Monday, 24 January, 2022
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In Haryana tragedy, deadly mix of ‘illegal mining’, disputed leases & a village of dependents

Dadam mining zone, comprising 48 hectares in the middle of protected forests, has been lucrative as well as controversial over the years. The landslide last week has led to more questions.

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Tosham, Bhiwani (Haryana): Legal action involving competing firms over mining rights and questions over “illegal mining” as well as safety mire the Dadam mining zone in Haryana, where a landslide Saturday killed at least five workers. 

There are two mining zones in the Tosham block of Bhiwani district, Khanak and Dadam — both named after minor hills in the Tosham hill range. The range is part of the Aravalli hills, which are rich in igneous rocks and minor minerals. Parts of the Aravallis are also protected forest areas. 

Most villagers in the mining belt of the Tosham block depend on the two mining zones for livelihood, unless they can afford land for agriculture. The mines here produce road metal and masonry stone for construction purposes.

The lease for the Dadam mining zone, initially a 59-hectare and now an approximately 48-hectare plot of government land right in the middle of protected forests, has always been a lucrative one and shrouded in controversy. 

In light of the landslide, more questions have emerged.

While the Congress has alleged illegal mining in Haryana, the local BJP MP, Dharambir Singh, has pointed to what he described as “violation of several laid down norms for mining at four sites in the Dadam mining zone”.

The family of miner Toofan Sharma, one of the victims of the accident, filed a complaint Monday at the Tosham police station alleging that he feared for his safety while at work. The FIR lodged on the basis of this complaint, a copy of which has been accessed by The Print, says Toofan had told his brother Mithun, another miner, on the morning of the landslide that he was being “forced to work” in spite of “feeling unsafe”. 

This claim has been contested by the owner of Goverdhan Mines & Minerals, in whose mine the incident took place. Speaking to ThePrint, he sent across a purported signed affidavit and said the brother has since “withdrawn” his statement. He also denied allegations of illegal mining.

ThePrint reached Bhiwani Superintendent of Police (SP) Ajit Singh Shekhawat by call and text to ask if the FIR has been withdrawn, but there was no response by the time of publishing this report. 

Even so, a special investigation team (SIT) has been formed by the Bhiwani police to look into the safety measures taken for workers at the mine.

The Haryana government has also set up a fact-finding team, headed by Bhiwani Additional Deputy Commissioner (ADC) Rahul Narwal, which has begun its inquiry by seeking comments from the mining and forest departments of the state. 

Among other things, the committee will “conduct an in-depth probe and go into details whether all safety and other norms were being adhered to”.

Meanwhile, a sense of resignation has set in among local villagers regarding the landslide Saturday. What’s gone is gone, said one, adding that he is waiting for the mine — closed since the landslide — to restart operations.

Auction notice and response

In November 2013, the Mines and Geology Department of Haryana issued an auction notice for several mining quarries in the state, Dadam being one of them. At the time, a joint venture of Karamjeet Singh and Company Limited (KJSL) and Sunder Marketing Associates (SMA) was assigned the lease after being declared the highest bidder. 

However, in May 2015, KJSL informed the government that it wanted to withdraw from the contract. SMA, though, petitioned the government, saying it would like to continue with the contract even if KJSL backs out. The government thereafter allowed the transfer of KJSL’s 51 per cent share of the lease to SMA. 

There was, however, one problem — SMA was not qualified to bid for or operate a mine on its own, because they did not have sufficient mining experience. 

As the allocation of the tender to an unqualified company started drawing political ire, the government in 2016 withdrew the permission it had granted for the transfer of the lease. The lease was then granted to the Haryana State Infrastructure Development Corporation (HSIIDC), a public sector undertaking.

Also read: 1 still trapped in Haryana mining site disaster, panel formed to probe irregularities

‘Use of influence’

In June 2017, SMA filed a petition in the Punjab & Haryana High Court against the government’s withdrawal of permission and the tender being given to HSIIDC. The plea was rejected by the court, which further directed the government to float fresh tenders. 

