It was just five decades ago, in 1962, around this time of the year (October) I was taken for a firsthand experience, to learn the ropes and nuances of geological field work in a limestone quarry at Gurma, then in Mirzapur district of U.P. The journey to Mirzapur by train and then to Gurma was full of fun as we youngsters, unmindful of our teachers sang and laughed all the way.
The day we landed, after dinner we went out for a stroll and sat on a wooden bridge across a brook. It was a full moon light and moonlit ripples of water created impression of millions of silver foils floating on the river. It was all quiet except the rippling stream and occasional word by a friend. Despite the moon, the sky was clear and dark blue. Air around was clean and clear, it carried the aroma of green fields around. The Vindhyan ranges which made a giant amphitheater, the center of which Gurma was situated were shown in the moonlight like ghosts vying with each other to keep a watch on us.
We were told that this place was in fact an open air Jail, named after an ex-Chief Minister of U.P. Sampoornand Open air Jail. The inmates of Jail worked in day time quarrying the limestone for the Cement plant at Churk, some distance away from this solitude. It was during the day when we were taken up the hill on one of the flanks of the quarry, we could spot the smoke bellowing chimney of the cement plant at Churk. With our base at Gurma, we went to nearby places like Renukoot, Obra, and Robertsganj etc. All these places were just tiny hamlets and were surrounded by dense forests. We had to ford the wide Son River on foot, as there was no bridge across. Water was not deep, but the span of the river did make some of us shiver with fear. The sky was deep blue in the day time.
Those days the entire region, except the densely populated town of Mirzapur, sparsely populated hamlets and small towns. The forests were bewildering. Once we went on a ‘shikar’- it was not prohibited then. We sat on ‘machans’ (platforms) on high branches of trees while the locals organized a ‘hanka’ - that is a group of 20-25 persons armed with lathis, beating drums and shouting hoarse to drive off animals from their hiding places. We saw herds of spotted deer, neelgai (blue bulls) and rabbits scurry for cover against the cacophony of drums. A single shot was fired; fortunately none of the innocent animals was hurt. We were told that wild life is in plenty, but one has to have patience to sit and shoot.
Years passed; once again an opportunity came to visit the area in 1973. Churk was a township now, with several others at Dala, Obra, Rihand and Renukoot had come up. Gone were the lush green forests along the road. The sky was as grey as it is anywhere in the plains of U.P. The brook at Gurma had only a trickle of water, which was more stagnant than flowing. Of course the area had ‘developed’ with thermal power plants, Aluminum factory at Renukoot and many more thermal power plants in the offing in and around Singrauli in M.P. and in what is now known as Sonbhadra district of U.P.
The brightly lit township dotted on the Vindhyan plains as seen from plateau tops looked like jewels glittering on the body of the famous Vindhyachal plains which are still guarded by the Great Vindhyachal Mountains awaiting the return of the great Indian Sage Agastya. As the story goes, the Vindhyachal mountain was rising at an alarming pace, creating an imbalance in the Indian subcontinent. Agastya thought of setting right the environmental imbalance and as he crossed over the mountain, it bowed in reverence. Agastya told him to remain bowed till his return. Thereafter, Agastya settled in South India, never to return back.
The idea behind this anecdote was to drive home a point that in those good old days the country was governed by the sages and they took care of everything, including the environment.
Alas, the present governance has its priorities in the so called development only. Thus the green fields of this area were converted to industrial, smoke spewing belts. Power is in acute shortage and to fulfill our demands, the Asia’s largest open cast coal mines at Singrauli came handy to create giant thermal power stations.
This region from Mirzapur in U.P. to Singrauli in M.P. had been a dense forest in the pre-historic eras too. The ancient forests, however, were buried in due to geologic upheavals between 359 million years ago to about 299 million years ago. The pressure of overhead material on wood gradually converted them to coal. It is this coal, which was discovered in 1840, is now coming handy to give us the power. Five mega-thermal power plants are operational in the area.
The price we are paying for this power is in the form of the health of the locals and at the cost of the environment of the region. The coal at Singrauli is rich in mercury. In one of the recently published articles in Down To Earth, the author, Sugandh Juneja reports that ‘Mercury is one of the natural components of coal, and perhaps one of the most harmful.’ Her observations are in line with what the Central Pollution Control Board had reported earlier that Singrauli is one of the 22 most polluted places of the country. Sugandh’s report adds a new dimension to this, as she found that the mercury poisoning was not restricted to Singrauli alone, but it had spread its tentacles in the neighboring Sonbhadra district as well. Sugandh says that a 1000 MW Power Plant at Singrauli is emitting at least 500kg of mercury every year. The impact of mercury on the health of the people is such that it can cause permanent damage to brain, the Central Nervous System and the developing foetus.
Alas, the good old Agastya has not yet returned and the chances of his coming back are now zero. The contemporary Agastyas are too busy developing the area to give us the power and other products. It is a different matter that the future generations of Sonbhadra-Singrauli areas may be wiped off for no fault of theirs.