The dirty dynamics of stone quarrying

The dirty dynamics of stone quarrying

Several villages continue to suffer in the shadow of illegal quarries across Karnataka

Credit: DH photo.

The tragic explosion at Hunasodi in Shivamogga, in which five persons lost their lives, has brought to the fore the perils of rampant illegal quarrying in the state.

Though the administration has jumped in to investigate the explosion in the chief minister’s home district, several villages continue to suffer in the shadow of illegal quarries across Karnataka. More so in the rocky, arid districts such as Chikkaballapur, which is considered to be the epicentre of stone quarrying in the state.

In Madapalli, at the northern edges of Chikkaballapur district, it is difficult to find a hill without earthmovers, trucks and tractors. An attendant retinue of labourers — mostly from neighbouring states — chiselling or drilling rocks is a common sight.

Most of these quarries are scarcely visible — or strategically hidden, according to locals — from roads leading to the village. But its effect on the surrounding environment and the village itself is crystal clear.

Read | Shivamogga blast: Five workers killed, probe on explosives underway

"When you lie down at night it is impossible to sleep. There is a relentless noise as if someone is digging a borewell," says Akkamma, a resident of Madapalli. Like her fitful sleep caused by quarrying, her house, too, has borne the brunt of blasting nearby leading to widening cracks along the length of her house walls.

“As they blast boulders and transport rock, it loosens the soil which settles down as dust on the surrounding land. When it rains, the soil erodes and flows into farms and feeding canals," says Narasimha Murthy, an activist and a resident of Madapalli.

Madapalli's proximity to Andhra Pradesh provides the perfect cover for alleged clandestine operations of the quarry mafia, who the locals accuse of operating illegal quarries along with legal ones, ravaging the local landscape.

Official numbers indicate that across Karnataka, at least 2,033 legal quarries are operational. Though Chikkaballapur accounts for just 2.5% of land under stone and minor mineral quarrying, its proximity to Bengaluru and rich bounty of minerals make it the quarrying hotspot. It is also one of the top Manufactured sand (M-sand) producing districts.

In 2018, the Lokayukta had pulled up the state government for failing to curb illegal quarrying, after authorities registered as many as 8,224 cases of violations between 2015-16 to 2017-18.
 

A scathing Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) report in 2019 identified 532 illegal quarries in Chikkaballapur taluk alone, with revenue implications of Rs 223.25 crore.

Blanket of dust

Pollution caused by the quarries has also affected the yield of crops grown with much difficulty in one of the driest parts of the state.

Narasimha says that the problem caused by dust for crops was so severe, the district administration had even proposed to provide nets used in plantations to reduce damages.

Residents like Akkamma have also seen the hills around the village, each with an inextricable link to local traditions and folklore, shrink before their eyes.

A feeder canal to the village tank constructed under the MNREGA just a year ago is now filled with silt eroded from the exposed hills during the recent rains. Plots of arable land near quarries are damaged due to sediment deposits and risk a sudden landslip caused by explosions.

Irrigation drains, like the feeder canal to the village tank, are also filled with silt, pushing mud and sand to the once cultivable lands below the hills. According to Narasimhappa, who cultivates groundnut, land under cultivation and per acre yield have reduced due to erosion from the hills.

Peresandra and Kanive Narayanapura villagers allege that violations by mammoth quarries, crushers and M-sand units go untouched due to alleged political patronage.

Across the state, the race to meet the demand for construction material has had a devastating effect on people and ecosystem around quarrying sites.

In Mandya’s Srirangapatna taluk, people have complained about the repeated detonation of explosives for years, to no avail.

Read | Mining activity continues at the cost of environment

Srikantaiah K Shettihalli, president of Srirangapatna Raita Sangha said that people were not opposed to quarries as they were necessary.

"But regulations to ensure the safe extraction of stones must be followed," he said, adding that an increase in blasting intensity at quarries in Srirangapatna had threatened the structural integrity of sub-canals originating from Visvesvaraya canal of Krishna Raja Sagar dam.

