ON THE MORNING of July 29, Renu Khanolkar was busy with household chores when she heard a loud noise. in the next few minutes, her house was engulfed by a flood of muddy water. An earthen embankment (a raised structure made from compacted soil to confine run-off) at a controversial iron ore mine had burst following a landslide, and a flood of mud swept through Kalane village in Sindhudurg district, Maharashtra.
The Konkan belt had witnessed heavy rainfall and massive landslides in the last week of July. Taliye village in Raigad district, for example, was wiped out by landslides; more than 100 people died there alone. Though no one died in Kalane, the accident wiped out farms and homes. “Had it happened at night, it would have claimed at least a hundred lives,” said Satish Lalit, former chief public relations officer to Maharashtra chief ministers Ashok Chavan and Prithviraj Chavan. He now runs an NGO in Sindhudurg and is involved in forest and wildlife conservation. Lalit said that the Kalane iron ore mine was established in 2008-2009 despite stiff opposition from locals in Dodamarg taluk. “The taluk is an ecologically sensitive zone. The mining project is located in the Western Ghats and [within the] Sawantwadi-Dodamarg wildlife corridor,” he said. “The project had the blessings of the then political bosses of Maharashtra. Vinay Patil, son of Congress heavyweight Rohidas Patil, has a stake in it.” Lalit elaborated that this was not the first landslide in the mine. “On April 24, 2019, a 58m-high cliff had collapsed and one of the mineworkers died,” said Lalit. “There was no water in the mining pits then. The directorate general of mines safety had inquired into the accident.”
Khanolkar’s 2.5-acre farm got destroyed in the July 29 landslide. Farmer Mansingh Desai’s home was flooded and his five-acre farm was destroyed. “Close to 30 families have been affected, entire plantations have been destroyed, houses have been damaged,” said Milind Naik from Kalane. “This is not a natural disaster, but a man-made one caused by the activities of the mining company [Samruddha Minerals and Metals Co Ltd].”
Naik has been at the forefront of agitations against mining in the area. “We were opposed to the mining right from the beginning,” he said. “The authorities filed false cases against us when we launched the agitation. We were booked under Section 302 [punishment for murder] for causing the death of one of the mining company employees, when he had died in an accident. Many of us were arrested. The mining company controlled local authorities. While setting up the mine, they even claimed that the Kalane river does not exist.” Kalane villagers are firm that they will not accept a rupee from the government as compensation for the recent landslides. They want the mining company to pay for the damages. Shiv Sena legislator Vaibhav Naik alleged that Union Minister Narayan Rane was responsible for bringing mining into Kalane—he was the industries minister in Maharashtra (2010-2014) in the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party government. “The landslide that caused the accident is a direct result of mining activity. Rane is now Union minster. He should explain the Union government’s position on hazardous projects like this,” said Vaibhav.
In 2012, the Maharashtra government’s directorate of geology and mining had informed the government that the owners of Kalane mine were mining outside the area leased to them; 4.89 hectares had been illegally mined. Samruddha’s 20-year lease ends in 2029.
THE WEEK accessed a recent letter written by Shiv Sena MLA from Sawantwadi, Deepak Vasant Kesarkar, to Maharashtra Industries Minister Subhash Desai. In the letter, Kesarkar states: “Several accidents have taken place from the beginning of this mining project and many people have lost lives…. Locals have been complaining that the water accumulated in mining pits has been leaking for the last two years, but the company has not paid any attention.
“During the recent rains, the mining benches collapsed In the mining pit [due to landslides], where huge amounts of water had accumulated. This caused the embankment to burst damaging hundreds of acres of land, houses and government property to the tune of Rs5 crore. Hundreds of people could have lost lives as the 15ft high wave of water would have swept away whatever came in its way. This water [carrying mining silt] has polluted all the nearby sources of water…. The mine has cut a hill vertically and encroached on forest land, if this hill collapses, then forest and forest land will be destroyed.” Kesarkar demanded an inquiry by a committee headed by a retired judge.
Ajit Patil, district mining officer of Sindhudurg, said that the directorate general of mines safety has been informed about the accident and has been requested to visit the site to prepare an assessment report. “They have given oral instructions. Our effort is to make the company compensate the affected villagers,” he said.
K. Manjulekshmi, the collector of Sindhudurg district, told THE WEEK that she had already ordered the immediate closure of all mining-related activities in the region. “We have asked the government of India’s mining office in Goa to survey safety aspects of the mine. Permanent closure of the mining [site] will depend on the report by the GoI,” said Manjulekshmi.