PURULIA, 11 MAY: Almost 25 years ago Kanai Mahato, owner of a plot on Paharigora hill, Sautaldih in Purulia was scared to walk uphill to collect minor forest produce because of leopards. Today, he is scared of quarry owners who have turned the forest-covered hill, teeming with pangolins, wolves, leopards, elephants and various avian species, completely barren with continuous mining. Mahato now works as a daily wager in the quarry with irregular pay and no medical insurance, to boot.
The leopards are now a thing of the past. And quarry owners and mafia have taken over the land that once belonged to his forefathers. Mahato now is an intruder on his own land! The natural resources of the hill are being exploited to the hilt so much so that locals believe that Paharigora hill would soon disappear from the geographical map of Purulia. “The hill has 60-70 acres of Reyaiti land. In 1985, a group of men started blasting the hill with dynamite. When landowners resisted, gun-wielding men chased them away. When the agitation intensified, some were offered money to keep mum,” said Jagat Mahato, a local farmer. Mahato’s land has become low yield as grey slush and stone chips flood his tract during rains. Owners of agricultural land in Sindurpur, Gourha, Dipawra, Deuli and Oshurban are at the receiving end as dust from the quarries harms rice sprouts.
It took several years for the villagers to unite as more than 2,500 people from the village worked in the quarries and mining kept their home fires burning. But inhuman working conditions in the quarries disillusioned them soon.
Every week, 15 to 20 people are injured in blasts at the site that continue from 6 am to noon. Those critically injured have to travel 42 km to reach Purulia Sadar Hospital, as the nearby public health centre is defunct. An average of five people are reported to die every year during accidents at the site. Most of the deaths go unreported. The labourers who work in the quarries do not get proper wages, let alone compensation in case of accidents or death. “In 2004 a truck going uphill lost control and tumbled down. Twelve people died in the accident but none of them has received compensation,” recalls Mohan Kisku, a labourer at the site.
In 2009, a group of villagers and workers started an agitation. Complaint letters were sent to the district land and land revenue officer (DLLRO), block land and land revenue officer (BLLRO), the district magistrate and police. “I had asked the DLLRO to start an inquiry and see whether the quarries are illegal. The details are with the DLLRO,” said Purulia DM, Mr Avanindra Singh.
According to locals, the quarries were shut for four months on 17 November, 2010. However, with the declaration of election in the state, the work has resumed.
The DLLRO, Mr Dilip Kumar Ghosh, said: “We do not give licence to quarries. We have, however, issued a quarry permit to Mr Mohanlal Khowala, owner of Isco Track Sleepers Pvt Limited, for carrying 60,000 cft of stone.” He denied having received any objection from landowners of Paharigora.
Sources said that Mr Mohanlal Khowala, a relative of an influential CPI-M leader, Mr Dilunath Lodha, has been collecting a royalty of Rs 30,000 from 20 other quarry owners to let them operate using his permit.
Another local said that a year ago when a group complained to the CI of Sautaldih police outpost, Mr Tapas Chatterjee, he asked the protesters how much money they need. Mr Asit Pandey is the new CI but the situation hasn’t changed much, alleged locals. Phatick Tiwari and Pradeep Agarwal, mafia from Purulia and Jharkhand, respectively, who supply stone across the border, run a nexus with police and government officials, sources said. Whoever protests is either bribed or threatened, he added. It’s not only the loss of timber, wildlife and bio-diversity that is at stake, a section of tribal population comprising the Orang, Munda, Hansda, Kisku, Bawri has left the region. Such is the apathy of government officials that locals have lost all hopes of a redressal. “We will soon have to move out of the village. How can we fight with mafia with not even police by our side?” asked Moti Murmu, a resident of Sindurpur.