Protecting fossil-rich Rajmahal Hills crucial

The hills, part of the Vindhya mountains, are situated in the Santhal Pargana region of Jharkhand. Older than the Himalayas, they are rich in fossils and medicinal trees which are fast disappearing due to large-scale stone mining, reports Deepanwita Gita Niyogi

Indiscriminate quarrying and the operation of vastly illegal stone crushing units in the tribal-dominated Rajmahal Hills of Jharkhand is not only causing massive dust pollution, but also impacting the Ganga. The hills, part of the Vindhya mountains, are situated in the Santhal Pargana region of the state comprising six districts. Older than the Himalayas, the hills are rich in fossils which are fast disappearing due to large-scale mining.

Local residents allege that mining in Rajmahal has been going on for over a decade causing great harm to the hills which are being denuded in the process. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has pulled up the Jharkhand State Pollution Control Board for not taking
adequate measures to protect the hills. In a recent step this month, the NGT has decided to give time to a joint committee for submitting a comprehensive report.

Geology professor Ranjit Kumar Singh based in Sahibganj, one of the six districts in the Santhal Pargana region, pointed out that a team of geologists should immediately study the Rajmahal Hills area because of its prime importance full of rich minerals. “The immediate priority should be on the conservation of fossils formed millions of years ago. A geo-tourism hub can come up in this area based on the importance of the fossils found here.”

The fossils park at Mandro block in Sahibganj preserves fossils at a single place. Some rare fossils have also been collected recently from Gurmi hillocks to be kept in the museum which is also on the radar. These will be carefully kept with proper information for
tourists. The fossils found in Rajmahal Hills are 68 million to 145 million
years old.

Severe dust pollution

According to Singh, who is the assistant professor at the department of geology in Sahibganj College, mining and environmental guidelines are being flouted when it comes to mining in the Rajmahal Hills area.

“The hills are slowly vanishing. Medicinal trees and plants found here are also at stake as a result of it. The amount of dust in the area is inconceivable. Dust forms a thick layer and students have to use lanterns or switch on lights even during the day to study. Primitive tribal communities reside in the
hills and they are facing a lot of challenges. Many of them are not aware at all about the negative impacts of dust pollution. We all want a no mining zone here. Besides this, preservation and conservation of fossils must be the top priority. There should be a permanent solution to this problem,” he said.

Former divisional forest officer of Sahibganj, Mahalinga Mahendrakumar, said dust pollution due to mining is a very pertinent issue in Rajmahal. “The hills form a continuous stretch over Pakur, Godda and Sahibganj districts. During the British time, the hills were not notified as forest land as tribals used to reside in the foothills. Instead the area was declared as Damin-I-Koh land (a Persian term) reserved for them to ensure their culture. Now, local residents are fighting against mining,” he added.

Ward councilor Mohammad Khalik Ansari from Sakrigali village in Sahibganj said the environment has been totally ruined here. Blasting causes a lot of disturbance and poor people find it very hard to lead normal lives. Many of the stone crusher units operating here are illegal.

Vegetation, Ganga river at stake

According to a local resident who does not wish to be named, many important tree species like the sakhua or sal are being felled to carry out mining operations. Some of these trees have great medicinal value. He added that most of the stones quarried here are supplied to West Bengal and Bihar, but those in favour of mining often cite that the hills are bereft of vegetation which is not at all true.

He pointed out that the Ganga river is flowing close by and when it rains, a vast amount of mud and sediments get washed up in the river. This is also harming the Gangetic dolphin. This is shocking at a time when the Centre had launched the National Mission for Clean Ganga to minimise damage to the river.

He also alleged that some pollution control board officials are hand in glove with the mining mafia. Work stops for the time being when officials come here for inspection and then again it resumes. The hills are rich in forests and the tribals here cultivate various crops. But leases are still being given through the backdoor.

Sakrigali resident Ashok Kumar said locals have complained several times and the media is also vocal but the situation is still the same. “Stone chips are loaded on the railway platform and the Ganga is just a kilometre away. There is a school as well. Standing for 10 minutes on the platform becomes difficult. Nobody cares if we live or die. There is no one to put a stop to mining.”

According to an inspection report on legal and illegal mines and stone crushing units in Sahibganj district available online there are roads as well as habitations near many units but no appropriate dust control measures have been taken.