Tuesday 11 January 2011

Abandoned mines a health hazard

Jharkhand: Roro hills, 20 kilometers from Chaibasa in Singbhum: Women can be seen dressed in widows' garments. Here there are no leafy trees or humming streams. The only thing that can be seen here is toxic waste - the left overs of 70 years of mining, first by small, local players, then by big ones like Tata and Birla.

The place reeks of tell-tale signs of careless closure and the 14 villages that surround the mountains pay a price for this everyday. The hills in Singhbum were once mined both for asbestos and chromium. For the past 20 years, waste from asbestos mining has been lying here and this is flowing into the villages causing havoc as asbestos is a known carcinogen.
If there's one example of sheer corporate and Government negligence, it is this.
0.7 million tonnes of toxic waste is not exactly a playground for children, and for the children of Roro hills, it is an endless hunting ground. They come here to scavenge for iron scraps. The slope of the hill, which is now a powdery slide is used as a giant slide by the children.
However, what they don't know is that such naked exposure to asbestos dust could result in serious diseases like asbestosis, asthama and even cancer. But the sad part of it all is that the toxic waste is too much and too close to be completely avoided by the people here.
Roro is a village of former asbestos mine workers. The past few years alone have reported 10 deaths, all former workers. Many like Mangal Sundi are still battling for survival.
Part of his ailment has been diagnosed as TB and life seems to ebbing away.
"I was working in the crasher. They produced asbestos over there. I feel that someone should help me recover," says he.
There are other signs of ill health that other miners sport - like fading eyesight.
Says another ex-asbestos mine worker, Dumbi Boipoi, "I can't see properly. Only when people call me and I look in their direction do I see a hazy outline."
Others say that apart from the side-effects to their health, there were other aspects like being monetarily exploited. Some say they would get paid as low Rs seven per day.
And it's not just human beings who are affected. The wind and the rain carry carry the toxic waste downhill, flooding the fields. The result - barren lands and toxic water.
Says Mukund Sundi, "They mined our hills and left us like that. Our lands turned barren, so who's responsible - the Birla company is responsible."
And the shocking admission comes from the people concerned themselves.
Says CMD Bharat Coking Coal Ltd Partho Bhattacharya, "Earlier, there were no mine closure plans. We did the mining, we went away and the miners went away. Reclaimation was not considered an integral part of the mining process and nor were the costs of reclaimation factored into the total cost of production and pricing."
There were no rules for waste disposal, or scientific closure of mines either. It had become easy for companies to exploit the land and then simply leave.
The result - there is not just one Roro, but innumerable places like Roro dotting the landscape across India.

Villages of the damned in toxic land

Singbhum, Jharkhand: The Roro hills, 20 kms from Chaibasa in Singbhum district, are a dump of toxic waste.
The waste is the leftover of 70 years of asbestos mining, first by local players then by big ones, like the Tatas and the Birlas. The toxic waste lies on the hills and flows into 14 villages. "Our children have been affected and the people who worked as labourers have been affected,” says Beer Singh Sundi, head of Roro village.
An estimated 0.7 million tonnes of toxic waste is now a playground for children. They come here to scavenge for iron scraps as well, which they sell for up to Rs 12 rupees a kilo. They also pick up chromium chunks.
The powdery waste is giant slide for children but naked exposure to asbestos dust could result in serious diseases like asbestosis, cancer and asthma.
Roro is a village of former asbestos mine workers, mostly tribals. In the last three years 10 former workers have died here. Some, like 30-year-old Mangal Sundi, are barely alive. His young wife is helpless, resigned, refusing to talk.
“I worked in the crusher, where they produced asbestos,” says Sundi. Some of his symptoms match TB, but doctors can't pinpoint his illness and so they offer no cure.
"Workers who are exposed to asbestos and they are suffering from asbestos-related diseases like asbestosis and misothalamia. Doctors call them TB patients, as they want to save their employers from giving any compensation," claims Gopal Krishna, coordinator of the Ban Asbestos Network.
There is no assistance for Mangal Sundi from his former employers. "I am completely helpless; someone should help me recover,” he says.
Forget about health insurance even when tribals like him worked in the mine the wages were just seven rupees a day. "For each day of work we got a meagre seven rupees,” says Dumbi Boipoi, a former asbestos mine worker.
Many former workers say they are going blind. "My eyesight is spoilt so much that I cannot recognize anyone from a distance,” says Dumbi Boipoi.
The tribals are in fact paying a double price. Over time, wind and rain have scattered the toxic waste on their land as well the result is barren fields, useless for farming.
“The dust gets mixed with water and flows into the fields and we run into losses,” says Beer Singh Sundi.
“The entire issue of managing mineral waste has been totally neglected and the Jharkhand asbestos tailings that are there in Chaibasa, Roro hills are a testimony how these lip service are seen in practice," says Gopal Krishna.
There were no rules for waste disposal, or scientific closure of mines either. Companies exploit the land and then simply leave. Across the region there is just no evidence of responsible and sustainable mining. The consequence: not just one, but innumerable Roros dotting the mining regions of India.