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Rajasthan: Mines or water?

Is it water or mining that should matter to a state that witnessed its fifth consecutive summer of drought? That debate is exercising many minds in Rajasthan. Many argue that mining in the Aravallis was "irreparably damaging" the water resources and the dry wells and ponds are only a prelude to a permanent water crisis in future.
PTI | By HT Correspondent, Jaipur
UPDATED ON JUL 17, 2003 11:06 AM IST
View of a mine near Udaipur.

Is it water or mining that should matter to a state witnessed the fifth consecutive year of drought? A debate is on in Rajasthan.

Ever since the Supreme Court of India permitted legal mining in Aravalli Ranges, some NGOs and water experts have decided to talk reason now that the euphoria over the court's ruling is slowly coming to an end.

They argue that the mining in the Aravallis was "irreparably damaging" the water resources and the dry wells and ponds are only a prelude to a permanent water crisis in future.

ML Jhanwar, Chairman of the Institute of Environment Education and Sustainable Development, Jaipur, recently did a study on the impact on mining in some areas in Bhilwara, Sariska Tiger Project, Udaipur and Jaipur.

According to him, wherever mining activities are being carried out, water table has significantly gone down and wells and tanks have dried up. In Bijolia area of Bhilwara, there used to be bumper crops of wheat just two decades back. "Wheat is imported there today," he said.

"Mining in Aravalli ranges is damaging the aquifer permanently. Once mines go below the water table, the water in wells and tanks flows into mines and then flushed out as waste water. Instead of making water harvesting structures on these hills, the government is ensuring the permanent wastage of rain water from these hills," said MS Rathore, senior fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, Jaipur.

"Rivers in Rajasthan come out of the Aravallis. Today there are mines in the catchment areas of the dams built on them and therefore, there is little water storage," he said.

But in a state where potable water could be transported by train and tankers, there are few people willing to hear any arguments against mining. After the apex court banned mining in Aravalli in November last year, the state government went into a frenzy of activities. It sought the help of the central government and took the services of the Solicitor General. The court finally granted relief allowing legal mining.

The government, political parties and a section of the media are still competing with one another to take the credit for the court ruling.

A woman miner in front of the Aravalli rockface.

And they have their own reasons to seek credit. For the government, it was a loss of Rs 500 crore as revenue and sales tax. For political parties, it was the number of mine owners, mines-based industries, transporters and the labourers engaged in these mines spread over 14 districts of the state.

For a section of the media, it was the sheer magnitude of the problem - ban on over 9,000 mines causing unemployment to lakhs of people (the number of estimated unemployed varied from 1.5 lakh in initial reports to about 65 lakhs by the time the ruling came). Official figures of unemployed varied between 1.75 lakhs and 8 lakhs.

The National Jal Biradari, a public forum involving a host of non-government organisations and individuals working on water, has now started Aravalli Bachao Chetna Yatra in Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat. It is aimed at awakening the villagers to the damage to the environment by mining in the Aravallis.

The yatra started from Rajghat in New Delhi on December 23, 2002 and covering some areas in Haryana, it has reached Alwar now. It would further go to Gujarat before ending at Sabarmati in Ahmedabad on January 30 from where a National Jal Yatra would be started.

Ambuj Kishore said that mining was benefiting "a handful of people" and as for unemployment problem, the government had to look for some alternatives.

Rathore alleged that the state government went out of the way to defend mining because "politicians, bureaucrats and industrialists own them or have vested interest in them."

Bio-diversity in the Aravalli hills is getting destroyed. During drought period earlier, livestock and human population used to take shelter in these hills, which worked as a barrier to the deserts. "This buffer security is no more there. Besides, when the government talks about public interest, let's count the number of widows whose husbands died from silicosis working in those mines for paltry wages," he said.

DK Singh

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