By HH Mohrmen
About a decade ago along with the youth group of the Church, I took part in the tree plantation programme in Mawkisyiem locality of Sohra. There is nothing unusual about the programme except that before we planted the saplings officials from the forest department advised that we dig a big hole of about 2 feet deep and of 20 inches in diameter to plant the seedlings. We were also advised to put some leaves and shrubs and even cow dung in the hole which will serve as manure for the saplings. The forest official explained that this is necessary because mining and torrential rain has washed away the top soil from the area downstream. This is the reason that Sohra is also sometimes called the wettest desert because ironically in spite of its reputation of being the place which receives the heaviest rainfall yet the people of Sohra face water crisis during lean periods.
Rampant mining and extensive deforestation in the Sohra area has stripped the area of its forest cover and its top soil making it difficult for trees to grow again and with little or no forest cover, there is no system to retain the rainwater and prevent it from flowing to the plains of Bangladesh. Nongtalang is fast becoming like Sohra and if the current pace of limestone mining continues, Nongtalang will be the next Sohra sooner than later. The two semi-townships situated in a similar topographical location and being close to Bangladesh, also share many things in common, but the only difference is that Nongtalang still has a large area under forest cover. For a long time the semi-township is the envy of the nearby villages because water was never a problem for the people here even during winter season.
Nongtalang is perhaps the only village which has many public washing and bathing platforms with water running twenty four hours a day and the villagers have evolved a unique way of life around the abundant water. As a matter of fact, these water platforms characterize certain aspect of the culture of the village with water at the centre of it. People do not need water tanks to store water here. Where is the need for a water tank when there is continuous water supply in the public platform day in and the day out? Villagers dash to the water supply point which is always close to their house for washing their clothes, bathing and even washing their pots and pans. In fact the houses in the village do not even have bathrooms. If at all any house has any bathroom it will be a makeshift bamboo extension of the house for washing crockery and utensils only. Villagers old and young, men and women wash and bathe in the public washing point found in different parts of Nongtalang.
In the vicinity of the village in almost every entry point to the village there are again these water points with running water throughout the day. The purpose of these water spots is for people to take bath on returning from their fields before they enter the village again. With regards to water, Nongtalang is perhaps a living testimony to the saying, ‘There is enough in the world for everybody’s need but not enough for anybody’s greed’ because there is enough water for everybody in the area. But sadly, that is going change very soon.
Due to rampant limestone mining in the area, there is a drastic change in the landscape of Nongtalang. The forest cover has gradually diminishes but the effect of mining on the water bodies of the area is of a grave concern for the people who live there. The water which is supplied to the semi-township is being affected; water level has receded as forest areas were cleared for mining of limestone and the colour of the water which used to be crystal clear now turns muddy. The water of Amdap which is a source of water supply to the ‘Ria-bealliang’ four localities of Nongtalang was seriously affected because mining is going on very near to the source. The colour of the water turns muddy even with the slightest rainfall and renders it useless to the people of the village who depend largely on this source for their daily needs.
Residents of Nongtalang are farmers and beetle-nuts and pan leaf are the major crops of the area. Of the two main crops that the people depend for their livelihood, pan leaf requires continuous and yearlong flow of water to survive. The people of Nongtalang traditionally used bamboo to irrigate pan leaf plantations and are perhaps the first people to use drip irrigation. Pan leaf needs non-stop watering but the supply should be drop by drop hence the people of Nongtalang in particular and the War Jaintia in general are experts in irrigation. Water therefore is not just for washing, bathing and cooking. The entire pan leaf plantation will not survive without continuous flow of water, hence the rampant mining and clearing of forests is an imminent threat to the livelihood of the people in the village.
Nongtalang is one of the very few villages which still maintains its strong tribal cultural roots, the large followers of Niamtynrai help keep the tradition alive. Sadly mining has robbed the people of their tradition of being close to nature and even disconnecting them from the deities they worship. By tradition most tribals have names for all the hills, the hillock, the rivers and stream and even peculiar rocks, but mining has leveled hills to the ground and turned the rivers and streams dry. Extensive mining has even made streams and rivulet disappear. Mining has not only robbed them of their livelihoods but has also deprived them of their culture and tradition, rivers, mountains and the forest which they use to worship as ‘u Ryngkew u Basa’ are being plundered and brought to the ground by the miners. Forests which are believed to be the dwelling place of both good and evil deities is gradually being cleared to make way for the giant machineries to plunder on nature.
In the absence of a state mineral policy, the Jaintia Hills Autonomous District Council has taken upon itself the responsibility to issue NOC (No objection certificate) to limestone mine owners and exporters in Nongtalang. The question is how can JHADC issue NOC for Limestone mining without even conducting public hearing to determine the impact of mining in the area? Does the JHADC have all the expertise and the technical knowhow to conduct such investigation? And the most important question is; what is the mandate of the JHADC? The mandate of the Council is to protect the forest, water sources and culture and tradition of the people or to destroy the same?
The damage done to the environment is rapid not only because miners use heavy machines but the miners even uses high power explosives like TNT dynamite, to mine limestone. Now; one may question; how can miners use explosives, is it legal to use explosive? Has the government authorized the miners to use explosive? And if so, do they have qualified persons to supervise the use of explosives in the mine? Residents of new Nongtalang complained of noise pollution because the heavy machines were used continuously even during the night.
The situation has reached a point where people cannot just sit and wait anymore, they have decided to stand up and fight for their right to life and livelihood. Now it is for their representative and the government to address their grievances before it is too late- before Nontalang goes the Sohra way.
(The author is an independent researcher and an environmental activist)