In the month of July, more than 20 villagers of Nemakallu village of Anantapur district in Andhra Pradesh died, reportedly due to a host of diseases, including lung cancer.
“The deaths started a couple of years ago,” says Kuruba Paramesh. “Since then, more than 100 people have died in the village because of the pollution caused due to the blasting of the quarries,” he adds.
Paramesh is a Mandal Parishad Territorial Constituency (MPTC) member from Nemakallu, a village on the Andhra Pradesh-Karnataka border, located 18 km from Bellary, on the Bellary-Kalyandurg road. This geographical proximity with Karnataka has woven into the cultural and economic fabric of Nemakallu over the years. The people in the village speak Kannada effortlessly, and even consider it their mother tongue over Telugu.
A five acre waste land separates the Dalitawada of Nemakallu, and Peddakonda, a quarry spread across 300 acres.
The extraction of white stone in the quarry is allegedly causing massive health issues for the residents, and also killing the agriculture in the region.
And the residents allege that there is a massive politician-contractor nexus that is working against them to keep the quarry running.
Death and desperation
Started in 2003, the Peddakonda stone quarry had just two crushers back then. Today, though, there are 26 stone crushers, and until a few months ago, most of them were illegal.
Every month that the quarrying continues, the number of deaths only rises, says Paramesh.
“Most of the people who died were in the age group of 40-60, but there are around 10 cases of infants - 6 months to 2 years old - who died in the last two years,” he says.
50 year old Tayanna, who worked as a watchmen at the quarry showing the skin disease he is suffering from.
The people of Nemakallu say they have been suffering from many diseases in the past couple of years, including premature births, skin diseases, lung and throat cancers, eye infections and dust allergies.
50-year-old Tayanna, who worked as a watchman for the quarry till about five years back, can hardly stand now. He has difficulty breathing, and complains of joint, leg and hand pain.
“I stopped working after I developed lung cancer,” Tayanna says. “Some of the labourers at the quarry are from our village and the neighbouring ones. The other labourers in the quarry are from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. They were the first to get affected by the pollution. Some of them stopped working as soon as they started suffering from diseases,” he adds.
Nearby, Khasim, who grows maize in his two acres of land, has also been losing his crop every year since the blasting started.
“In addition, around 200 people died in road accidents on the Bellary – Kalyandurg road due to the excessive dust from the huge trucks transporting the white stone from the quarry in Nemakallu to the Jindal Steels and Alloys Ltd. factory in Thoranagallu in Bellary district. A day does not pass without the village hearing of at least one accident on this road,” says Khasim.
Failed crops, collapsed bore wells and dead cattle
60-year-old farmer Rudra Gowda grows ground nut and tomato in his 5 acre land. He, too, says he has only incurred losses in the last ten years.
“There are around 2000 tamarind trees around the village. They belong to the breed of trees which can be grown in any soil with less water, under any circumstances. However, their produce has been falling down with every passing year and they have now reached a point where they are about to die,” says Rudra Gowda.
Successive failed crops forced people to leave their land barren.
Small stones, which are the remains of blasting can also be seen in the fields.
The agriculture in the region is supported by bore wells and rainfall, and has hardly any canal irrigation. However, due to the blasting and the subsequent vibration that follows, most of the bore wells have collapsed and are of no use anymore.
Just last year, Basavappa dug 12 bores taking a loan of Rs 4 lakh from the money lenders at an interest of 24%. “All my bores have collapsed now. How do I repay the loan?” asks Basavappa.
Half blasted quarry.
“Out of the 250 bore wells in the village, only 20-30 bores are working. Even they are far away from the blasting site,” he says.
Around 30%-40% of the villagers of Nemakallu are dependent on cattle for livelihood. The village is known for cattle rearing not just in the Rayadurg constituency but across Anantapur district. Heroji Rao, a farmer who lost most of his livestock in the last few years says, “Around 12000 goats in the village died since the blasting of the quarry has started, an average of 1000 goats per year.”