Illegal quarries operating around the critical elephant corridor in Bannerghatta National Park also attracted the wrath of the High Court multiple times, latest being in 2018. The quarries are functioning despite sustained pressure from civil society and environmentalists demanding their closure.

Hiding violations

Though officials book cases against alleged violations, authorities were unable to check illegal quarrying as highlighted in the 2019 CAG report. A collaboration by Department of Mines and Geology and Indian Institute of Science identified 532 illegal quarries after studying satellite images sourced from National Remote Sensing Centre. However, the department had GPS coordinates for just 292 quarries, operating with permission.

At least 11.12 crore metric tonnes of various specified and unspecified minerals were illegally extracted, the report had noted, causing losses to the tune of Rs 223.25 cr to the exchequer.

A senior official, under the condition of anonymity, said residents of affected villages used to report complaints of violation of safe zone regulations. For instance, stone crushing units should be 500 metres away from the closest village, should be 200 m away from the nearest national or state highway, as per regulations.

"More recently, lessees of quarries have started influencing gram panchayat leaders from affected villages so that any complaint is smothered," he said.

Even at Madapalli, villagers remain divided over the operation of quarries. A resident of the village had provided land to build a kutcha road for one of the quarries. "Only those who are facing problems are complaining, while others are silent," the official said.

Some villages such as Saadhli in Shidlaghatta taluk have been successful in thwarting quarrying in a deemed forest area. The land was allegedly denotified and auctioned for quarrying before protests by villagers and a court appeal halted the plans.

Over-extraction

One common method used by lessees to extract more rock is to exhaust a nearby stone block along with theirs. “Say, a five-acre block is allocated to a contractor. He will extract around 60% of rock he supplies from the piece of land he has bid for, while taking the remaining from a neighbouring plot," according to sources.

U V Singh, a former Chief Conservator of Forests, who was also the chief investigator of a Lokayukta team formed to probe illegal mining, feels that departments that are mandated to monitor and regulate quarrying are crippled by staff shortage, in addition to being tasked with meeting the government’s royalty targets.

"When quarries are widely distributed, but departments concerned (at district offices) have just a couple of staff, it is not easy to control," Singh said, adding that the state must designate specific areas for quarrying. "This will ensure effective control on all illegalities, pollution and other issues."

The recent amendments to Karnataka Stone Crushers Act, passed in 2020, which allow lessees to transfer crusher licenses and extend the licence term of stone crushers from five to 20 years, had also attracted criticism.

Also Read | Illegal mining, quarrying can be regularised: Karnataka CM B S Yediyurappa

A Public Interest Litigation filed in the High Court had charged that the amendments were enacted to benefit the mining and crusher lobby.

Drone survey

M C Kumar, Deputy Director (Mineral Administration), Department of Mines and Geology, says that though a drone survey was carried out to assess mines, there were allegations that specified procedures were not followed. "To verify whether there is any truth to the allegations and to check errors, the Department will conduct another drone survey," he said.

The surveys will be carried out at the district level and will help in identifying illegal quarries and crushers, he said.

On the CAG report on illegal mines based on satellite imagery, Kumar said that spot inspections are being carried out based on satellite imagery and reports of the same are being compiled.

Regular topographic mapping during the survey will help us ascertain the volume of extraction and put a brake on unregulated quarrying, he added.

Bagepalli MLA S N Subba Reddy said that though officials maintain that there were no illegal quarries, there have been complaints. "I have written to both the Department of Mines and Geology and the Lokayukta seeking a probe into such quarries," he said.

Critical infrastructure of rural areas around the quarries are deteriorated due to lorries that carry more load than allowed. "While the load limit for lorries is around 25 tonnes, they carry two to three times the limit, cheating the government of royalty," he said.

Reddy noted that the issue was raised in the recent Karnataka Development Programme meeting of Chikkaballapur, with district-in-charge minister K Sudhakar assuring a separate meeting to discuss illegal quarries.

During the previous coalition government, former Mines and Geology minister Rajshekar Patil had visited Madapalli and one quarry was closed for violations. However, they paid a sizable fine and resumed operations soon after.