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'Madhya Pradesh copper mine threatens local communities'
Sunday August 10, 2014 1:00 PM, Shuriah Niazi, IANS

What is said to be Asia's largest copper mine in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh has become a threat for the tribals and the indigenous communities living in the area, environmentalists charge.

MP Copper Mine

People in the Malajkhand area of the Balaghat district, some 370 km from state capital Bhopal, are suffering from the loss of farmland and the degradation brought about by the mining activities, environmentalists say. Now, the state-owned Hindustan Copper Limited (HCL) plans to more than double its production from two million tonnes per annum (MTPA) to five MTPA after it receives the necessary clearances from the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

Environmentalists fear this will accelerate the destruction of forests and lead to further contamination of the surrounding environment.

The Malajkhand area, 20 km from the Kanha National Park, contains 70 percent of India's copper reserves and accounts for 80 percent of HCL's production.

The Centre of Environmental Science and Engineering at the Bhilai Institute of Technology had pointed out that the mineral processing plant in the area is causing serious damage to the environment and harming the health of both humans and animals. Scientists at the Centre pointed out that the wastewater leaking through the plant's tailings dam contains large quantities of harmful heavy metals like nickel, zinc and lead which seeps into the soil.

The tailings dam is meant to retain the water-sodden, fine-grained material or tailings that represent the waste product from a mineral-processing plant.

Silkan Merawi, 45, resides in Chhinditola village, a little distance from the plant. She is worried on account of scars all over her body and also suffers from chronic stomach ache.

"We're forced to consume the locally available food and water, which is very harmful to our health. The sand from the mine sticks to our body and makes us sick. We've complained to the authorities, but no one is ready to listen to us," Silkan lamented while speaking to IANS.

The condition of Amarwati, 35, is similar. "The residual waste from the plant has changed our lives. The water that we consume is unsafe as acidic mine waste leaks into water bodies. People drinking this water suffer from various diseases. Our farms have become toxic. Some of the fields have been transformed into quagmire. Our livelihood has been destroyed. Children are the worst-hit and are often ill," Amarwati told IANS.

The effect of pollution from the mine is visible in villages within a 15-km radius of the mine where Baiga and Gond tribes are major inhabitants. But 10 villages like Chhinditola, Borkedha, Suji and Nayatola that are situated close to the plant, bear the maximum brunt.

Dharam Singh, 50, lives in Chhinditola village. The blisters on his body have been caused by the acidic waste discharged by the plant.

"The water that we drink, the air that we breathe are highly polluted. Our fields have turned barren. Farm productivity is getting reduced year by year. We contacted officials of the HCL as well as the district administration. But the authorities haven't taken any heed," Dharam Singh told IANS.

Mounds of white and yellow sand have formed at places where HCL dumps the waste.

HCL chief manager S.K. Verma sought to downplay the damage to the environment caused by the copper mine. He agreed there had been some pollution due to the mining and the discharge of waste, but claimed this is not very serious and has not affected the people's lives.

"Whenever a factory or plant is set up, it causes some pollution. But we always try to minimise the damage to the environment. Whenever we receive complaints from the people, we take action immediately," Verma told IANS, adding that the company has initiated a number of measures for the welfare of the people, including the supply of clean water through tankers.

Asked why water was being supplied through tankers if the locally available water wasn't contaminated, he said this was being done on people's demand. He also said HCL has set up a mobile clinic for the affected people, where free treatment and medicines are provided.

Noting that HCL would soon begin underground mining, Verma said this would bring down the pollution level by at least 80 percent.

(Shuriah Niazi is an award-winning Bhopal-based journalist who writes on health and development issues. He can be contacted at shuriahn@yahoo.com )

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