Rail News


October 06 , 2021

In Indian mining hub, farmers bring polluted land back to life

Sunday Times 
20 September, 2021 (India)

Freight trains are loaded with iron ore at a railway station at Chitradurga in the southern Indian state of Karnataka.

Iron ore mining blights farmland, hitting food production, but pilot project helps revive degraded fields to grow crops

For years, Indian farmer Chape Hanumaiya struggled to grow anything on his tiny plot of land - it was caked in the thick, red dust drifting from the iron ore mines that surrounded it.

But today, Hanumaiya and his wife are about to harvest pearl millet and sesame crops, thanks to a pilot project that seeks to fight migration and boost food security around the southern city of Hosapete, the heart of India’s iron ore industry.

“My father grew millet and cotton on this land decades ago,” said Hanumaiya, 46, sitting in the shade of a tree near his 0.4-hectare (1 acre) smallholding.

“Then the mining grew and over the years, when we came to the field, our clothes, the grains and everything would be covered with mine dust. We slowly gave up farming.”

India is the world’s fourth-biggest producer of iron ore, the key ingredient in steelmaking, and demand for the commodity is expected to grow as the global construction sector rebounds from Covid-19.

That could prompt a surge in output, putting additional strain on local farmers and fuelling environmental damage in mining areas.

More than 6,000 hectares (about 15,000 acres) of private and community-owned land have been blighted by iron ore mining in India, affecting nearly 30,000 people, according to data research agency Land Conflict Watch.

Hanumaiya’s land was revived under a sustainable co-operative agriculture scheme led by the Sakhi Trust non-profit, which works with communities affected by mining in the area and encourages organic farming.

So far, it has helped bring more than 200 hectares of barren farmland back into production, creating a safety net and shielding local people from the ups and downs of mining.

“When the mines closed and agriculture failed, it forced people to migrate,” said Nagesh R Sannaveer, a coordinator at Sakhi Trust.

“People were looking for food security and we started helping them get back to farming - from getting plots ready to cultivate to organising collective farming for the landless,” he added.

The mineral-rich, red earth in the twin districts of Ballari and Vijayanagara, where Hanumaiya lives, has been mined since colonial times.

But a decade ago, the supreme court banned mining in the region in an effort to stem illegal mines.

Many pits closed, including those near Hanumaiya’s plot, though villagers said activity was slowly picking up again.

Conveyor belts ferrying ore from the pits to factories cut across the hills and long lines of trucks snake in and out of the mines.

Like hundreds of other farmers from his district, Hanumaiya went to work in the iron ore mines when business was booming.

Many found jobs as loaders, drivers or machine operators, leasing their fields to mining companies to build factories, dump debris or for use as storage yards.

But when the court ruling led to a huge slump in activity, some found their degraded land could no longer support their food needs, forcing them to join the ranks of India’s migrant labour force.

“Mining was booming, both legally and illegally, and it swallowed up fertile land,” said M Bhagyalakshmi, founder of Sakhi Trust.

“People had no choice but to join the workforce at these mines. But when the illegal mines were suddenly closed after court orders, it left thousands jobless. It triggered a livelihood crisis that still haunts many families.”

Bringing contaminated agricultural land back into production is a slow process, said G V Ramanjaneyulu, executive director of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, a research organisation.


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