A group of anxious women peers down a 40-feet-deep well.
It’s bone dry, just like the other one built nearby.
A steel company built the wells in Deojhar village last year as compensation for taking over the community water bodies for an iron ore plant.
“We haven’t seen water in these wells all year,” says 30-something Kanika Naik, shading her face from the scorching sun. “We have to fetch water from three kilometres away.”
About 290 kilometres north of the state capital of Bhubaneswar, Deojhar in Keonjhar district is in the centre of the great mining rush that has fired India’s economic engine over the past five years.
India’s iron ore exports have surged to an all-time high of over 100 million tones a year, most of it feeding China’s steel plants, which in turn have kept world prices for minerals high.
India also tripled its imports of steel, visible in the sleek facades of malls and apartment blocks across cities.
But while China has begun a national debate on the ecological costs of their economic growth, India isn’t there yet.
The great boom in mining — companies pay a royalty to the state of Rs 26 per tonne of iron ore, selling it for over 100 times that, or an average of Rs 3,000 — means profits run into the crores. And there is every incentive to ensure the rules don’t get in the way.
The disregard is apparent in the 4-kilometre long queue of trucks headed out of the district via National Highway 215.
As they inch towards the state’s ports with their cargo of ore, they cause traffic jams that can last for days, freezing all other movement.
But they continue to ply, despite a local administrative ban on their movement during the March school exams.
“It’s a classic loot-and-scoot scenario,” says chartered accountant-turned-environmentalist Biswajit Mohanty of the Wildlife Society of Orissa. “There is a mad rush for profit without any debate about the consequences.”
Keonjhar, for instance, is an overwhelmingly tribal district with several dense sal forests that are reserved and protected on paper. But officials have opened up close to 4,000 hectares of forest land for mining since 2000. That’s more than the 3,200 hectares opened up in the previous 20 years.
In a shabby Forest Department office, whose tables are piled high with more applications by mining companies, languid officials decline comment.
Using the Right to Information Act, Mohanty found that mining companies had bought vehicles for the Forest Department, ostensibly to be used to check on compensatory afforestation programmes. Only, the vehicles have never left the state capital. “If you ride around in vehicles purchased by the mining companies, you have compromised your independence,” says Mohanty.
As regulations fail, on the ground, individuals are left to fight a losing battle.
In a spare office at the district bar association, lawyer Sudhanshu Panda brings down files outlining alleged violations by mining companies — everything from plagiarised environmental impact reports to burning of forests to polluting of local rivers.
Panda has filed over 100 cases, including several against rash driving that caused 645 road deaths in 2006.
“The mining boom has resulted in a total disregard for the rules,” he says. “There is money flying around and everyone wants a share.”
Back in Deojhar, farmer Sridhar Naik’s life typifies the mixed fallout of mining.
His son works as a driver at a plant being set up in the area.
But Naik’s 2-acre farm has been rendered infertile because of the open dust from the mining around him.
“Three years ago, the paddy crop just stopped growing,” he says, watching an army of JCBs eat into the hill above his fields. “I have been a farmer all my life. Now I don't know what to do.”