I spent a considerable part of 2018 driving across Rajasthan searching for specimens of rock to take back as exhibits to Jaipur. Rhyolite, granite, sandstone, ironstone, stromatolitic phosphate, rippled quartzite — these were some of the specimens I was looking for. This doesn’t make me an expert on rocks or mining but I did gain some perspective on the disappearing hills of the Aravallis.
It’s true, the hills are melting away before our eyes. About 50 km before you reach Jaipur on NH 8, you drive past an imposing hill of quartzite looming over a small hamlet called Deo ka Harmara, near Chandwaji. Like a giant cone of shawarma, the rock is being pared away layer by layer and eventually ground into gravel-sized stones to be used for road-building. I have watched it shrinking by noticeable increments each time I drove past and regret that I didn’t photograph it to record its deconstruction in time-lapse. This is not an illegal mining operation, just one of hundreds of tekra outcrops that are being dismantled and crushed for roadworks all over Rajasthan, and no doubt, elsewhere in this country.
Mining is big, easy money in Rajasthan today. The state boasts a long list of valuable minerals hidden in its hills and below ground — zinc, silver, uranium, copper, limestone, some of the most colourful marble in the world, mica, dolomite — but I don’t think that all of these minerals add up to a tenth of what is actually mined in small, reckless, fly-by-night operations. Most of the mining is about relatively less-valuable Aravalli quartzite and granite. Or drive out in almost any direction from Jaisalmer town and the stony ground is pitted and broken by shallow digging for the ochre limestone that lies exposed on the surface. There is no reason to doubt that someone needs to restrain the unregulated digging and looting of rocks and minerals before Rajasthan disappears down a large dusty hole of its own making. But what a shame that it has to be the Supreme Court that steps in and not an enlightened and concerned state government.
Countries like South Africa and Australia, which do a colossal amount of mining have their problems too, but they have evolved policies that address important issues of how to steer a course between challenge and opportunity. It can be nobody’s case that mining is all bad and should be banned — these countries recognise that along with economic benefits and employment, mining threatens to severely pollute and degrade the environment and have created strong regulatory regimes to encourage compliance with environmental and mitigatory rules.
Why do we find it so difficult to do anything like this in India? Part of the problem is a lack of probity and enforcement, because there are rules and regulations in place although no one can seriously argue that the rules have been framed with any serious intent or rigour. Naam ke vaaste is the name of the game.
This applies all around, to every parameter of the environment in this country. Whether we look at the quality of water in our rivers and lakes, at the contamination of fossil water in our aquifers, at the fouling of the air or the stripping of topsoil from fields, at pesticide residues in our food, at natural old-growth forests and wilderness being lost — and this is by no means an exhaustive list — it is painfully evident that India has simply not summoned up the will to enact and enforce regulations to curb degradation. No aspect of the environment figures in the election planks or promises of any political party. Maybe it is foolish or at best naïve to expect environmental legislation to arrive unbidden from our legislatures. Maybe it needs a groundswell of public support and pressure for any of this to happen — just like it needed insistent demand from the outdoor recreational angling community to push through the Clean Water Act in the US.
The trouble with hoping for or expecting significant public support for these issues in India is that they it tends to attract the attention of small communities who are easily brushed aside as being “elitist”. The environment is not likely to attract sufficient support on a large enough scale until its downside effects are seen to impact significantly on health or mortality. This is where Delhi’s filthy air seems to represent a real opportunity to mobilise public opinion and recruit support for a better environment all around.
It may seem tragic and ironic that the National Capital Region’s dreadful plight is seen as an opportunity, but this is the sad reality in India today: It is the first high-profile crisis we have faced that everyone recognises is squarely an environmental one. More, it is seen as having a set of discrete, preventable causes and even if everyone doesn’t agree about how to ameliorate the situation, everyone does agree that it can be mitigated by a set of measures that curbs some things and outlaws others. Realistically, this is how environmental intervention in public life is likely to take place in this country — as a response to widespread public perception and concern by enacting laws and putting in place restrictions in order to bring about change for the better.
It is in this sense that Delhi’s bad air presents itself as an opportunity to underline linkages between the degradation of our air, soil, food and water, and the need for good legislation, and indeed, better enforcement of such legislation. I expect Delhi’s crisis to usher in a new general understanding of how important it is to protect our environment. I expect that political parties too, will start talking about environmental issues. The sad truth is we sometimes need to come to the very brink before we pull back and learn to act sensibly.