Illegal stone quarries in Sopore shut, but safety still takes a back seat

Illegal stone quarries in Sopore shut, but safety still takes a back seat

Illegal stone quarries in Sopore shut, but safety still takes a back seat

Government action forces 10 illegal quarries to stop operations; workers at the lone quarry with licence claim they are not given safety gears  

Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir: For the last 14 years, walking sticks have been the best friends of Nazir Ahmad Malla (55). The traumatic memories of the day he lost both his legs are still fresh in his mind. “I was working in a stone quarry when a huge rock came crashing on my friend and me,” says Malla, who has been confined to a life of immobility since then.

Nazir Ahmad Malla, victim of stone quarry mishap in Baramulla village (Photo - Suhail Khan, 101Reporters)

The stone quarry industry has long been a vital source of income for the local community in North Kashmir's Sopore, but its impact on public health and environment has been devastating. But things are changing for good. Only one quarry with a licence to operate functions in Sopore now. Another 10 have been shut following a government clampdown on illegal units. In the last five years, only one quarry-related accidental death has been reported in Sopore.

“I was a daily wage labourer and was not entitled for compensation from the contractor, but the stone quarry association extended medical assistance to me," says Malla, a father of two. “Life is not the same as it was years ago. My family had to face a lot, but now my children are mature enough to earn a livelihood for themselves,” he sighs.

Manzoor Ahmad Hajam (48) is bedridden after a quarry accident in 2013. He speaks about his shattered dreams and the desperation he feels in his inability to support his family. “I am bedridden and my family is suffering. Had it not been for the local mohalla committee that takes care of my medicines and family needs, it would have been disastrous,” says Hajam thankfully.

Both Malla and Hajam, who worked in the legal quarry, repeat that working as a labourer at a stone quarry is akin to embracing death beforehand, as one has to manually roll the rock pieces and load it onto vehicles. No safety gears were provided. Often a heavy rock rolls down and crashes everything present in its way. “You never know when a boulder will hit you and you will be dead or crippled for the whole life,” says Hajam.

Stone quarry workers have been in the profession for generations. They do not have any other job opportunities around. At present, a quarry worker earns around Rs 700 to 800 per day.  “There should be other jobs for such youth who are not educated enough to work in the private or government sector. After the accident, I made sure that my son did not become a quarry labourer. He is doing his postgraduation now,” Hajam adds. 

Nazir Ahmad, a cluster head at a quarry unit, underlines the significance of safety protocols and calls on the government to enforce them to prevent accidents and injuries. “Workers are provided with safety helmets, but how come it will help or protect when a massive rock collapses?”

Nazir Ahmad Dar, cluster head at quarry unit, overseeing operations (Photo - Suhail Khan, 101Reporters)

However, Irshad Ahmad (34), a quarry worker in Baramulla, says no safety measures are implemented. “Neither the company nor the contractor provides us with safety gears. Moreover, workers do not adhere to safety protocols,” he claims.

“A strict order to the contractors and companies from the government regarding adherence to safety measures is needed. Providing safety gears to workers should be made mandatory,” Irshad says, while suggesting that earthmovers and quarry rollers could make the job easier.

More issues in North Kashmir 

There is a huge demand for the extracted stones in the construction sector. However, dust generated from quarries and during stone transportation is still a cause for concern. Locals lament that a dusty atmosphere has replaced the once green landscape. “We do not even open the windows of our house. We have had infections of various types. Our health is deteriorating,” says Noor Mohammad, who lives near a stone quarry in Baramulla. 

A busy quarry in Baramulla (Photo - Suhail Khan, 101Reporters)

Dr Waseem Ahmad Mir, Physician Specialist, Government Medical College (GMC), Baramulla, tells 101Reporters that at least four persons with respiratory problems consult him in a month. Most of the cases he attends to are of silicosis.

“Seasonal allergies may occur due to factors such as shedding of pollen by female species of Russian poplar trees. However, the presence of excessive dust particles from stone quarrying or mining activities directly exacerbates respiratory conditions. This undeniable link between airborne dust and respiratory ailments leads to a variety of associated diseases." 

Besides the GMC, a sub-district hospital in Sopore also mostly deals with respiratory issues.

Citing adverse environmental impacts such as deforestation, crop damage and health issues, Aijaz Ahmad, a senior executive member of the Environmental Policy Group (EPG), an enviro-social think tank based in Srinagar, says the dust also affects crop productivity and quality.

Aijaz claims licences are provided only after getting environmental clearance, but illegal mining causes issues in some places. However, Sarfaraz Ahmad, District Mining Officer, Baramulla, tells 101Reporters that no illegal mining happens. "Stone quarries run at nearly 15 places in parts of North Kashmir. Illegal mining is not possible anywhere," he claims.

He adds that if the stone quarry is on state’s land, the government authorities take care of it. For those functioning on private or rented lands, the owner has to get a no-objection certificate from various departments, including the forest, and local authorities.

While acknowledging that geological mining policies and regulations govern quarrying, Aijaz expresses concern over the growing trend of quarrying in commercial areas. The Mining and Geology Department officials, however, claim that a few stone quarries working in residential areas have been prevented from operating due to their timely intervention.

According to environmental lawyer Nadeem Qadri, the major challenge lies in the implementation of the Jammu and Kashmir Minor Mineral Concession, Storage, Transportation of Minerals and Prevention of Illegal Mining Rules, 2016. “The procedures have become bureaucratic and complex. The traditional miners and stone quarry workers are unfamiliar with the cluster system, mining plans and steps to obtain environmental clearances,” he says.

The other laws that govern stone quarries of Jammu and Kashmir are Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act1957, and Mineral Concession Rules, 1960.

Qadri informs that there are reports suggesting that the Department of Mining and Geology will introduce cultural mining practices (where no dust/threat to life occurs) for those engaged in traditional mining. This approach would involve working on a royalty-based system (contractual payment for using government assets) with access to various schemes such as labour registration and insurance.

“However, the implementation of these plans remains disorganised. There is a need to adopt a comprehensive perspective on rehabilitating and regulating mining activities within the framework of existing laws and rules,” he emphasises.

Sarfaraz claims the mining department has implemented several measures to prevent fatalities. "Modern machinery and provisions for goggles, helmets and other safety gears have been made for the workers of government-run stone quarries," he says.

A regulatory board set up by the department checks if the quarry is affecting the environment, health of people living nearby, or creating ecological imbalance. It also checks if the quarry is legal.

Meanwhile, Mohammad Sultan Bhat (42), a leaseholder, says workers are given safety gears and offered medical or financial assistance in case of any eventuality. "We take proper permission from the government and start mining after assessing the ecological factors. Workers are provided with every possible support," Sultan adds. 


Edited by Rekha Pulinnoli

Cover Photo - Workers at a stone quarry in Baramulla take a moment to rest, shelter against the scorching summer heat (Photo - Suhail Khan, 101Reporters)


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