Environment
Adivasis allege that other than the noise disturbance and pollution, the mining companies deprive them of one crucial resource – water.
All images: Nitin B

It’s Shivaratri eve and thousands of people have gathered at the Kalyanapulova reservoir in Ravikamatham mandal in Andhra Pradesh’s Visakhapatnam district as part of an annual ritual to take a holy dip. However, unlike every year, there is one stark difference. There is barely any water left.

“I’m 40 years old and I have been coming here for 40 years but I have never seen the dam in this state. It is the first time that it has been so dry,” says Majjin Okaraju, a resident from a nearby hamlet.

“Earlier, people used to fill up the entire stretch of the bund from one side to the other, but this year not even 10% of the people have come. Devotees used to flock this place. It is distressing to see the steep decline in numbers. It’s mainly due to the fall in the water level,” he adds, pointing to a small section in one corner of the reservoir that the state government has cordoned off for people to take a dip.

It was in 1978 that the state government constructed the Kalyanapulova reservoir on the Varaha river, one of the first medium irrigation projects in the region. With a large command area that includes 9 major panchayats downstream, the dam ensures irrigation water to around 10,000 acres, besides making sure that several tribal hamlets in the region have drinking water, by replenishing the water table. 

However, adivasis in the area point out that the reservoir has almost dried up now, which has resulted in their groundwater levels depleting and crops failing. The locals unanimously say that there is only one reason that their lives are being ruined – indiscriminate granite mining in the Eastern Ghats.

Majjin Okaraju

Quarries affect daily lives of locals

A low, rumbling noise can constantly be heard in the background if one spends a night at Z Jogumpeta, a tribal village with around 50 houses in Ravikamatham mandal.

“There is no respite. It never stops. We are so accustomed to it, that we are almost surprised if that noise isn’t ringing in our ears,” one local remarks, pointing to a massive quarry on the hill adjoining the one they reside, about 2 km away. Machines seemingly work through the night as massive trucks carrying granite stones make their way to and from the quarry.

There are at least two active quarries in the region and one that has stopped operations. Locals also point out that companies constantly attempt to blast the hills adjoining the ones they reside on, to ‘test’ if the granite stone’s quality is good enough for mining. 

The quarries eat up the entire side of a mountain and are clearly visible from far away, amidst the lush green hills that surround them.

Just a few hundred metres from Z Jogumpeta, locals take this reporter through a cashew plantation that was razed to the ground, clearly by large JCB machines. “This happened less than 10 days ago. They came in the middle of the night and bulldozed their way through the trees to reach the bottom of that hill. Our lives were dependent on these trees as agriculture is our only source of income. To grow these trees back, we need at least 15 to 20 years, and lots of capital. Where will we go?” says Chinnarajababu, a farmer.

“They visited this area, did one round of blasting and took the stones for testing. Even if they decide against opening a quarry here, the damage has already been done. Crops that we tended to for decades were destroyed in a matter of minutes. In turn, when we ran to the spot after midnight upon hearing the machines, the police slapped cases on some of us for trying to stop them,” Kota Pehalpalu rues, adding that they had evidence to show that the land belonged to them, in the form of government ‘pattas’ (documents).

A quick trek from the village leads one to Ajaypuram, a small hamlet of the Kond tribe, considered a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG).

“We have it the worst – there’s a quarry less than 600 metres from our village. Blasting at odd hours has left us rattled as the entire ground shakes. We jump out of bed sometimes. It has also left cracks on the few concrete houses that we have built. The sound is unbearable and our children especially, are affected by this. The dust also enters their lungs and they have a lot of breathing problems,” says Gangaraju, a resident of Ajaypuram.

The roads that were laid by the Panchayat Raj department are also completely damaged as they were not built to accommodate large trucks, locals point out.

However, all this is just the tip of the iceberg, as adivasis allege that the mining companies deprive them of one crucial resource more than anything else – water.

The reservoir provides the adivasis both water for drinking and for domestic use, and they allege that the mining companies have blocked several hill streams cutting off the inflow channels to the reservoir.