SMA next appealed in the Supreme Court against the high court’s order, but the SC upheld the HC order, calling it a “classic case of use of influence”.

“We cannot say with any degree of certainty how high is the reach of the petitioner, but it is quite apparent from the facts of the case that the reach is pretty high,” the SC had said.

SMA was, however, allowed to operate the mines until 30 November 2017, till a closure plan was formulated and implemented for the 59.6 hectares of mining land.

Following the HC order, the government issued an e-auction notice to invite bids for the Dadam mines at a reserve price of Rs 115 crore. The auction fell through twice due to no response.

In November 2017, the government started the process of e-auction for the third time, with a reduced reserve price of Rs 92 crore, for a smaller mining area of approximately 48 hectares. This time, Goverdhan Mines & Minerals placed a bid of Rs 92.12 crore and emerged as the highest bidder.

Bid won, offer refused

The Haryana government, however, did not give a letter of interest to Goverdhan for seven months after the bidding process closed. In July 2018, the government issued an order stating that the offer by Goverdhan was being refused as the government had decided to operate the mines through a public sector undertaking. The tender was once again granted to HSIIDC.

Goverdhan contested this in the SC in 2018, and the court directed the government to grant the tender to the firm, stating the HSIIDC had been brought in “through the back door” after an open, transparent bidding process. Goverdhan was granted the lease for 10 years and mining work at Dadam properly began in early 2019.

The owner and CEO of Goverdhan Mines & Minerals is Ved Pal Tanwar, who had been in the news since the caste-based violence between Jats and Dalits in Haryana’s Mirchpur in 2010. Dalit families that had fled Mirchpur had sought refuge in Tanwar’s farmhouse on the outskirts of Hisar at the time. Many of them continue to live on the property, in makeshift tents amid challenging conditions.

Tanwar subsequently contested the Haryana assembly elections in 2014 and the Lok Sabha polls the same year as an Independent and a BSP candidate, respectively. He lost both and now calls himself a “social worker”.

Questions over ‘illegal mining’

In 2020, after an order by the National Green Tribunal (NGT), a six-member committee had conducted an inspection and submitted a report to the green court, stating that the mining project by Goverdhan had “illegally created a way in the forest area without having any valid permission”.

The committee further stated that mining equipment and machines were found parked in non-minable forest areas during the time of inspection. 

“There was blasting (for blast-mining) going on and one of our workers just parked his vehicle in the adjoining forest area in a hurry,” said an official of the mine to ThePrint on the condition of anonymity. “When the committee came for inspection, they saw those and said machines were found in the forest area.”

The layout of the Dadam mining zone | By special arrangement
The layout of the Dadam mining zone | By special arrangement

The 2020 committee had also raised concerns over the fact that mining was being conducted at levels deeper than allowed, and that given the terrain of the area, this was “unscientific”.

An eight-member panel formed by the NGT to verify the report of the earlier committee, and which submitted its report in October 2021, also concluded that mining was being conducted in the protected forest areas, but dismissed the earlier panel’s report of the mining methods being “unscientific”. 

The committee further directed the Haryana government to recover the value of illegally mined stones from Goverdhan in order to compensate for environmental damage.

The NGT had also banned the operation of stone-crushing machines in Dadam for the last two months of 2021, citing high pollution. Operations in the mine resumed from 30 December. The day when the landslide happened, 1 January, was the second day of full-fledged operations in the mine. 

Also read: Probe ordered into landslide at Bhiwani mines amid rescue bids for at least one more feared trapped

Livelihoods tied to mining economy

In a group of women huddled inside a cemented hut in Haryana’s Baganwala village — located near the Dadam mining zone — a young woman stood out as the only one with a dupatta wrapped around her entire face, including her eyes. 

When asked her name, the woman turned the other way. “Pooja”, one of the elderly women in the group told ThePrint team. A red-and-white shawl covered the rest of Pooja’s body, barely hiding her three-month pregnancy bump. 

