Employees wear uniforms every day, go to work at 8am. But curtains came down on the mining activity at the stroke of midnight on Dec 31, 2005.
Four and a half years after the Supreme Court directed the KIOCL (Kudremukh Iron Ore Co Ltd) to close mining activity to protect the pristine Western Ghats, over 400 KIOCL employees are still working at the mines. Their only work is to maintain the Rs 700-crore machinery (all still inside the Kudremukh National Park). The company is spending over Rs 60 crore a year in maintaining the machinery and the people.
While these skilled engineers have ended up doing small-time jobs like lubricating the machinery, KIOCL is clueless on what to do with the huge machinery that have begun to rust.
"The mines are to be maintained because the machinery is worth Rs 700 crore. Kudremukh was the only mine with magnetite ore. In others, it is hematite. So it is technically not feasible to use the machinery in other mines. We are looking at companies from abroad to sell it. Otherwise, it will end up in scrap," KIOCL chairman and managing director K Ranganath told.
The township has 2,000 houses, most vacant now. There is a hospital, a park, two schools but with no people.
Some employees are hopeful that the mine will be reopened as the company is still continuing operations. "For almost five years, we have done nothing except maintaining machinery and doing rounds of the mines. Most of us are mining engineers. I don't know how long we can continue without working. But we hear the steel ministry is trying to reopen the mines,'' said an employee.
Shockingly, though it is not operational, the mine continues to pollute the Kudremukh National Park. According to Ranganath, 24 billion tonnes of loose magnetite ore are lying open in the mines.
"The ore can wash away into Bhadra and pollute it even more. Someone has to remove it from there," he said.
Praveen Bhargav of Wildlife First, which fought for the closure of the mines, said it was only an excuse.
"The siltation in Bhadra had increased due to the mining residues flowing into it. Same with Lakya dam that had impacted the ecology massively where the mine's mud tailings used to be dumped,'' he said.
The open cast mine of Kudremukh lies like an ugly wound amid the splendid shola-covered hills of the Kudremukh National Park.
The company continues to retain its entire mining infrastructure, huge rusted machinery, buildings and high-tension power lines within the park and is ruining the area's vulnerable ecology.
Mining may have stopped five years but environmental plunder continues. Experts say that complete evacuation from the park is a must to help rejuvenate it. As of now, the condition of the Bhadra river is of utmost concern to them. According to Praveen Bhargav of Wildlife First, which was instrumental in putting an end to mining here, the siltation level in the Bhadra was very high. A government study estimated it was about 60,000 tonnes when the mining was on, all due to the residues discharged by KIOCL.
The Lakya Dam, now a desert of silica, was a check dam used by the company to dispose its silica residues and mud tailings from the mine. It's 1,048 metres long and contains 70% silica residues and about 100 metres in height. "Earlier, they had permission for 70 metres but now it's 100 metres. They had illegally submerged 340 hectares," Praveen said.
FOREST AREA SUBMERGED
The height of the Lakya Dam was increased without obtaining permission from the forest department. "They submerged about 340 ha of prime forest land. We had booked a case and set a fine but it hasn't been paid yet. They are still drawing water from the dam. The matter is now with the central empowered committee," PCCF, wildlife, B K Singh told TOI. KIOCL employees also said they continue to draw water from Lakya for their projects in Mangalore.
The slope stabilization of the open cast mine has also not been taken up by any independent body, which has led to no grass patch growing on the excavated parts. Praveen says Rs 139.15 crore, estimated by the CAG for massive environmental damage caused to the park, has also not been recovered from the company.
There is also huge pressure from all the human activity still continuing inside the park.
Some demands of environmentalists
In a letter written to environment minister Jairam Ramesh by managing trustee, member, National Board for Wildlife, Praveen Bhargav
The ministry of environment & forests initiates decisive action to fully effectuate the judgments of the Supreme Court, including restoration and safety of Lakya Dam
The ministry of steel is fully apprised of the adverse legal position on restarting mining in Kudremukh which would be completely contrary to law, established policy and the letter and spirit of the Supreme Court judgments
The proposal to establish the southern chapter of the Wildlife Institute of India by using existing buildings taken over from KIOCL is accepted and implemented since it would be compatible not only with the National Park but also the overall goal of research and monitoring in the Western Ghats biodiversity hotspot