Rajasthan's phosphorous mines deprive villagers of land, livelihood, health

Kapil Kajal | Oct 14, 2020 | 7 min read


“Yeh toh bhagwan ki marzi hai, sahab. Pichhle janam ke kuch paap honge jo iss janam main saamne aa rahe hain (It's all god's will. Maybe we had sinned in our past lives, for which we are suffering now),” stated Lohari Meena, a resident of Jhamarkotra village, 22 kilometres from Udaipur in Rajasthan, while explaining her two miscarriages. 

Not only Lohari, but many other women of the village also have had miscarriages. They think that it’s an “act of God”, said Bherulal Meena, sarpanch of Jhamarkotra gram panchayat. However, this is all happening because of the phosphate mines in the area, he added.

Rock phosphate mining had begun in Jhamarkotra in 1968. The area has the largest phosphate reserve in the country, to the tune of 74.68 metric tonnes. The Rajasthan State Mines and Minerals Limited (RSMML), a public sector enterprise of Rajasthan government, has leased of 1,370.37 hectares in the region. Phosphate mining requires deep excavation and removal of waste, which is 19 times the amount of phosphate ore mined. 

Because of their phosphate reserves, a vast area from 13 surrounding villages—including Jhamarkotra, Umarda, Lakadwas and Chansda, where only Adivasis from mainly three tribal communities (Bhils, Meenas and Gharasias) live—was acquired by the RSMML, said Bherulal. 

Basic resources contaminated 

Phosphates are the naturally occurring form of phosphorus and are the primary resource to produce fertiliser and phosphorus-based products.

Bherulal mentioned that there’s white dust in the air perennially and it has given rise to many respiratory diseases, gallbladder stones, liver issues and many reproductive issues for women, such as miscarriages, stillbirth and low birthweight.

While dust is a problem associated with all types of mining, the most important air quality problems with phosphate mining are related to fluoride emissions and radon gas emission, according to a study by a collaboration of Chinese universities. The study added that toxic and often radioactive elements like lead, cadmium, chromium, arsenic, uranium and radium can be found during phosphate mining. Exposure to these elements can cause issues in the lungs, bone, red marrow, liver, kidneys and spleen. 

Dr Ramesh Joshi, additional medical superintendent, Maharana Bhupal Government Hospital, Udaipur, stated that people living near the Jhamarkotra mines suffer from silicosis because of the dust around them from the blasting of rocks. These particles are quite large in size and affect the lungs of the people, he added. 

He explained that the lung disease develop into silicosis, and ultimately into tuberculosis or lung cancer in four–five years. 

Ganesh Purohit, a member of Jagran Jan Vikas Samiti (JJVS), an Udaipur-based non-governmental organisation, stated that the RSMML has dug up the entire area as the mines are open-cast and they have to keep the entire area dry. The RSMML has sucked out all the water; now the entire area has run out of groundwater and there’s no drinking water for the villagers, Ganesh said.

The water in wells has turned black because of ore processing, and the lakes too have turned poisonous, Ganesh added. The polluted water leaks out through the cracks in the dam’s wall and the water overflows, and goes into Jaisamand and Udaisagar lakes; Udaipur gets its drinking water from these lakes, Ganesh explained.

Bherulal mentioned that they carried out water sampling and found that the water from wells and handpumps had turned acidic, but when they approached the authorities with this, no action was taken. 

Heavy environmental loss

Though the gram sabha’s involvement in leasing land is mentioned in the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, the patwari (local government official) continues to have control over leasing government wastelands. In Jhamarkotra area, 500 hectares of forest land was leased to the RSMML in exchange for compensatory afforestation elsewhere, according to a study.

The study also mentioned that one of the key issues is the loss of farmers’ control over selling their land to industry. 

Another resident Laluram Meena stated that they are battling so many problems as it is, and the unemployment has only added to their woes. The mines are not giving jobs, and instead, they are giving jobs to outsiders, he added. 

The adverse impact on the community health and its access to natural resources and livelihoods has driven and continues to drive residents off their lands following the mining activity or the development of the fertiliser industries, the land for which was sold in desperation by the villagers as their livelihoods were destroyed, the study added. 

Speaking to Mongabay-India, the author of the study Jagadish Kumar Purohit stated, “The villages, which were entirely covered with forests earlier, now hardly have any trees left. Owing to the blasting, the village always remains surrounded by dust and smoke and the entire top layer of soil has been lost.” 

“The agricultural land, on which the villagers used to sustain, has also been removed completely. With mines, other fertiliser companies have also set up in the area releasing fluorine gas. The phosphorus and fluorine have made it impossible to grow anything in this area, be it the trees, agriculture or vegetation,” stated Jagadish.    

JJVS’ Ganesh stated that there is no grazing land in the area because of regular blasting and the animals can neither consume grass nor water, as they are potentially poisonous. “We have witnessed the immediate death of many monkeys after drinking polluted water and there have been cases of miscarriages in some other animals as well,” he mentioned.

He informed that there were nearly 125 crocodiles at the Bagdara Nature Park near the mines in 1989, but now they have reduced to 25. Ganesh also noted the death of honeybees and birds in the area and said there is no presence of such creatures in the area now.

The phosphorus is also detrimental to aquatic life as well. A study on Udaisagar lake, one of the five prominent lakes in Udaipur, revealed high phosphate contents. The study added that the widespread growth of algal bloom in the lake and Ahar river, and occasional fish mortality are indications of eutrophic conditions prevailing in the lake which stems from the phosphate mines.

Legislator cites helplessness

Jagguram Meena, former sarpanch of Lakadwas gram panchayat, stated that no developmental work has been carried out in their village for almost 20 years and they live without proper roads or hospitals. More than 100 houses in the village don’t have toilets because the RSSML has banned any such development in the area, he claimed.

Despite promises of afforestation to preserve the ecology of the area, the RSMML has only looted the area, he commented.

Phool Singh Meena, Bharatiya Janata Party MLA from Udaipur Rural constituency, agreed that the issues mentioned to the reporter by the villagers are true. He said that he has raised the issue in the Assembly but no one pays attention. 

He informed that they have approached the RSMML with reports of pollution caused by the mining, but they deny the facts in the report, and instead, present another report citing false information. 

However, the RSMML said that they are doing everything to make the environment better in the area. Mukesh Chaturvedi, Group General Manager, RSMML said, “We are focusing on preserving the environment in the area. We have planted a lot of saplings in the area. We have constructed the tailings dam again so that the water doesn’t go outside and now water doesn’t flow to the lakes.”

“The mines have taken everything from us and the people of my area are so gullible that they still think of it as God’s curse. There is no way our area can be transformed into what it was,” Bherulal commented.

(Additional reporting by Sohail Khan)

More stories published under