The night before, Pooja’s husband of four years, Binder, and his sadu (brother-in-law), Sanjay, whose family lives in Jind, were cremated in Baganwala after both lost their lives in the landslide.

Binder, Sanjay and most young men in Baganwala village, part of the Tosham block in Bhiwani district, work at the stone mine in Dadam. 

In the landslide around 9 am Saturday, the two, along with at least three others, lost their lives as large rocks fell on the mining vehicles they were operating. Two more miners were brought out alive from under the piles of debris as rescue operations, helmed by the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), continued till the time of publishing this report.

When ThePrint asked Pooja if she wanted compensation to raise her yet-to-be-born child and two-year-old son, Adi, she was silent once again. “We will do what the village panchayat decides,” said Seema, who identified herself as Pooja’s jethani (sister-in-law)

The past two months, when the NGT order forced closure of the mines, and when operations were stopped due to the Covid pandemic, were trying times for Baganwala residents, who had no other sources of income. 

“We used to get Rs 500 a day as dihari (wages). That’s more than any daily-wage job would give us. We don’t have the money to buy land and cultivate. When mining stops, we starve,” said Surat Singh who operates a machine at the Dadam mines.

Concerns of safety, therefore, are not foremost in the minds of these miners, who say anyway that there was never an “overt safety concern”, except ones that are “part of the job”.

A group of women in Baganwala village with Binder's wodow Pooja (in black & red dupatta) | Photo: Ishadrita Lahiri | ThePrint
A group of women in Baganwala village with Binder’s widow Pooja (in black & red dupatta) | Photo: Ishadrita Lahiri | ThePrint

The mines have been closed since the incident, so the men in Baganwala, mostly from the scheduled ‘Dhanak’ caste, spend the day sprawled out under the sun, smoking hookah and playing cards.

“They are just cutting the hills from the bottom without removing much from the top. When they blast the lower portions of the hill, the rocks in the upper portions get dislodged. They were bound to crash down,” said Ram Das, a village elder, to ThePrint, between puffs at the hookah.

A Hisar-based businessman, who owns a stone-crushing firm, told ThePrint at Dadam what he believed might have gone wrong on 1 January, based on his experience in the stone-mining industry.

“According to law, in such mining projects, clear defined ‘benches’ are to made after every 10-30 feet of mining. These benches are narrow strips of flat land between steep mining slopes. They ensure that even if mountainous chunks or boulders get dislodged from the top, their momentum can be broken and they don’t come down crashing,” said the businessman.

“If you see, in this mine, you can’t see any benches,” he added, pointing to the minefield. “This is a serious safety concern.”

FIR filed and ‘taken back’

In Baganwala, the family of Toofan Sharma, who was from Bihar’s Kathia, filed a complaint at the Tosham police station Monday, stating that he was “forced to work” in spite of “feeling unsafe”.

His brother Mithun Sharma said in the complaint that he got a call from Toofan around 6.30 am on 1 January, saying that he was “forcefully being taken to the mines”.

“I have a feeling that the hill will fall. They are not listening to me when I refuse and are forcing me to operate the machine. There are no safety measures here,” Toofan allegedly told Mithun, according to the FIR.

However, when contacted by ThePrint regarding the complaint, Goverdhan Mines CEO Ved Pal Tanwar sent a purported signed affidavit from the former. In the affidavit, Mithun appears to say that he’s taking back his police complaint.

“He’s also confirmed in the affidavit that he filed the complaint because someone had influenced him,” Tanwar said.

He further refuted allegations of illegal mining, saying “multiple committees had been formed” to investigate the same, and the problem lay with the “proximity of the mine to the Aravallis”.

At Baganwala, meanwhile, the villagers want to put the landslide behind them and carry on like before.

“We keep hearing about such things happening in other villages. This is the first time that this has hit home, and that too with two of our sons taken away,” said Rajkumar, a resident of Baganwala and a miner himself. “But what is gone is gone. We just hope we can get back to work soon.”

(Edited by Saikat Niyogi)

Also read: Modi govt allows mining on non-forest land with conditions, experts fear spillover


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