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Why harp on mining as the only source of revenue

Human greed threatens the environment

By Patricia Mukhim

 

Early this month I visited Bholaganj (the Khasi name is Majai), near Shella which is adjacent to Bangladesh in the East Khasi Hills district. This was not a pleasure trip. I was accompanying the Commissioner Customs (North Eastern Region) who is also in charge of GST. She in turn was responding to complaints from the Exporters’ Body there which said that the Border Security Force (BSF) personnel were delaying the release of trucks carrying limestone to Bangladesh. The BSF has a makeshift lookout point just a few feet away from the trading point and they check the identity of each truck driver. Also located next to the gate is the Customs Office which checks whether the exporters have got a transport challan from the Transport Department of the state government. Each truck carrying limestone is weighed and pays a charge of Rs 200 for 9 tonnes of limestone which is the weight allowed by the Supreme Court. But trucks come to the weighbridge with 17-20 tonnes of limestone even when they know full well that there is a cap of 9 tonnes only. By law they are supposed to offload the excess amount of limestone but they don’t. And there is a tacit understanding between those manning the weighbridge and the exporters. Bangladesh importers of course look the other way. This is one of the infamous rent-seeking ventures practiced in Meghalaya and there is huge leakage of revenue which the Government has no intent to plug. The present Home Minister, James Sangma who was part of the Public Accounts Committee when he was in the Opposition and was tasked to look into the revenue leakage through check gates should be well briefed about this. Will this Government, which needs to save up every penny, have the courage to plug this revenue leakage and mop up the resources due to the state?

Coming to the unrelenting exploitation of limestone from the entire Shella-Bholaganj area, one can only ask, “How much it too much?” There is Lafarge which is sending limestone through conveyor belts to Chhatak in Bangladesh where the cement companies are located. Then there are individual exporters and the Komorrah Limestone Mining Company (KLMC) set up in the 1970s. This company is a joint venture between Government of Meghalaya and Development Consultants from Kolkata with a 50:50 shareholding agreement. KLMC sends limestone on crates via ropeway for a distance of about 17 kms to the dumping ground at Bangladesh. The mining area of KLMC is 240.55 hectares.  Lafarge on the other hand operates over 100 hectares of land and has acquired an additional land of 37.6 ha for infrastructure and ancillary activities towards transporting crushed limestone of 2.0 million tonnes per annum from the mining site also to the cement plant at Chhatak, Bangladesh through an 17 km elevated  Conveyor belt.

Going by strict norms there should have been a public hearing before mining activities are carried out. The public should have made an informed decision after understanding the environmental costs and the benefits and after deliberating if the environmental costs are reversible. People are supposed to know the consequences of unrelenting mining for decades. Within the United Nations, the section that looks at sustainable livelihoods of indigenous people; their land rights and common property resources such as water, forests, land and natural resources has coined the phrase, Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC). This means that the community must have adequate understanding of the consequences of mining in their lands and only then would they give their free, prior, informed consent.  But the irony is that companies do deals with the affluent and the pliable from the community and with the heads of traditional institutions (Dorbar Shnong) (Sirdarship) who sign away the rights of the people.

When an exporter, B Lyngdoh was asked how long he would continue with this limestone mining considering he and others are bringing down whole mountains in a short time, the answer was, “We can mine limestone for at least a hundred years.” This man is evidently not thinking about a future beyond one hundred years. For all he cares, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren could inherit a barren landscape that will no longer be productive. By then the water systems would have dried up.  This same exporter is pleading that the BSF should clear up the trucks faster so that instead of 300 trucks a day, the exporters could send across at least 500 truckloads of limestone daily. When asked if all the limestone goes to feed the cement companies in Bangladesh, Lyngdoh said the low grade limestone is used by the people of Bangladesh as boulders and for constructing houses. I never heard of anyone being able to afford to use limestone for building construction.   

The irony of the situation is that Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) studies commissioned by the Government are carried out by consultants employed by the companies and paid by them. Why would those consultants give an adverse comment?

Chief Minister Conrad Sangma, on Thursday spoke of the impact of climate change on Agriculture. His sister Agatha Sangma is an environmentalist and would know the consequences of incessant and unregulated mining. Will they care to commission an independent study to assess the impact of limestone mining in Shella, Bholaganj, Nongtrai etc and now in the Nongtalang areas and inform us what cost we will collectively have to pay in the long run? Of course as Dr Manmohan Singh famously said, “In the long run we will all be dead,” but how shall we die is the question. Will it be because of a natural calamity caused by a holocaust of unimaginable proportions because of the greed of a few?

What is the role of the larger members of the community who don’t benefit from this extractive mining? Should they not have a voice? Are they not stakeholders of nature? Who took away their lands from them? Who decided to allow mining of natural resources without a care for the future? How much is ploughed back into reclaiming the bald hills?

Most of us are appalled by the eagerness of the MDA Government to lift the ban on coal mining. Is this the only reason why the present set of legislators were elected? If so, Meghalaya is in serious trouble for then we are being ruled by mercenaries with no concern for the future and certainly no love for the environment which is sustaining our lives here on this earth.          

 

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