Dust engulfs the road leading to Vanthada, a hill-top Adivasi hamlet in the dense forests of the Eastern Ghats in Andhra Pradesh, as several trucks carrying loads of minerals pass by. The road, which has been carved out of the hill, is part of a long journey to the top, where less than 150 families belonging to the Konda Dora tribe, considered as Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG), have been living for as long as they can remember.
However, the hamlet situated in Prathipadu mandal in the state’s East Godavari district is no stranger to ruthless environmental exploitation for minerals such as bauxite and laterite, which the hill range is famous for. The hill range is situated between Narsipatnam in Visakhapatnam district and Prathipadu in East Godavari district and this particular hill is locally called ‘Nagula Parvatam’ thanks to its cobra-like shape.
More recently, the region has been in the news after actor-politician and Jana Sena Party chief Pawan Kalyan visited the area and spoke about the exploitation taking place.
As this reporter reached Vanthada along with K Rajendra, an environmental rights activist from Sujana organisation, and two of his volunteers, it is still morning and children are seen playing in front of wooden huts, while elders get ready to set off for the day’s work.
A picture of neglect
Even at first glance, the hamlet feels like it is on its last leg and may go extinct in a few decades, despite the population of the Konda Dora tribe in the state being 2,10,509 according to the 2011 census.
Ask anyone if everything is alright and pat comes the response, especially from youngsters: “If everything was fine, the huts would not be in such disrepair.”
As we moved further, Kude Jogamma, Seeta Erita and Satyavati Pade, three women in their late 30s, are seated outside their huts.
Speaking to TNM, Jogamma says that several companies have claimed that the village will develop soon if locals refrained from hampering operations. “But what do we have? We can’t even sell our forest products as many trees have stopped growing. Only non-tribals are thriving by digging up the hills,” she says.
Stating that health issues were frequent, Seeta explains, “Whenever we get sick, either we have to go to Yeleswaram or Prathipadu. Only sometimes the government health workers come here and distribute some generic medicines.”
According to locals, pulmonary issues are common in Vanthada, besides fever, skin allergies and heavy cough. Those who work in the mines are more prone to respiratory diseases.
Land rules violated?
Jogamma alleges that their land pattas (documents) were forcefully taken away by mining companies. “The pattas of more than 40 people are with the mining companies. Others don’t have pattas anyway.”
In 2010, a committee, headed by the then Joint Collector and Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA) Project Officer of Rampachodavaram, submitted a report that the tribal land pattas were taken away by contractors through wrongful means, which is a violation of the AP Assigned Lands (Prohibition of Transfers) Act 1977.
The law clearly maintains that the ownership of the land remains with the person holding the patta document and cannot be transferred without the state government’s involvement. However, locals claim that negligence on the part of the government has resulted in ruthless mining in the hills of Vanthada.
Vanthada falls in a reserve forest area as part of the Eastern Ghats. Locals allege that the lands were leased out to non-tribal people without their consent in violation of due process.
“Forest officials are giving permission to mining companies but objecting to our huts, even warning us that they will be burnt down if we try to erect more steady structures,” 35-year-old Gude Laxmi alleges.
Bauxite is generally found on flat-topped hills and Vanthada is situated on the flat top of a hill. Therefore, locals allege that mining companies have been making attempts to drive them away, so that they can exploit the minerals located below.
However, officials insist that all the individuals and companies carrying out mining activities have got clearances from the forest department, to whom the land belongs.
Speaking to TNM, KLV Prasad, Assistant Director in the East Godavari District’s Department of Mines and Geology, said that there were nine leases given to different individuals over 86 hectares of land, with two companies.
“The land on which laterite mining activities are taking place belongs to the forest department,” he says.
When asked about the allegations of irregularities, he said that the state was serious about the issue, adding, “Around 10 leases were cancelled earlier for flouting norms.”
Activists allege that the mining violates a number of constitutional safeguards meant for protection and strengthening of forest ecosystem and adivasi livelihoods, such as those defined in the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 and the Forest Rights Act, 2006. The mining operations are also in violation of the Biological Diversity Act, 2002.
