37 hectares was under use for mining activities to extract sandstones in Mirzapur in the financial year 2017-2018.
KK Ray, mining officer in the state's Mines and Geology Department in Mirzapur informed Gaon Connection that almost 250 mines have been given on lease in the district. When asked about illegal mines in the district, he said: "I am presently busy with election duty, I will not be able to share further details with you. You may file an RTI (Right to Information) application to access more information."
Local villagers say that 250 mines in the district is a gross underestimate. A large chunk of mining, they say, is carried out illegally.
Sinha, the environmental activist said that the mining activity is carried out illegally as the mine contractors lure the villagers to sell their lands which are then mined. "As a result the mining area in the district exceeds the legal lease allotted by the government," the activist said.
"All this mining is so dangerous for us. But the entire system runs on bribes, there's nobody to consider the safety of the villagers living here," Pushpa Devi, a resident of Sonpur Pahadi complained. Pointing towards the large pool of groundwater exposed due to blasting and mining of the hills, she said, "Officials come and go but the mining never stops, you see the depth at which the mine is dug! It is unsafe for our children who play here, they can fall inside the mine and die,".
"There is no part of the environment which doesn't get affected by the khadaan (quarries). The water we drink, the air we breathe and the constant explosions of gunpowder used to break the rocks make it very difficult to live here," said the 26-year-old villager Pandey.
"The constant noise of heavy machinery operating in the quarry is also irritating. Jal, vayu aur dhwani pradooshan hota hai [water, air and noise pollution is everywhere]," he complained.
As per the Directorate General of Mines Safety, all blasting activity in the mines and the quarries are to be carried out at least 300 metres away from the habitation. But for both Bind and Pandey, their huts in Sonpur village are less than 100 metres away from the quarries. They fear the mines will one day engulf their homes too.
Bind complained that the mining activities continued day and night: "While during the day loud explosions rip the air, at night heavy machines pulverise the blasted rocks into smaller pieces and we cannot get a wink of sleep."
Livelihood vs life
According to a 2017 report titled Socio Economic Impact Study of Mining and Mining Polices on the Livelihoods of Local Population in the Vindhyan Region of Uttar Pradesh, 23 per cent of the workforce in Mirzapur district is engaged as labourers in mines. Also, it found that in total, 81 per cent of the local population depended on mining for their livelihood.
"As far as type of dependency on mining was concerned, out of this 81%, about 27% were involved as labourer, 38% as transporter, 10% as mine owner and 6% were dependent on mining in various ways, either involved as middle man or selling etc," reads the 2017 report published by Dehradun-based Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education on a research grant provided by NITI (National Institute for Transforming India) Aayog.
The study also noted that almost all the mines are open cast involving digging of pits and excavating hillsides, and are responsible for developing an undulating dangerous landscape.
"It also leads to large-scale devastation of soils. With such mines, the land surface over a considerable area is destroyed, and what is left behind may be unstable land, causing landslides, erosion, siltation, and polluted water," the study mentioned.
"Quarries/pit created and artificial hills formed during mining operations such as deposition of overburden are a major problem in the area," the study noted, adding that such land is generally useless after the mining ends and may continue to cause environmental problems even after the mine has been closed.
The health costs of mining
A few metres away from Pandey's house in Sonpur village lives Dharmjeet, who works as a mine labourer in one of the stone quarries close by. A patient of tuberculosis, he is the sole breadwinner for his family. Dharmjeet said that he received treatment for the disease at the Rajgarh community health centre (CHC) but had not followed up with the treatment as he cannot miss work to visit the health centre frequently.
"My wife and three children depend on my earnings. I get paid dui sau rupaye (Rs 200) for a day's labour. I prefer not to take too many days off. I get some relief from medicines, but I am not getting continuous treatment," Dharmjeet told Gaon Connection.
DK Singh, the in-charge of the Rajgarh CHC acknowledged the high incidence of respiratory diseases in the villagers in the region.
"Diseases like silicosis are treated at bigger hospitals in Varanasi but we do attend to patients of tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases like asthma. There are a total of 218 patients from Marihan and Rajgarh receiving treatment for TB from this health facility," Singh revealed.
But these patients are just the tip of the iceberg and both villagers and local activists claim the actual number of patients suffering from respiratory ailments was much higher as a large chunk of the rural residents were unable to access healthcare facilities due to financial constraints or paucity of time needed for the treatment.
As a result of all the digging and mining work, the groundwater used by the villagers from handpumps is also contaminated. "The water we drink is often muddy. It has been nearly fifteen years since we have had the pleasure of sipping clean water," bemoaned Manju, a 60-year-old resident of the Sonpur village.
Not just water, Manju told Gaon Connection that Sonpur Pahadi, where she lives, has no electricity either.
"I have never seen how my house looks in the light of an electric bulb. We use a wick dipped in diesel at night," she said.
Manju said she did not think this election was going to be any different from the others. "No politician ever visits us. It's like there's no sarkaar for us. I don't think this election is going to change anything," she shrugged.
When asked about the measures taken to contain the spread of dust from one of the quarries, Anuj Kumar Singh, a plant manager at one of the stone mining sites, told Gaon Connection that small fountains across the quarry spurted water periodically to keep the dust down when the mining was underway. However, he didn't comment on the safety measures taken for the mine workers.
Meanwhile, environmental researchers warn of an environmental disaster due to such mindless mining. "The residue from the mines, if not treated properly, flows down the rivers and results in sedimentation which raises the levels of the rivers and makes flooding more severe and disastrous," Vijay Krishna, a professor in the Institute of Environment & Sustainable Development at the Banaras Hindu University (BHU), told Gaon Connection.
"Also the presence of impurities in the rivers is deadly for all the life forms found in them," he added.