Sarhula Lohra suffers from tuberculosis and coughs blood regularly. The 65-year-old, who does odd jobs to eke out a living, is helped by neighbours. They take him to the nearest health facility, located around 15 kilometres from his shanty at Sakhuatar locality, Konka village, near Jharkhand’s off McCluskieganj town.
He considers himself lucky to be surviving. His neighbour Muniya Devi, 50, passed away last year, within three months of contracting a similar ailment.
Situated around 64 kilometres from Ranchi, the state capital, the mere mention of McCluskieganj conjures up images of sprawling bungalows, vast stretches of greenery and forest cover amidst idyllic and serene settings. The town was founded by an Englishman for retired Anglo-Indian government officers looking to spend the autumn of their lives in the lap of nature.
Now, it has become a den of moneymaking businesses, many run illegally, at the expense of the environment.
Several brick-kilns coupled with massive deforestation and ferrying of tons of coal have sounded the death knell for the town that was once the most sought after place for poets and nature lovers. Around 40 brick-kilns, most of them illegal, spread over 18-20 villages comprising McCluskieganj, have not only destroyed the natural environment but have also risked the lives of thousands of people living there and bearing the brunt of the pollution from the kilns.
The Sakhuatar area is the face of the dying McCluskieganj. Almost every member of a household is suffering from an ailment. “We are living in pathetic conditions but nobody is bothered,” said Lohra, choking with emotion. “Almost every person living here is suffering from some kind of a disease probably due to the pollution from the brick kilns. No government official has ever come to look into our condition. We have to travel far even for a primary treatment as Primary Health Centre here is in ruins.”
Around 200 people live here amidst extreme poverty. Two brick kilns operating close to the homes have diverted their supply of potable water from a small stream, to the kilns.
The hapless villagers now depend on a solar run overhead plastic tank for drinking water and often run short of water for days.
Shankar Lohra, 30, rued that the scarcity of water has reached such an extent that they don’t bathe for days. “The water crisis is so severe that often we take bath after seven-10 days,” he said. “The priority is to arrange water for drinking and cooking food. The kiln owners have blocked our natural supply of water. The quarrel over every drop of water is a regular affair near the tank. They (kiln owners) threaten us with dire consequences if we raise our voice. We fear that our livestock would not survive if the conditions remain the same.”
Villagers claimed that the water level has reached a depth of over 250 feet. It was available at 10-15 feet depth even until two decades ago. They blamed increasing pollution and massive deforestation for groundwater depletion.
Kamal Kant Sharma, who runs a hostel, has lost around four acres of land to the encroachment by the kiln owners. “The kiln owners are destroying the fertility of the soil by digging up to 20 feet for constructing new units,” he said. “They have not spared the forest or a private land either,” he said. “They have destroyed the fertility of my land by using machines to dig it. I have knocked the door of almost all the government departments but none us come to my rescue. Several hostels like mine are situated closed to the land being dug up and small children are at the risk of contracting diseases because of dust flying in the air.”
Sharma added that the kilns have proliferated in the past three to four years as the administration is hand-in-glove with the wrongdoers.
Impact on children
The environmental degradation of McCluskieganj calls for immediate attention as it impacts thousands of children as well. The town is a hub of educational institutions, with around 25-30 schools and 60-65 hostels in its vicinity. Several thousand students come from different parts of the state and even outside.
Over 10,000 students study in Don Bosco Academy, the largest school in the town. The management of Don Bosco Academy has been raising its voice against the damage being done to the quaint town. In 2013, over 2,000 people along with the teachers of the academy had staged a protest at the railway station against the proposed project by Central Coalfields Limited to set up a coal siding in McCluskieganj. The project was, however, stalled after the protest. “The depleting environment is a matter of concern for us as thousands of students are at risk of getting affected if the brutal assault on nature is not stopped. We stand by the local people in their cause to save the nature,” said TD Joshi, the assistant principal of the Don Bosco Academy.
In 2015, Joydeep Mukherjee, a Supreme Court advocate, had filed a case at Eastern Bench of National Green Tribunal against the Jharkhand State Pollution Control Board and the chief secretary of the state claiming that over 2,000 illegal brick kilns were operational in the state and accused the administration of inaction. The state government in its reply had admitted that Jharkhand had 945 brick kilns of which just 317 were being legally run.
