High on Chinese demand

The red earth of Karnataka's Bellary district has become a symbol of the region's red-hot iron ore market, witnessing an unprecedented boom. Bellary has been supplying iron ore to China for the last few years and the Chinese demand for the ore has spiralled like never before, ever since Beijing was chosen as the venue for the next Olympics. The town of Hospet in the district is abuzz with commercial activity. While large mining companies in Bellary-Hospet are expanding feverishly, smaller players are scrambling for all they can find. But unfortunately, amid all this commotion, concerns about agriculture, ecology, human health and labour laws have taken a back seat.

"Ninety per cent of our production goes to China. We supply 10 per cent for domestic needs,' says Sajjad Wahab, whose family owns the company Karignur Iron and Steel Private Limited operating in the region. Vibuthiguda Mines, another company, has increased production from 88,000 tonnes in 2001-2002 to 267,000 tonnes in 2004-2005. Mineral Sales Private Limited mines in Vysankere forest have sought an expansion of 500,000 tonnes.

Bellary-Hospet contributed 25 million tonnes of the 80 million tonnes iron ore produced in India in 2004-2005. Karnataka's Department of Mines and Geology (domg) made Rs 260 crore from mining in 2004-2005; Rs 80 crore of this was from Bellary-Hospet. The iron ore, haematite, found in the district has a high 62 to 68 per cent iron content. Open cast iron ore mining is spread over 180 square kilometres in Bellary, Hospet and Sandur taluks. A study conducted by Karnataka State Remote Sensing Applications Centre in the three taluks reveals that between 1988 and 2000, there was a whopping increase in the mining area from 230.42 hectares (ha) to 820.46 ha.

Feverish digging domg cannot explain the increase in digging. Its records reveal that four leases were sanctioned in 2000, six in 2001, seven between 2002 and 2003 and eight between 2003 and 2004. There are 68 working mines with leases in Bellary, of which three are public owned and the rest privately owned.

The surge in exports has led to rampant land digging. The countryside is jotted with mounds of dug up earth. Men dig in plots of land, while women and children, some as young as three years, chip the ore to pieces. These illegal mines and crushing units are spread over several kilometers at Jambhunatha hill, outside Hospet. Also, three years of drought has increased the inflow of labour for land digging. "By digging just five to eight feet deep, iron ore is found ...So, everyone is turning to mining: doctors, cobblers, anyone with a little land,' says BT Venkatesh, an advocate who has studied unorganised mining labour in the area.

Agriculture, health suffer Agriculture is one of the worst sufferers of the unplanned mining expansion. "Over a period of time, the entire area got covered in mine waste. Agricultural cultivation was affected. From banana, betel nut and paddy, there was a shift to jowar, millets and cotton. Now, even this is grinding to a halt,' says Venkatesh. "Before 1990s, we used to get good crop. Now, with all this dust, we have to increase our use of fertilisers and still the yield is poor,' rues Jambumani Aryappa, tehsildar of Dhanapura, near Hospet. Over 202 ha agricultural land has been bought for a sponge iron plant in Aryappa's neighbouring village, Hanumanhalli. The price of agricultural land has surged in the region with a flurry of sponge iron units coming up; the Karnataka state pollution control board (kspcb) says 22 units were approved last year.
Human health is another major sufferer of the mining mania. Red Alert, a documentary made by non-governmental organisation (ngo) Saki, records the health problems of mine workers. "We always have stomach pain. With every gulp of tea, we take in dust,' laments a worker. The area has high incidence of lung infections, heart ailments and cancer. Complaints of air pollution are also common, but kspcb remains unmoved. "The only problem is dust during transportation, but there are no basic standards fixed and so we cannot take any action,' argues kspcb environment officer C M Satish. A 2002 study by National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (neeri), Nagpur, found suspended particulate matter at many locations in Sandur between 130 microgramme per metre cube (