“Even the borewells that we dug have gone dry. We are left with barely any source of drinking water, let alone for domestic use,” Gangaraju says.

“For the last three years, indiscriminate mining is taking place in the region, with the government failing to do basic checks before granting leases. Companies have suppressed facts and have got leases within the catchment area of the reservoir,” says PS Ajay Kumar, national committee member of the All India Agriculture and Rural Workers Association.

Ajay gives the example of Ruchuponduku, a hamlet situated next to a hill that locals refer to as Challagondamma thali, where a water stream, which adivasis call Pattimanchalagadda, used to flow.

“Right on top of the hill, a mining company has been given a lease in violation of environmental laws, as the hamlet is less than a km away from the site. There was a joint inspection report by officials (a copy of which is with TNM) which suppressed both these facts and managed to get the mining company a lease,” Ajay adds, holding up satellite images of the mining that was taking place.

“Ajaypuram, despite hosting PVTGs, is a special case as it has a quarry on either side of it. While one quarry blocks Somalammagadda, a major stream that feeds the Kalyanapulova reservoir, another quarry is on Pottimetta, an adjoining hill that is barely 300 metres from a school in Z Jogumpeta village,” the activist points out.

Adivasis allege that there were commercial crops (cashew) and agriculture taking place less than 1 km from the quarry. To prove their allegations, the adivasis are armed with evidence and personally took this reporter to each of these spots, pointing out to the exact areas where hill streams were blocked.

“While on paper they say that only one 8-hour shift takes place every day, they engage in at least three such 8-hour shifts. Mining and excavation mainly takes place during the day and the trucks come at night to carry away the stones. In between all this, we are stuck with no respite,” remarks Prakash, a local from Ajaypuram.

‘We won’t go down without a fight’

The adivasis, however, assert that they won’t go down without a fight. Armed with evidence and building a strong legal case to present in court, the locals have taken to organising meetings and staging protests to highlight the issue.

A day ahead of Shivaratri, on March 2, an all-party meeting was held in Ravikamatham village, with Ajay Kumar, Jana Sena party leader PVSN Raju, Congress leader Donda Rambabu and ex-Chodavaram MLA Karanam Dharmasri from the YSRCP. The protestors demanded that irrespective of who is elected to power in the upcoming elections, they wanted the politicians to put their party flags aside and cancel the lease issued to the mining companies. They also pointed out that the reservoir was a lifeline to many.

“Before the reservoir was constructed, there were many small villages, but the access to irrigation water facilitated the growth of at least nine major panchayats downstream. The population data also shows that at least 20,000 people depend on this water downstream. These are direct cultivators, small and medium farmers, and no absentee landlords and no migratory labour, all because of this access to water. Now, the same water source is under threat,” Ajay notes.

After the meeting, large stacks of pamphlets were also distributed to adivasis from the affected villages, explaining the problem that they faced and what was causing the Kalyanapulova to dry up.

“We will go the annual festival tomorrow and distribute this to the devotees who gather, to raise more awareness for our cause. If more people get to know, we are sure that it will even become an election issue in this constituency and we can’t be ignored,” said one of the attendees of the event.

What does the law say?

EAS Sarma, a retired bureaucrat and a noted environmentalist, has made several representations to government officials on the issue.

“In this country, the biggest source of electoral and bureaucratic corruption is probably mining activity. The price that the government gets is only 1/10th of what the minerals sell for in the domestic or international market and this is the reason why mining activity has become an important source of funds for political parties. Kalyanapulova is actually in a non-scheduled area, but some parts of the catchment area do come under this and therefore Schedule 5 of the Constitution applies,” Sarma explains.

Schedule 5 of the Constitution gives the President of India and the Governors of each state certain rights on the laws governing scheduled areas.

“Part of the catchment area comes under the scheduled area of G Madugala mandal under Paderu sub-division. The constitution has provided excellent safeguards under Schedule 5. Despite repeated representations by me, this is not being implemented,” Sarma says.

