Bhagwan Singh and Raghubir Singh are proud army men who fought to defend the nation’s borders in the 1965 and 1971 wars. But in their old age they have become sad due to the devastation caused to their fields and pastures by indiscriminate mining carried out in many illegal ways.

“We have explored so many avenues of justice but we have not received any so far. We never thought that when we return to our villages to spend our retired life in peace our lives would be torn asunder by alarming violation of law at the hands of those who control money and power.“

We were sitting with a group of villagers from Mahawa and Bharala villages in Neem ka Thana block of Sikar district of Rajasthan. Bhagwati, an elderly woman of Mahawa village said, “Not satisfied with destroying our village by destructive mining the government has issued notices of acquiring land in two villages.

This village has provided shelter and livelihood to seven generations. We are going to protect our land come what may. This is what I told the officials who came to acquire land.”

Shanti Devi of Shuklavaas village (Jaipur district) says, “We just want to spend a peaceful life in our homes but our houses are being destroyed by large-scale dynamite blasting, our crops are shriveling and our animals are threatened. We have complained so many times but no one listens. Don’t we even have a right to protect our lives?”

This is a question which is increasingly asked by tens of thousands of people in around 150 villages of Jaipur, Sikar and Jhunjhunu districts which have been in the grip of destructive stone mining and stone crushers for several years, some of them for almost two decades.

In the villages of this region which we visited recently we met several men and women who narrated horrific stories of terrible loss and grave injustice. Several were on the verge of tears.

Kailash Meena, a senior social activist who has been involved in efforts to protect people’s rights for nearly 20 years, says, “ We have gone from pillar to post to get justice but such is the stifling hold of the powerful operators of mines and crushers that even when we demand the implementation of the government’s own laws and rules we are the ones who are beaten up and victimised repeatedly. My colleague Pradeep Sharma who belonged to a highly respected family of freedom fighters in Jhunjhunu district was murdered because he had dared to challenge these powerful forces. I can never forget the hours I spent besides the dead body of my brave friend in Pacheri village.”

At this stage Kailash broke down and had to be controlled before he could continue. He added, “instead of taking strong steps to punish the culprits it is the victim’s side that was been harassed. As a result Dayaram, the uncle of the deceased also died in deep distress following a heart attack. Similar harassment had earlier resulted in the death of another close colleague, Maliram Saini.”

This raises a basic question of the democratic rights of people to defend their life and livelihood. Many villagers told us that due to dust and poisonous smoke they suffer from several breathing and lung problems. Radhey Sham of Shuklavaas village says, “Not just workers but ordinary villagers are being diagnosed with silicosis. Nine such cases are in my village alone.”

The water table has gone down and water has been polluted in many places. Kasavati River which had its catchment area in the mining belt area exists no more. Due to consumption of poor quality water people complain of several health problems including damage to bones and teeth.

In most villages several houses are badly affected by mining. Big cracks appeared so that these families constantly live under the fear of house collapse. In fact at the time of blasting, residents of nearby houses are asked by the workers to stay outside to avoid the danger of house collapse. The well built roof of a mosque collapsed some time back leading to one death.

The fact that in gross violation of laws mines are located so close to houses has increased this threat. Kailash Meena says there are frequent deaths due to this as well as stone pieces hurled at great velocity by blasting. Trucks overloaded with stones pose another hazard as well as damage roads.

Meanwhile, villagers complain that agricultural production is down to about 30 per cent of the normal yield. Animal husbandry has also suffered due to damage to pastures and nearby forests, apart from the more direct threats to animals from blasting.

What happens when people protest? Radhey Shyam says that there have been several cases of people being lathi-charged brutally and many have been injured.

In a recent case one woman suffered a fracture in her hand and was dragged with another protesting woman by the male policemen to the lock-up. Several activists including Kailash Meena have been arrested and beaten several times while false charges have been foisted on many others.

When the response to people’s demand for proper implementation of laws and protection of their basic rights is so blatantly unjust then democracy itself is threatened. So it is clearly time now for the government and the judiciary to take remedial action so that the wounds of several years of grave injustice can be healed.

This tragic situation also raises basic questions of serious distortions in existing development patterns whereby those with money and power are allowed to capture and plunder the natural resource base of villages and in the process the livelihoods of present and future generations are destroyed just to provide huge profits to a few greedy persons.

The writers are freelance journalists with specialisation in development issues.