The NGT in its judgment had made it clear that excavating brick earth for manufacturing bricks without obtaining Environmental Clearance from the State Environmental Impact Assessment Authority is a violation of the provisions of EIA notification, 2006 and operating the brick kiln without obtaining consent from the State Pollution Control Board is violation of the Water Act, 1974 and the Air Act, 1981. The tribunal had also imposed a fine of around Rs. 100,000-150,000 on the defaulters. Still, the illegal kilns continue to thrive.
The town is also faces the double whammy of stone crushers and movement of hundreds of trucks carrying tons of coal everyday, disturbing the silence of the town, polluting numerous trees and resulting in diseases being spread among people living there. Local residents say that trucks of around five coal mines situated at a distance of 10 km from the town frequent the path for transporting coal because it takes lesser time to reach Ranchi via McCluskieganj.
The mindless deforestation is the last nail in the coffin of the town where the number of visitors has dwindled because of increasing pollution.
In 2017, the Indian State of Forest Report had mentioned that areas of very dense forest and moderately dense forest had declined in Jharkhand since 2015. The very dense forest declined by three percent while moderately dense forest by six percent in the last two years. The state which was known for its greenery, had posted a marginal 29 square kilometre growth in forest area between 2015 and 2017, which is merely 0.04 percent of its total 79,716 sq km area.
Lakhan Kumar, a Right To Information activist based in McCluskieganj claimed that he has filed more than 20 RTIs to different government departments in the past three years seeking reply of the steps taken to stop the killing of environment but nobody has bothered to send a reply. “I wanted to know that how the forest land was used by brick kiln owners for their nefarious activities and filed over 20 RTIs between 2015-18 to mining, pollution and other concerned departments but am yet to receive a reply from any government department.”
He further claimed that the temperature during summers that hovered around 25-27 degrees Celsius in 1990s shots up to 43 degrees Celsius in the same season in McCluskieganj.
The town has almost lost the very purpose for which it was founded by Ernest Timothy McCluskie, an Irish-Indian property dealer based in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in the early 1930s for the Anglo-Indian community.
Nearly 350 families had settled in the town by the 1940s, earning it a sobriquet of mini England but just 10-12 families now remain, with most of them having migrated to foreign shores.
Most of the 400 sprawling bungalows built by the community have disappeared over the passage of time with just fifty houses, mostly in dilapidated condition, still remaining to reveal the tales of the glorious past.
No one in the administration seems to be keen to save the heritage town. Principal chief conservator of forest, Jharkhand, Sanjay Kumar refused the existence of any illegal activity in the town. “There are no illegal brick-kilns operating in the area,” he said, refusing to comment on the deforestation.
The Jharkhand State Pollution Control Board is also not forthcoming with any solutions to the plight of McCluskieganj. “We have not done any study to find out the level of pollution there because it doesn’t come under an industrial zone. It is impossible for us to tell the exact situation but the department doesn’t occasional raids to stop illegal brick kilns,” said a senior official on condition of anonymity.
Those closely monitoring the impact of climate change in the state say that rainfall has become erratic in Jharkhand due to the assault on environment. “The rain has become erratic and also lesser as compared to other years. In 2018, the state received around 1100-1200 mm of rainfall as compared to 1400-1600 mm received in previous years. As a result, the groundwater which is dependent on rains has gone up to 400 feet deep in some areas of Ranchi. The constant soil erosion has also been destroying the fertility of top soil. The dust emitting from the coal fields is causing disease to the people,” said Nitish Priyadarshi, assistant professor in department of Geology, Ranchi University.
The government claims of planting new saplings but unfortunately, a forest can never be planted and what is gone is gone forever, Priyadarshi said.
Herald Mendis, 72, one of the oldest Anglo-Indians in the town, recounts with pride that his grandfather, Alen Mendis, was the first to start a direct bus service from McCluskieganj to Ranchi way back in 1940s.
He summarises the present condition, “The place has been our abode for generations. People flocked here because of its green cover and serenity but now things are no more the same. The assault on environment has robbed the identity of the town which it was known for. Time is not far away when it will become a deserted town.”
This article first appeared on Mongabay.