Tuesday, February 28, 2017

While they fill their coffers, someone chokes on their dust



Knowing that one is passing through Kabrai city [LINK] is not a challenge for the ones with vision or hearing impairment. One doesn’t need to see the thick clouds of stone dust or hear the roaring of monstrous machines. Just normal breathing is enough to tell that one has entered Kabrai, as one invariably inhales the fine particles of that killing dust that comprise the air.

Kabrai is a city in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. It is part of Bundelkhand, infamous for decades of drought and frequent suicides by farmers.

On 21 February 2017, along with my colleague, I took the National Highway 76 [NH 76 - LINK] to travel from Chitrakoot to Mahoba, for work. Looking forward to viewing a beautiful countryside, we were appalled to the sight that was waiting for us.

I can vouch that the stretch of Highway in Kabrai is so far the most polluted site anywhere in the country.

My colleague is from Uttarakhand [LINK] the hill state that was carved out of Uttar Pradesh, and which is focusing on development without damaging the environment, was aghast to see the sacrilege.

I come from the state of Uttar Pradesh, even though; I was shocked to see the horrifying surroundings. I had travelled on this road in 2007, exactly 10 years ago. At that time also the environment was polluted but this time the situation was 100 times worse.

Nothing was visible on both sides of the highway as the air was filled with solid dust emerging from the horrendous stone crushers, chaotically functioning on both sides of the road.

Each leaf of every plant and big trees had a thick coating of white stone dust. We all know that plants breathe from leaves. How much the vegetation in Kabrai is thriving, that can be anyone’s guess.

The houses were covered in a thick white shroud of dust. (See pictures)

The health of the people living in this area, and most importantly those working in these crushers, is definitely at risk. There have been stories of people suffering from Asthma or Tuberculosis but the danger and threat to the lives of people has remained restricted to sporadic newspaper reports, on which no action has ever been taken.

The indiscriminate stone crushing is also changing the topography of the area. Bundelkhand is known for its rocky hills which give it a picturesque look.

However, now these mute rocky hills are gradually turning into plane surfaces. Some rocks which the greedy industrialists are digging ruthlessly to get stones, present an obnoxious and ugly picture. The diggers have gone so deep that water has emerged from the ground (See pictures).

Once they finish with one rocky hill, they simply move on to the other, leaving the first one raped and molested brutally.

My colleague was bewildered as to why no environmentalist has ever filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) so a legal check could have been enforced on the stone mafia of the state.

On reaching Mahoba and talking to a different section of people answered all our queries.

The whole state of Uttar Pradesh is thriving on quarrying mafia, sand mafia, stone mafia, and many other types of mafia – all white-collared, mostly politicians or their close mates.

We were told that on that highway there are 375 stone crushers in an area of 10 kilometres.

Of these, 36 belong to Siddh Gopal Sahu. The influential man started his political career as Panchayat Chairman. Even since, he has headed the Laghu Udyog Vikas Nigam (Small Industries Development Corporation) and has been a Minister for Mining, in Uttar Pradesh. He has contested the current assembly election also this time.

Other 10 crushers belong to Raj Narain Budhaulia – another powerful politician of the state. He has been known for party hopping to stay close to the power.

The rest also belong to powerful and influential people, having major political affiliations that help them carry on with their work without any hindrance.

We were also told that tragedies are common in these crushers, obviously with no record of people dying. People who work in these stone crushers do not get any safety gears.

Moreover, the cost of ‘settling’ a labourer’s death is mere Rs 30,000 (Approximately US$ 455), that too doesn’t go to his family. This money includes payments to various stakeholders, including Police and Media to keep the matter under wraps or project it in such a way that it does not come under the purview of compensation.

Some residents with high credentials also claim that the District Magistrate is the in charge of collecting money from the crushers to carry it forward to his/her superiors in the government.

Anyone who raises a voice against the damage to the environment, or reports any casualty, the influential well-connected, ruthless industrialists cum politicians cum contractors cum mafia not only crush that voice, but even gag that throat that is causing the noise.

Even the Centre for Science & Environment (CSE) that normally dares to speak against all big-wig playing with environment, has been silent on these stone quarrying and stone crushers.

Giving CSE a benefit of doubt, I believe they are not even aware of any such thing happening on a National Highway passing through Uttar Pradesh.

Hence, there is business as usual!