The chief components of the environment – air, water and soil – are being destroyed rapidly in the mining regions of the Himalaya, particularly in Garhwal and Kumaon. The local people, labourers, as well as small contractors are being simultaneously exploited. There are no specific mining or environmental laws for the mountains. Even the general laws are not followed up here.
Open blasting, providing mining contracts to petty contractors in order to avoid labour problems, inadequate pollution control measures, provoking local gangsters to suppress or dilute local protests — all this has become common practice, Under such alarming conditions, no mineral should be mined in the mountains of Uttarakhand unless it is essential in the national interest. The fact that a quarry or mine yields profit to an industrialist and employment to a few people does not in itself make a national need.
Even if we overlook the long term devastation wrought by mining, we find that the immediate benefits are grasped by a tiny influential fringe and not by the local people. Those in politics and administration have stood firmly behind the mining contractors and factory owners. Understandably, the locals will always hail and welcome mining projects because of the prospect of employment. But in due course they will understand what they have lost, when their dwellings begin to show cracks, land becomes infertile, water and air pollution become commonplace, and village lands and forests get confiscated.
The mining problem, grave in itself, cannot be studied in isolation of other processes. Mining is part of a larger scenario in which the natural wealth of the Himalaya is exploited by big industry. This larger scenario also includes the construction of high dams, the over-exploitation of forests and medicinal herbs, the reach of alcohol to the remotest villages, and the establishment of magnesite, lime, cement and paper mills in the name of industrialising the backward hill region.
What is required to tackle these problems, including that of mines, is stirring up consciousness and awakening society through the cooperation of the judiciary, the media, and the world of science.
Pathak teaches history at Kumaon University in Nainital and edits the annual magazine Pahad.