Ramu Malto (name changed) is a member of Sauria Paharia, a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group from Jharkhand. He would pride himself on the proximity to the historic Rajmahal hills, where he spent most of his life. However, in the last few years, with increased mining activity impacting the homes and livelihoods, Malto and other residents of the Rajmahal hills, have reasons to be concerned.

Malto said that his village often faces the consequences of blasting in the nearby hillocks. “Sometimes the blasting is done within half a kilometre from our village,” he said. “This not only triggers severe vibration in our hilly village but also adds pollution to the region. Many times some rocks also dangerously come close to the human habitations here.”

Malto’s village, Choti Pachrukhi Pahad in Sahibganj district on the Rajmahal hills, has a population of around 250 people including 30 households belonging to the Sauria Paharia Adivasis. There are dozens of other villages on these hills along National Highway-80 such as Alawa, Amjola, Gurmi, Pangdo, Dhokuti, Bekchuri and others – all facing a similar fate. The local residents said that the mining activities in the Rajmahal hills have got an impetus, particularly over the last two decades.

The Sauria Paharia Adivasis depend mainly on mixed farming of millet, corn and other crops. Shyam Malto (name changed), another member of the community, living in Amjori village in Daminbhitta panchayat in the same district, said that blasting is done around a kilometre away from his village quite often.

“Owing to the rampant stone quarrying and blasting, the water availability in my village has gone down,” Shyam told Mongabay-India. “Most of the members of our tribes were earlier dependent on the mountain streams for water. The streams have now diminished. Earlier, we also used to collect minor forest produce from the hills and sell them to sustain ourselves. With the mining activities taking over the hills, our livelihoods are now under threat.”

Rare fossils

Choti Pachrukhi and Amjori villages fall under the Santhal Pargana area in Jharkhand and are part of the Rajmahal hill range that is spread over four districts of the state and across an area of around 2,600 square km. This region is often in the limelight in political debates because of the large-scale illegal stone quarry activities here.

The part of Rajmahal hills in the Sahibganj district affected by mining. Photo credit: Rahul Singh

Experts claim that after the Aravali hills, Rajmahal hills are perhaps among India’s oldest hills. Ranjit Kumar, Assistant Professor of Geography at the Sahibganj College, whose studies are primarily based on these hills, claimed that the origin of these hills could be traced back to anywhere between 68 million years to 118 million years.

“These hills were formed after volcanic eruptions,” he told Mongabay-India. “Rare fossils, found in these hills, are claimed to be one of the oldest in the world and belong to the Jurassic period.”

“These fossils could help scientists in research tracing the evolution of Earth and its creation,” he said. “However, these fossils are now under threat due to mining activities as well as a lack of awareness about them.”

Illegal mines

There have recently been efforts to preserve these fossils but with the mining activities, the threat to the existence of these hills continues.

According to the Sahibganj District Environment Plan of 2020, the district, where both Ramu and Shyam live, is home to 180 mines and 451 crushers. The Jharkhand Mines and Geology department website, however, notes that by the end of September, Sahibganj hosted a total of 424 mining leases out of which 115 were active while 309 were temporarily inactive.

Data suggest that in terms of total mining leases and active leases, Sahibganj tops the list in the state. After Sahibganj the most mining leases were issued for Pakur district which is also located on the Rajmahal hills.

In Pakur, there are 345 leases out of which 79 are active. Mongabay-India reached out to Vibhuti Kumar, Sahibganj District Mining Officer for information, but at the time of writing the story, there was no response to the queries on the issue.

This issue of widespread illegal mines in the region has often been raised in political and environmental discussions but failed to yield any solution. Allegations of political patronage and use of muscle power in this sector and areas were often cited as a reason for the rampant illegal mining.

The National Green Tribunal has meanwhile tried to intervene into the matter and on the illegal mining activities in Rajmahal. Last year a Joint Committee which went to inspect the area found blatant violations of the existing norms and informed the National Green Tribunal about the same in writing as well.

The Joint Inspection Committee comprised members from the Jharkhand Pollution Control Board, Central Pollution Control Board, Ministry of Forest and Environment. It went to inspect the mines and crushers at Bankudi. The team found that several villages were not at adequate distances from the crusher units while mining activities were close to the crusher units.

Several of these crusher units were operating without compliance of environmental norms like provision for boundary walls, green belt, pollution mitigating equipment and others. The Committee also raised objections to the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority in this case.

Lobin Hembrom, Boria MLA from the district had raised the issue of illegal mines in the State Legislative Assembly too during the starting of this year. He claimed that more than 50% of the stone quarries there were illegal. He also expressed apprehensions of the impact of such activities on the health of the primitive tribes living in close proximity to these mined hills.

The degraded parts of the hills due to rampant mining. Photo credit: Special arrangement by Rahul Singh

“It is not a matter of the lives of the tribal community alone,” he told Mongabay-India. “If we pose a threat to the environment, how can we think about a better future? Mining activities in Rajmahal hills have posed a great threat to the green cover and trees there. Farming of several crops like corn, mustard and others which was earlier done in those places have vanished.”

While there have been efforts in the past to rehabilitate the tribal communities from the hilly areas to the open lands, these efforts have failed, Ranjit Kumar Singh said. Much of this is to do with the indigenous culture and traditional living of the tribal communities.

Badlao Foundation, a leading voluntary organisation working with the tribal communities, in its study on the lives of the tribe found that the members of the tribes prefer settling in hilly areas rather than in open lands. The study also concluded that the members of the tribe preferred mud houses on the hills rather than concrete houses in the flatlands.

Need of data

As a step towards the protection of the hills and their indigenous communities, there is first a need to conduct a Census of Rajmahal hills. Mapping the region and its population can help gain adequate and precise information about the region.

Nitish Priyadarshi, Assistant Professor (Geology) at Ranchi University said, “There is an increase of health ailments like asthma, cough and increased Eosinophil counts among people living close to Rajmahal hills.”

“There needs to be a geological survey on the importance of these hills and it needs to be protected. There is also a need to put a limit to the level of mining that could be done in such hills,” he told Mongabay-India.

“The biodiversity on the hills, on which livelihoods are dependent, is receding. If the pace of stone quarrying continues, we will not be able to trace any mountain in Sahibganj. The siltation in nearby Ganga River is on the rise which is a matter of concern,” Ranjit Kumar Singh said. He also raised concerns about the threat to dolphins in the river due to the mining activities and urged the government to declare these hills as protected hills.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.