According to the Lokayukta, had proper norms and procedures related to iron ore mining been followed and the guidelines laid down by the Indian Bureau of Mines (IBM) been adhered to in letter and spirit, iron ore reserves in the region would have lasted between 25 years and 30 years. However, since private mine-owners have violated all norms while extracting iron ore with the help of modern excavation equipment, geologists have claimed in 2010 that the entire iron ore reserves of the Bellary-Ananthapur region would get exhausted over the coming five to eight years.
The mining town of Bellary, which has a population of around two million, boasts of a per capita income which is in excess of Rs 47,000 and is well above the average per capita income of Karnataka (around Rs 41,000). However, the literacy rate of the town, at 57 percent, stands well below the average literacy rate of Karnataka (around 67 percent).
Large-scale illegal iron ore mining has resulted in sharp economic polarisation by concentrating wealth in the hands of a few while pauperising and impoverishing a large section of the local population, depriving them even of their basic human rights and contributing to the widespread pollution of their air and water.
Iron ore mining has resulted in the creation of a nouveau riche class in the region. This can be gauged from the fact that luxury carmaker Mercedes Benz sold at least 25 vehicles to mining tycoons in Bellary over 2008 and 2009. Its rival company BMW has plans for setting up a satellite dealership in the nearby town of Hospet while Honda Siel Cars India Ltd has expressed its intention to set up a showroom in Bellary.
According to one estimate, prior to 2007, Bellary was the emerging private aircraft capital of India because it accounted for almost 10 per cent of the all-India market for private flying machines. As many as eight private aircraft, including two Bell helicopters, are owned by residents of Bellary. Two more private aircraft and two choppers joined the fleet in 2007-08. Mine owners like the Lad brothers, the Reddy brothers, the Baldota family of MSPL and firms like Bellary Iron Ores and Hothur Iron Ore are some of the prized owners of private aircraft in Bellary.
Large sections of the people of the district, on the other hand, continue to live in abject poverty. According to the Karnataka Human Development Report of 2005, Bellary ranked 18th among 27 districts in the state. The report added that Bellary was placed the lowest among all the districts in the state in terms of social indicators such as literacy, health and access to drinking water.
The report pointed out that even though the district is 9th in terms of income among all the districts of Karnataka, “higher income does not automatically translate into an improved literacy and health status for the people if that income is not equally distributed”.
Mining has also had its impact on employment patterns. Earlier, agriculture used to be the primary occupation for the people, but many farmers have leased out their lands for mining of iron ore. Karnataka is among the states in India that engages women in large numbers in mining. Women are mainly involved in activities like loading, unloading and stone crushing. Women work for long hours in pitiable conditions (sometimes even when they are in advanced stages of pregnancy) and for wages that are far lower than those paid to men.
Children as young as three years of age are engaged in activities like hammering, crushing and filling boxes with iron ore, again at abysmally low wages, in clear violation of the laws of the land. Far from getting decent education and health facilities, these children are exposed to serious health hazards from inhaling air with high proportions of suspended particulate matter and are also prone to accidents.
Mining in Bellary has adversely affected the environment in the region. A study by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (Neeri) found that suspended air particles at many locations in the district were far above the national health standards. According to Neeri’s report, the dust hanging in the air of Bellary due to rampant mining is a serious health hazard.
The area has high incidence of lung infections, heart ailments and cancer. However, the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) has been tardy in issuing notices to mine-owners under existing laws (including the Air Act, 1981 and the Water Act, 1974).
Mining has had adversely impacted the forest areas, including the ‘reserved’ forest areas, in Bellary and Vyasankere. Dumping of waste material has caused erosion of the topsoil of the region. Species of wildlife such as the as the Egyptian vulture, yellow throated bulbul, white backed vulture and four-horned antelopes have vanished due to depletion in the forest cover on account of mining.
Rainwater that used to earlier flow down hillocks and replenish underground aquifers now picks dust along the way, contaminating water and degrading soil, making farming difficult. Studies point towards a fast rate of siltation in the Tungabhadra reservoir due to the deposition of waste material generated from mining.
A 2005 study by the Jagratha Nayaka Balaga, an NGO based in Bellary, says the total capacity of the reservoir has come down from about 133 thousand million cubic metres (tmc) to 99 tmc in recent years. This depletion in the water level in the reservoir has threatened aquatic life and constrained irrigation for agriculture. The fact that some 7,500 trucks carrying heavy loads of iron ore (often far above the permissible limit of 15 tonnes per truck) move out of Bellary every day has damaged long stretches of roads and added to atmospheric pollution.