Revenue officials that TNM spoke to point out that Vanthada is a sub plan village, which means that it is an ecologically sensitive zone.
In 2010, a committee headed by the Joint Collector of East Godavari also submitted that there were several irregularities in the way the land was taken from tribal persons and recommended the suspension of more than 10 officials who allegedly colluded with contractors.
Bauxite or laterite?
Environmental rights activist K Rajendra says that it is common practice in the region to take permission for laterite mining, but instead indulge in bauxite mining.
“From 2002, tribal lands have been snatched and the environment exploited. Such a ruthless exploitation of the hills will result in big problems in the future for surrounding villages, wildlife and tribal culture,” he says.
“Two dominant castes are involved in the mining activities and they have a network from the local village level to the Legislative Assembly,” he adds.
Pawan Kalyan, who also visited Vanthada earlier this week, alleged that a company was indulging in excessive mining and that as many as 15,000 metric tonnes of bauxite was exploited in the guise of laterite by flouting all the norms.
In fact, in 2012, the state government suspended the mining activity of one contractor Sagina Sobhan Babu for violating norms and carrying out mining beyond the permissible limit, causing damage to the bio-diversity and green cover. In 2015, the state issued Government Order (GO) 126, which cancelled his lease.
Speaking to TNM, noted environmental activist and former union government secretary EAS Sarma says, “No mining should be carried out on the top of the hill as per environmental protection laws. The Indian Bureau of Mines (IBM) has defined laterite with more than 30% aluminum as bauxite, which means that it can be mined only by the Andhra Pradesh Mineral Development Corporation (APMDC).”
Alleging political patronage for the ‘mining mafia’, he adds, “The mining companies apply for permission but even before they get approval and clearance, they begin operations.”
He further alleges that many politicians have vested interests and are working for the welfare of the mining companies.
When TNM attempted to visit a few sites where mining operations were taking place, hostility and a heavy presence of security is evident, with non-uniformed guards constantly patrolling the area in four-wheelers.
“This is a prohibited area. Do not enter without prior permission and do not take photos or videos. If you do so, you are liable to be prosecuted,” a board at the entrance of one site reads.
Two massive machines are seen loading minerals into trucks as a supervisor watches over the process. As we passed through the site, a white SUV pulled up next to us and two people got down and introduced themselves as security personnel, natives of Vanthada working for the company.
It took some convincing before they allowed us to go further. “You can go and see but don’t take your camera or phone out, then it will spell trouble for you,” they said.
As our vehicle moved towards another site from where a loaded truck was seen coming, many old mining sites can be seen in the distance, with each of them more than a hundred metres deep and in some cases, along both sides of the road.
We hardly moved forward before another car soon pulled up and shooed us away from the premises.
Basic facilities such as drinking water and proper housing have been denied to Vanthada for decades, locals allege.
“After nearly 20 years, we are still in the same place, asking for bare minimum facilities, while outsiders have managed to set up shop and earn a lot of money by digging up the hills. Earlier, we were dependent on selling tendu leaves, mahua, tamarind fruits and other such naturally available substances. Now, because of the dust and waste from the mining, many of these trees don’t even grow,” Laxmi says.
The mining activity is also allegedly damaging the topography of the hills.
Speaking of the impact of mining on the forests, Babu Rao, an activist from Human Rights Forum (HRF) and retired scientist from the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (IICT), tells TNM, “Any mining activity can completely deplete minerals in a region in 30 years. In the end, ecological balance, wildlife diversity and green cover will be damaged leaving nothing for the people.”
While Vanthada’s rich minerals have resulted in the mining mafia earning several crores, the development promised since 2002 still eludes the hamlet.
The District Mineral Foundation (DMF), set up in 2015 through an amendment to the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957 to benefit people in India’s mining affected areas, is mandated to provide funds from mining revenue for the development of affected areas to address issues like poverty, health care and drinking water.
Activists allege that royalty paid to the government from the leases was used to construct roads leading to the mining sites, instead of providing facilities to Vanthada.
The irreversible damage to the region is difficult to put in words, but two youth from the hamlet explained it best. “When our previous generation was growing up in the hills, little did they imagine that the very existence of their next generation would be under threat.”