“The dust and chemicals from the quarry settles on the water bodies and on the leaves, which the cattle and the goats consume. This poisoned them and they died, one by one. The rest of the cattle in the village will we wiped out by the end of this monsoon season,” says Rao, who feels that migration is the only option left for the villagers if the blasting of the quarry is not stopped.
From illegal to ‘legal’
Having had enough, the residents of Nemakallu started protesting against the blasting in the quarry two months ago. Although the adjacent state of Karnataka banned blasting a few years ago after a series of protests by the people for the same environmental reasons, the protests in Andhra have been unsuccessful so far.
One of the main grounds for their protest, when it started, was that the stone crushers in the quarry were operating illegally.
“All of them were operating illegally till a few months ago,” an official in the district administration, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells TNM. But once the sensed trouble, the contractors decided to quickly get permission for hand blasting. “20 out of 26 crushers have permission now,” she adds.
The permissions too, were allegedly given away without the contractors adhering to the compliance conditions of various departments, including the mines, agriculture and the pollution control board (PCB). Some of the compliance conditions set by the PCB are not to use bore blasts, to spray water over the white stone so that the dust gets settled, and to close the crushers with cloth.
The residents of Nemakallu allege that none of them are being followed.
One of the 23 crushers in Nemkallu village.
‘Rules flouted with impunity’
While the permission has been granted to the 20 crushers for hand blasting, the contractors have allegedly employed machines to blast the stone; machines consume less time, and bring down the labour costs, thereby fetching the contractors high profits.
At the quarry, around 500 holes are blasted every evening with gunpowder, which fills the surroundings with dust and smoke, reducing visibility to near zero for the next one hour. It is atleast night before the dust screen disappears completely.
“When we questioned them, they sent their henchmen and threatened us and registered false cases against us. The police and the officials are acting on the orders from the contractors,” Paramesh adds.
“Since the blasting operations have been in process for almost 13 years now, the illegal blasting has led to a loss of around Rs 300 crore to the exchequer. However, no official is ever going to do anything about it because of the political pressure and stakes involved,” the official in the district administration tells us.
Cracks in the village temple due to blasting.
The blasting of Peddakonda is troubling over 13000 people from three villages – Nemakallu, Unthakallu and Bommanahalli – all of which fall under the Bommanahalli mandal and Rayadurg constituency being represented in AP legislature by the state’s Minister for Rural Housing and Information and Public Relations Kalva Srinivasulu.
The villagers allege that he is being bribed with Rs 1.5 lakh per month from each of the 26 contractors, because of which, they say, he is being quiet even as people are being knocked down to death because of the pollution from the quarry.
The Minister, however, has not responded to these allegations.
Srinivasulu’s political opponent from the opposition YSRCP, Kapu Ramachandra Reddy, an ex-MLA from Rayadurg constituency, also owns one stone crusher amongst the 26 at Peddakonda. When this reporter reached out to Ramachandra Reddy for a comment on the pollution and deaths, he, too, declined to comment.
Other contractors included Deepak Reddy (son-in-law of former Minister and Anantapur MP JC Diwakar Reddy of TDP), TVS Kantha Rao, R Chandrahas and Srinivasa Rao, all of them owning allegiance to the ruling Telugu Desam Party (TDP). Since both the ruling party and opposition party and their leaders have their interests deeply entrenched in the quarry, the people have little support from political and mass organizations.
Blasting in progress.
‘Don’t turn our village into a graveyard’
But despite this political backing for the quarry, residents of Nemakallu refuse to give up their protest.
Paramesh’s brother Shiva Reddy is a physics lecturer in Bellary. “When the crops failed and the cattle died in the last few years, the villagers weren’t sure if these were the consequences of blasting the quarry. For some reason, we were afraid to fight the powerful contractor lobby, which has all the support from the politicians as well as the officials. Now, the death of the villagers due to lung diseases and cancer is raising the consciousness of the people. We will not end this struggle until the blasting is stopped forever,” says Shiva Reddy.
For the residents of Nemakallu, inaction is only leading to destruction. As Heroji Rao says, “The three villages will become graveyards if the blasting continues.”