“There are several laws that are blatantly violated. The mineral development regulations state that prior permission is required if mining is to be undertaken, but many times they begin mining in collusion with the local revenue, mining and forest officials, even before that permission is granted. Another common violation is that they seek permission for around 5 acres but undertake mining in 10 to 15 acres. The local officers are often hand in glove with these companies,” he adds.

Pointing out that Kalyanapulova is also covered with vegetation, Sarma cites the Godavarman Thirumulpad vs Union of India case, which laid down several norms including one that pointed out that a forest is not only the area declared by governments, but also any area that is covered with vegetation.

Sarma argues that the catchment area is a deemed forest and mining in the region would violate the Forest Conservation Act.

“The mining activity also produces a lot of pollutants. Apart from reducing the water inflow into the reservoir and reducing its capacity, these also pollute the dam water which is used as drinking water by humans and livestock and for irrigation. When the pollutants get into the crops, it enters the food chain. Tomorrow, if there is a disease pattern in the area, it can be directly attributed to the pollutants from the mining companies. But the officers in the Andhra Pradesh government are blissfully ignorant of this,” he says.

“In scheduled areas, there is a Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 where any economic activity has to be approved by a local grama sabha. Even if the sabha says that they want mining, only tribal cooperatives of the government can undertake mining and not private parties. In many such cases, PESA is bypassed and a benami tribal is kept,” he adds.

The Forest Rights Act of 2006 is another law that gives ownership rights and community rights to individuals in the area.

“But all such laws have been violated in these cases. There is also a land transfer regulation in tribal areas as the presumption is that the land belongs to the adivasis. The reservoir has to be preserved under the WALTA Act passed by the state government as well, but local authorities have deliberately violated that. The tragedy in Andhra Pradesh is that local reservoirs are drying up and we are trying to construct a Polavaram project where we displace several lakh families and transport water at a great human and social cost,” Sarma says.

Govt officials deny claims

When TNM visited the offices of the Deputy Director of the Mines and Geology department , Visakhapatnam district and an Executive Engineer in the state’s Irrigation department, they denied that the mining was taking place in violation of rules.

Deputy Director of Mines and Geology YNRV Prasad was quick to dismiss this reporter, claiming that the reservoir was under the purview of the irrigation department.

“The onus is on the Irrigation department to investigate these allegations and raise a complaint with us. Following this, we will investigate the claims and if there are any discrepancies found, we will initiate the procedure to cancel the leases as per the law, immediately. There is no scope for granting permission to the mines if they did not follow the rules,” he claimed.

However, a large memento from the Visakhapatnam Colour Granite Quarry Owners Association displayed in front of his office suggests a conflict of interest at play.

Meanwhile, at the Irrigation department, Executive Engineer, Visakhapatnam division, K Mallikharjuna Rao makes similar claims.

“When we went for the joint inspection, the quarry owners showed us the entire process and we found no issues with this, which is why permission was granted. As per the law, the mining activity has to be at least 5 km away from the reservoir, which the mining companies have met,” he says.

Asked about the claims by locals, and clear satellite and photo evidence that shows that streams feeding the water were being blocked, Rao said, “If the allegations are true, then the tribal people have to file a complaint with us and we will investigate it accordingly. But as per the law, we can’t act on our own as it stands today.”

Fight will continue

The adivasis and activists, however, say that they will continue to fight till the issue is resolved.

“They have destroyed our crops, depleted our water and ruined our lives. We want this misery to end and we want the mining leases to be cancelled. A lot of damage has already been done and we don’t want this to continue further,” says Chinnababuraju.

“Our main point is that all these farmers have riparian rights over the water in the reservoir. This also means that they have rights over the water in the hill streams that feed the reservoir. No corporation, authority or government has the right to disturb this flow,” Ajay says.

“The demands are simple. The mining licenses granted upstream from Kalyanapolava must be put in abeyance and a high-level committee must be formed by the state government to investigate the matter. All catchment areas of medium irrigation projects across the state must also be declared a no-mining zone,” he adds.

“I have written at least 10 letters to different authorities in the Andhra Pradesh government, but there has been no response. These are serious human rights violations. Any government or officer with a conscience must act,” says Sarma.