In June 2016, the Mandal Parishad Primary (MPP) School in the tribal hamlet of Rocchupanuku village in Visakhapatnam district shut down after granite mining started hardly 100 meters away. 35 students, from Class 1 to Class 5, are now forced to either opt out of school or walk a couple of kilometers in the hilly forests of the Eastern Ghats to reach the nearest MPP School in Tadipathri village.
“The sound from the quarry makes a normal conversation between two people impossible, forget teaching. The school was closed because there is no practical possibility that the school can run in an atmosphere with such high decibels of noise. The arrogance of the mining companies reached its peak when they used the defunct premises of the school and the classrooms to house the workers,” says Turre Somaraju, whose house sits right opposite the school.
Somaraju now sends his eight-year-old daughter to the neighbouring school, reluctantly. “There are some wild animals in the dense forest. Who will take responsibility if the animals attack our children?” he asks.
(The abandoned school)
Two mining companies, rumoured to be close to the ruling Telugu Desam Party and its leaders, have obtained permissions to mine the granite out of Challagondammatalli Konda – a hill situated barely 50 meters away from the habitation of Rocchupanuku, housing 250 people. The tribals of the village, who belong to the Kondadora community, consider Challagondammatalli Konda as their goddess.
The mining area also falls under the catchment area of Kalyanapulova Reservoir, which is the first medium irrigation project in the district, built in the year 1975. The Varaha River starts in the Eastern Ghats and passes by Rocchupanuku, before being dammed three kilometers downstream at the Kalyanapulova reservoir.
“They draw clean water from upstream and release the waste downstream. This will render the reservoir, which provides drinking water to hundreds of villages, and irrigation water to more than 10,000 acres, useless,” alleges Ganesh.
Ganesh from Macchavanipalem, which falls under the ayacut of the reservoir says, “The capacity of the reservoir is bound to decrease because of siltation. 15,000 marginal and small-scale farmers and their families, who mostly cultivate paddy and sugarcane, will lose their livelihood if the mining continues.”
The ayacut of the reservoir is spread across 13 villages, with most of the land concentrated in the hands of backward caste farmers.
The villagers of Rocchupanuku allege that officials and the local politicians are hand in glove with the mining companies and that mining permissions were obtained by flouting all required norms and misrepresenting facts.
“The MRO and RDO lied in the reports that the nearest habitation is 1.5km away. Isn’t the hill less than a stone’s throw from here?” asks Raju, sitting on the verandah of his house and pointing to the hill. Raju is an activist with the Andhra Pradesh Vyavasaya Vruthidarula Union (APVVU) which has been at the forefront of the people’s movement against mining in the catchment area.
“The report neither mentioned that the Kalyanapulova reservoir is 3km away nor that the mining is taking place in the catchment area of the reservoir. This points to collusion between the mining and irrigation departments at the behest of the mining companies under the supervision of the local MLA belonging to the TDP and the sarpanch belonging to the YSRCP. Not surprisingly, the Pollution Control Board is also silent despite many complaints and petitions,” alleges Raju.
When the idea of mining their goddess (Challagondammatalli Konda) was first proposed, the tribals of Rocchupanuku protested against the officials and the mining companies, and made their displeasure felt. However, the officials allegedly entered into a bargain with the village residents on the day of the public hearing, without actually conducting the hearing as required by law.
“We were promised a lot of things by the officials if we agreed for the mining to take place. Not one of them is fulfilled as of today, even after more than a year since the mining has started,” says Luvva Ramulamma.
“We were promised that every house would get at least one job. However, the only job the people from the village was given is that of a watchman. Even his salary is due from the past three months,” she adds, murmuring curses against herself and other village residents for having trusted the words of the officials so easily.
“They also promised that blasting wouldn’t take place under any circumstances. All they do now is blasting, day and night, continuously. The blasting reverberates across the surrounding hills in the Eastern Ghats. Many houses have already developed huge cracks and some of them are on the verge of collapsing,” says Ramulamma’s husband Devudu, pointing to the cracks in their house.
(Damaged roads due to heavy vehicles transporting Granite)
Katla Nakshatra Rao, a 35-year-old farmer, cultivates cashew in his four acres of forest land. He has been cultivating that land since more than 20 years, but is yet to get a patta recognizing his right on the land as mandated by the Forest Rights Act, 2006.
The officials, having failed to recognize his rights on the forest land, have now used it as bait to get his acceptance for the granite mining, alleges Nakshatra Rao. “Each family in the village cultivates around four or five acres of forest land on an average. The officials have promised pattas for all tribals cultivating forest land. Even after more than a year, not one of us has patta, neither individual nor collective. What is even worse is, the dust and the rocks from the quarry are reducing the yield from the plantation, often resulting in losses,” he says.
What about the goddess of the tribals being destroyed? A single-room cement structure has come up around 200m from the Challagondammatalli Konda. The village residents say the mining company constructed it as a consolation for the loss of the goddess. The white structure is empty though, with nothing inside it, and is locked from outside.
“Challagondammatalli Konda was our goddess because we used to pray to nature. How absurd is it to pray to this concrete structure now?” asks Turre Sanyasi Rao, Somaraju’s brother.
“How does your goddess look?” I ask Sanyasi Rao. “Like the hill,” he replies pointing to the half-mined hill. “Will they put an idol of the hill or fit the hill itself in the single room?” he asks, laughing sarcastically.