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The Vengeful Ghosts Of A Gold Mine

February 8, 2014

A legacy of gold mining in North Karnataka has wreaked havoc in the lives of locals whose groundwater sources have been polluted by arsenic.

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The mine tailings of the Hutti gold mine are referred to as ‘The Cyanide Mountain’ by the locals of Hutti town in North Karnataka, due to the high amount of sodium cyanide in the tailings. 

This article appears as a photo essay in the Hindu Business Line on the 8th of February, 2014.

When Sudhram is asked when he and his late wife Rukhmanibai started to realize she was beginning to fall sick, he simply lifted his leg to show a small lesion on his foot. If it would become infected, it would then develop gangrene, and the doctors would amputate his leg. His wife lived and worked on crutches for years until she finally died in 2012 of cancer.

There were dozens of cases like hers in the Lambada  adivasi village of Kiradali Tanda in Yadgir District of Karnataka, where during July and September 2009 an independent study led to a report that cited the groundwater in the village indicated an arsenic level of 303 micrograms per litre, when an acceptable level of arsenic  according to the WHO, is merely 10 micrograms per litre. The report ‘D. Chakraborti, et al., Environmental arsenic contamination and its health effects in a historic gold mining area of the Mangalur greenstone belt of Northeastern Karnataka,’ would further mention that,

‘A total of 181 individuals were screened for symptoms of chronic Arsenic toxicity and complete demographic information was collected for 171. High rates of arsenicosis were identified with 58.6% of screened individuals presenting with at least one related symptoms.’

‘For individuals with no known arsenic exposure, concentrations of arsenic in hair generally range from 20 to 200  _g kg−1 and in nails from 20 to 500  _g kg−1. Of 170 samples, 100% of both hair and nails were found to exceed the upper limit of unexposed individuals.’

‘When asked about deceased family members and skin lesions similar to arsenicosis, 12 individuals were named that had died with comparable symptoms in the last 10 years. Furthermore, four individuals who had skin lesions and died of cancer in the last 5 years were also reported.’

Today, there is only one amputee left, 38 year old Kishan Chauhan, whose photograph in the report he had never seen, indicated he had suspected Bowen’s disease. He lost his leg to gangrene after a lesion caused by arsenic poisoning got infected. Every year he migrates from his village of Kiradalli Tanda. In 2013, he had migrated to Dodamargh, Savantwadi in Belgaum, over 500 kilometres away from his village, where he earned Rs.200 per week, breaking stones to construct a road to a Taluk Court, for his two young daughters and his wife.

Nine people have died since 2009 after the report was published and the government installed water de-salinating machines, which in Kiradalli Tanda, are barely operative. Devaki Rathod w/o Champolal, aged 48 died in 2010, Khiropa Rathod s/o Ramchand Rathore, aged 60, died in 2010, Gurunath Rathore s/o Krishna, aged 50, died in 2011, Gurana Chauhan s/o Vantappa, aged 32, died in 2011, Lokesh Chauhan s/o Rajappa, aged 45, died 2011, Limbaji Rathod s/o Chayappa, aged 40, died in 2011, Sitabai w/o Chandrulal, aged 65, died in 2012, Jamhibai w/o Devaji Rathore, aged 55, died in 2012, Honappa Jadav s/o Sahrappa, aged 62, died in 2012, Rukhmanibai w/o Sudhram, aged 38, died in 2012.

Just four kilometres from Kiradalli Tanda, was the gold mine of Mangalur, which was mined by the colonial British Empire during the years, 1887 – 1913, and then briefly re-opened by the government of Karnataka in 1980 and shut down in 1994 due to excessive water entry into the mines. It is historically known that, Gold mines are abandoned without proper measures to protect the environment, and arsenic pollution has been reported in active and abandoned Gold mines in Australia, Ghana, Canada, France, Slovakia and Brazil. Yet a few kilometres from the abandoned mine of Mangalur, is the active gold mine of Hutti, run by the Hutti Gold Mine Company Ltd, in partnership with the Government of Karnataka whose contemporary environmental record isn’t so different from the past.

A show cause notice dated 31st of January, 2006, was issued to the Managing Director of the Hutti Gold Mines, Ltd, by the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board, who took cognizance of a complaint by Sri. Yamanappa of Hutti Village, who claimed that ‘waste water/decanted water overflown from tailing dam was accumulating’ on his land.

It was mentioned that, ‘You are directed to stop the flow of tailing dam waste water on to the complainant’s land henceforth and action taken in this regard shall be submitted to this office along with proof of photographic evidences.’

On the 15th of November, 2009, after a series of sit-ins by affected farmers in front of the Deputy Commissioner’s office in Raichur District, a meeting was held under the chairmanship of the Deputy Commissioner of Raichur Adoni Syed Saleem, representatives of farmers of Hutti Village and the Karnataka Pranth Ryot Sangh, where the sit-in was called off, after the Commissioner spoke to the then-Executive Director Venkatesh Rao of Hutti Gold Mines Ltd, over the phone. The Executive Director had assured the district administration, ‘that it is true that cyanide has caused damages in around 23 survey numbers of Hutti Village’, and that there will be an increase in the compensation paid to farmers after the company has acquired their land for the use to dump mine tailings, and that ‘compensation will be paid without further delay.’

Yet the farmers of Hutti remain in a problematic predicament as the town of Hutti has no other source of employment or livelihood besides farming, or as a job in the mine. Farmers who lost their land to pollution, where a soil sample report by an Agricultural University in Raichur even mentioned that the land is un-cultivatable for the next 25 years, have been demanding jobs in the company as a compensation, and yet live in a state of dependency and fear.

A farmer whose name I shall withhold on request, was more than happy to reveal all the documents of the year-long agitation, complaints against the company, and he took me to his land where it is clearly visible that mine tailings have been falling onto his crop. But since he lost around 20 acres of land to the mine’s pollution, he feels his only hope to earn a livelihood in Hutti is the same company who destroyed his farm.

Matters are further complicated with the rising number of silicosis amongst the underground miners of Hutti. ‘There are at least 15 mine workers I know who died of silicosis, and many more who still live with it,’ the farmer reveals and yet an interview with a worker he would introduce me to, led to the same predicament, as the worker himself is demanding a job for his daughters in the mine, and refuses to go on record.

The 2009 survey by the Government of Karnataka and Unicef had also identified five villages in Gulburga and 10 villages in Raichur with an arsenic content of over 50 miligrams per litre, well above the WHO standard of 10 milligrams per litre. A further 14 villages in Gulburga and another 39 in Raichur had drinking water concentration higher than 10 miligrams per litre.

In July 2013, the Comptroller Auditor General Report, would again mention that there are around 16 habitations in Raichur and Yadgir district: Deodurg, Sunnada Kallu, Lingasuguru, Kattagal, Hatti, Yalghatta, Irkal, Kurukunda, Nanjaladini and Hunnur in Raichur district, and Mandyal, Arker, Rampur, Gudihal and Bijaspur, where a combined 24,000 people live with a drinking water supply that is affected with varied concentrations of arsenic.

The Hutti Gold Mine Company Limited has not responded to repeated queries to their office over a 6 month period as of the 8th of February, 2014.

A more comprehensive photo essay is here.

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