It took a stone quarry blast on January 21 at Hunasodu village near Shivamogga that claimed six lives to bring back the focus on illegal mining in the state that continues to be a menace and is known for quick generation of big profits. A senior legal expert says, “The best and fastest way to become a politician is to get yourself involved in mining as profit margins are more than 110 per cent as compared to other industries, which is 10-15 per cent.”
According to government estimates, one metric tonne of legally extracted sand or stone fetches the government Rs 27, but is illegally sold for Rs 6,500-7,000. Not just sand mining, but large-scale stone mining -- especially for crushed stones, mainly illegal, continues unabated across the state, the expert says. “People in power do not want to stop it because it is a major profitable business and that was the reason the government announced legalising it in Shivamogga. That was why portfolios of ministers were shuffled four times to ensure that the ‘right’ person gets it.
Whoever knows about the industry is well aware that there is profit in every aspect of mining - extraction, transportation, sales and even middlemen,” says the expert, requesting anonymity.
“Mining is not a costly affair. All one needs is trucks, 5-6 labourers and blasting material. Just five labourers can blast large areas, collect the material, load it into trucks and transport it. This was what was exposed in Shivamogga when the blast occurred,” he says.
While in Ballari, mining was mostly for manganese and iron ore, in other parts of the state, it is for sand and stone. Extraction and exploitation is at its peak in Kolar, Chikkaballapur, Bengaluru Rural, Ramanagara, Mandya, Hassan, Chitradurga, Tumakuru, Shivamogga and Mysuru. The Malnad region is facing the threat of mining because of large laterite stone deposits. Illegal stone quarrying in Shivamogga district, which is called the Gateway to Malnad, has been going on for years. The district has 76 laterite stone quarries and 30 sand blocks which are running legally.
According to statistics with the Mines and Geology Department, 66 quarries are active, while 10 are defunct. Of the 66, only 21 quarry owners have obtained permission to carry out blasts, while 13 are using explosives without licence. A survey is now being launched to count illegal stone and sand mines in the district. Shivamogga Deputy Commissioner KB Sivakumar says, “It’s a challenge because illegal miners work discreetly. They come to the spot to stealthily, ensure that their job is done in a few minutes and escape. It is difficult to catch them red-handed.
Also, we cannot set up checkposts at such spots as it inconveniences local people if we check each vehicle.” Sources said staff crunch in the Mines and Geology Department too is another concern.
The result is that the district, which is known for its rich ecosystem and wildlife, is also notorious for the theft of natural resources. As confirmed by Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa, the quarry at Hunasodu where the blast occurred is in an eco-sensitive zone. Over the last two decades, the number of stone quarries has increased in Dharwad, Haveri, Gadag, Koppal, Uttara Kannada and Ballari districts. However, Mines and Geology Department officials keep visiting the quarries to inspect stone transporting vehicles regularly and keep illegal mining under check.
There are 134 store quarries in Dharwad and 53 in Haveri district. But sand mining is a major issue on the banks of Tungabhadra river in Haveri and Gadag districts. Though all operators have got the licence from the department, they transport higher loads than permitted. In Gadag, 49 quarries are operating, while forest officials sent notices to six, falling within forest zones. Ten quarries have stopped working, department sources say. In Mundargi, the police seized 135 bags of ammonium nitrate four months ago and last year, a boy lost his hand after he playfully picked up gelatin sticks near a quarry.
In Mysuru, illegal mining that has been going on for the last two decades has spread to more than 18 villages, including Baby Betta, Cauvery Pura, Banagadi and other places around KRS Dam. Many politicians and realtors are operating over a hundred stone quarries, crushers and manufactured sand (M-sand) units. Hillocks of Baby Betta, Chinnakurali, and villages in and around Srirangapatna and Pandavapura have been reduced to a rubble because of uncontrolled mining.
Mangaluru-based social and environmental activist H Shashidhar Shetty alleges that over 90 per cent of mining in the district is illegal. “Illegal sand extraction is rampant near Thumbe dam in Bantwal taluk, Kenjar in Bajpe and in Belthangady, and the Mines and Geology Department and local police officials too are involved in it,” he says. In Hassan, the Mines and Geology Department has slapped a fine of Rs 30 lakh on miners for violating the Explosive Act in 2019-20. SP Srinivasa Gowda says based on the task force’s report, the police seized unlicensed blasting material from three stone quarries.
In Dakshina Kannada, there are complaints of illegal sand extraction in Bantwal, Belthangady and other taluks and illegal laterite stone/muck extraction in Mudipu, Balepuni and Fajir. To prevent illegal sand mining, joint checkposts manned by revenue and mines and geology department officials and the police will be set up, says DC Dr Rajendra KV.
A senior legal expert on mining, requesting anonymity, says there is no ready record with the Mines and Geology Department head office on how many mines and quarries are operating in Karnataka and how many are defunct. “Though the process has been decentralised, there should be a uniform platform available for the public to ensure transparency. There are no field-level staffers in the Mines and Geology Department, like guards in the forest department or constables in the police department,” he adds.
A member of the Supreme Court committee on mining, UV Singh, who is known for his fight against illegal mining, says there is an urgent need to bring in amendments to existing laws. The Karnataka Mines and Minerals Conservation Rules say the minimum distance between a mining site and a habitation is 200 metres, but it should be at least 1 km just like in quarrying. “While seeking environmental clearance for small mining areas (1-5 hectares) no public hearing is required, but it should be made mandatory and involve locals.
For all types of mining and quarrying, public hearings should be mandated,” he adds. Demand for crushed stones, granite and sand is rising. Alternative sources are well known and they should be used. The government must have the will to push it, he says.
Inputs from: Bosky Khanna, K Shivakumar, Marx Tejaswi, Udaya Kumar BR, Kiran Balannanavar, Arunkumar Huralimath, Divya Cutinho, Devaraj B Hirehalli, Prajna GR, Ramkrishna Badseshi, Prakash Samaga, Shreepada Ayachit