1. Success Story

Farmer Couple Revives Old Polluted Land; Set to Harvest Pearl Millet, Sesame

Ayushi Raina
Ayushi Raina
Polluted land with tractors

Chape Hanumaiya, an Indian farmer, struggled for years to plant anything on his little plot of land, which was caked in thick, red dust from the iron ore mines that surrounded it.

Hanumaiya and his wife, are set to harvest pearl millet and sesame crops as part of a pilot project to combat migration and improve food security in the southern city of Hosapete , the heart of India's iron ore industry.

Hanumaiya resting in the shade of a tree near his one-acre (0.4-hectare) smallholding, said, “My father produced millet and cotton on this land decades ago.” “Then the mining intensified, and when we arrived at the field, our clothes, grains, and everything else were covered in the mine dust. We gradually stopped farming,” he continued.

Demand for iron ore

India is the world's fourth-largest producer of iron ore, a crucial component in steel production, and demand for the commodity is projected to rise as the global construction sector recovers from Covid-19. This might result in an increase in output, putting additional burden on local farmers and fuelling environmental harm in mining areas.

According to data research agency Land Conflict Watch, iron ore mining has destroyed about 6,000 hectares (approximately 15,000 acres) of land in India, affecting almost 30,000 people.

Hanumaiya's property was resurrected as part of a sustainable co-operative agricultural scheme led by the non-profit Sakhi Trust, which works with communities affected by mining in the area and promotes organic farming.

So far, it has assisted in bringing more than 200 hectares of barren farmland back into production, providing a safety net and protecting locals from the ups and downs of mining.

“When the mines collapsed and agriculture failed, people were forced to migrate,” said Nagesh R Sannaveer, a coordinator at S akhi Trust. he added, “People were searching for food security, so we began assisting them in returning to farming – from preparing plots to organizing collective farming for the landless”.

Red Earth

Since colonial times, the mineral-rich, red earth in the twin districts of Ballarian and Vijayanagara, where Hanumaiya resides, has been mined. However, in an effort to combat illegal mining in the region, the Supreme Court prohibited mining in the region a decade ago. Many pits were closed, including ones near Hanumaiya's plot, though villagers reported activity was gradually returning.

Conveyor belts ferrying ore from the pits to factories cut over the hills, while vast lines of trucks snake in and out of the mines. Hanumaiya, like hundreds of other farmers from his district, went to work in the iron ore mines when business was flourishing.

Many became loaders, drivers, or machine operators, leasing their lands to mining firms to build factories, dump trash, or utilize as storage yards. However, when the Supreme Court judgement caused a massive slump in activity, several people discovered that their damaged land could no longer sustain their food demands, compelling them to join India's migrant labour force.

“Mining was growing — both legally and illegally — and it devoured fertile land,” M. Bhagyalakshmi, founder of Sakhi Trust, said.

“People had no option but to add join the workforce in these mines. However, when the illegal mines were abruptly stopped due to court orders, it left hundreds of people jobless. It caused a livelihood crisis that is still affecting many families today,” she continued.

Growing our Food

According to G. V. Ramanjaneyulu, Executive Director of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, a research organization bringing contaminated agricultural land back into production is a lengthy process.

“Pollution and the loss of fertile top soil are two important concerns... Natural restoration will not be able to fix both problems immediately. It takes years to restore soil,” he added.

The land revival initiative, which provides technical assistance to farmers embarking on restoration work, is only open to farms that are a certain distance away from active mines and have access to irrigation. Building banks to combat soil erosion, removing wild vegetation, digging in manure, and conducting regular soil tests are all examples of this.

Hanumaiya and his wife, Ningamma, spent two years regenerating their field, which now supports food crops a stone's throw from the railway lines that transport iron ore throughout India. Ningamma worked on construction sites or as a farm labourer to put food on the table while the couple was tilling their property and waited for their efforts to yield results.

“Now that we can produce our own food, I know my children will not go to bed hungry,” she added.

“All of our children are in school, and I want them to attain good-paying careers. We don't want kids to go to the mines, where they take more than they give,” she continued.

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