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Mine, not yours

Kanchi Kohli
The Hindu, Sunday, Mar 28, 2004

Threatened by limestone quarrying, the people of Hemwalghati launched an agitation to safeguard their livelihood and rights. Kanchi Kohli comments.

“Paharh ki haddi tootegi, desh ki dharti doobegi.” (If the backbone of the hills breaks, the plains below will be submerged).

THE powerful slogan of the famous Chipko Movement was one of the many inspiring ones that echoed in Hemwalghati in December 2001. Hundreds of people marched with their dhols and nagarahs, emotions were loud, strong and actions determined. No way were the residents of Kataldi and neighbouring villages going to allow a mining activity take charge of their lives.

Limestone mining was first taken up in Kataldi, a small village of about 30 families in the Tehri Garhwal Himalayas, between 1974 and 1979. After vehement opposition from the villagers, mining operations were stayed. In 1994, M/s Parvatiya Mineral Industry procured a six-year lease to mine 5.26 hectares in the common lands of Kataldi village, which was executed from January 1997.

However, stiff opposition from the villagers continued. The Divisional Forest Officer issued a letter in August 1997 stating that the leased land required clearance under the Forest Conservation Act 1980, without which the mining should be stayed. In 2001, suddenly, the leaseholder managed to extend the lease for 30 years. The leased area is a mere 50 metres away from, and right above, the village of Kataldi — a fact not mentioned in the lease deed. The area has a perennial natural spring that is extremely significant for Kataldi, Bhatusain, Kukarbagi, Guniyaar and Upper Nagni villages. In summer, with other sources of water drying up, villages like Digli, Manda and Jardhargaon also depend on this spring. Water tankers also come here to supply towns like Chamba, the Ranichauri Agricultural University campus and so on. Blasting and digging during the mining operations would not just restrict access to this water source, but also threaten its very existence.

Moreover Hemwalghati (the Hemwal and its valley) is a significant centre of indigenous agricultural biodiversity of the Himalayas. Hundreds of varieties of rajma beans, rice (including the Nagni Basmati), millets, and other crop species are cultivated. The springs in the leased land irrigate a significant portion of these fertile agricultural terraces, which are scarce in hill regions and therefore crucial to the food security of the area.

It was to conserve this diversity that the Beej Bachao Andolan (Save the Seeds Movement) was initiated in the early 1990s. The leased area is legally forestland of the Kataldi Van Panchayat and any activity there required clearance from the State Forest Department, which had been conveniently bypassed by the proprietors of M/s Parvatiya Mineral Industry. Hemwalghati, being one of the centres of the Chipko movement, gave an added impetus as the area has a history of resistance to exploitative activities.

The entire campaign took off from a dharna organised in December 2001, where people from the region and supporters from Delhi and other places got together. There were inspirational songs, slogans and determined decisions. Subsequently, the women from Kataldi took turns to guard the land and not allow any labour to enter the area.

Obviously there was reaction from the other end. The mining contractor approached the district court on the ground that despite having a legally valid lease, he was not being allowed to commence mining. The district court issued summons to a few women of Kataldi and the Chipko veterans involved in the campaign. A stay on their entry into the leased area was ordered. But resistance continued resulting in contempt of court notices.

Almost a year after the first big gathering, December 2002 brought bad news! The district court gave a judgment in favour of the proprietor and mining activity commenced. There was no choice but to approach the court, and that led to a petition being filed in the name of Sreedhar Ramamurthi from Society for Mountain Environics and Mahesh Lakhera of Kataldi village. On December 20, 2002, the court issued a stay on mining. On February 3, 2003, the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) in Narendranagar Forest Division sent a letter to the District Collector indicating that the mining posed a danger to the forests and to the plantations of the Forest Department. The stay was then extended till a hearing on February 18, 2003.

This was a significant turning point as it gave enough time to collect missing documents, including the one to prove that a significant portion of the leased area was Van Panchayat land and thereby needed clearance, which had not been obtained by the proprietor.

While the court action was on, dynamics continued at the local level. Those campaigners were approached for a compromise. At another level, a few residents of Kataldi brought together all the pradhans of the relevant villages who gave written statements, which were not in favour of the mining in the region.

At the same time the High Court also set up a High Powered Committee, including the District Collector, to look into the matter. The committee allowed for mining operations to continue as a huge investment had already been made. However, to verify the contents of the letter by the DFO, the court asked the Conservator of Forests, Bhagirathi Circle, to file an affidavit indicating the actual status of the land and whether it required the mandatory forest clearance before commencing any activity. The affidavit was filed on September 20, 2003, which clearly stated that “it would attract the provisions of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 and permission of Government of India would be a precondition before sanction of mining lease”. The affidavit also endorsed the DFO’s letter.

The September 23, 2003 order then stated, “The interim order dated December 20, 2002 will continue to operate until further orders”. There was a silent sigh of relief. This was not the final solution. After all, the proprietor still held a 30-year lease. The saga of Hemawalghati is a truly inspirational, yet ironical, example of how local people continue to fight to safeguard their lives, livelihoods and basic rights.

Note: On March 19, the Nainital High Court passed an interim order asking for a deposit of Rs. 25,000 from the petitioners and has some directions for the district court as well. The petitioners have been given 14 days to respond. The petitioners are in the process of getting the full set of papers in Delhi as well as at the village. Based on the exact order activists, residents of Kataldi and supporters in delhi will discuss the next steps to take.

The author is a member of Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group and is based in Delhi.