JK Bank

As Ghulam Hassan Mir, 45, sits in his one storey mud-house, narrating the tale of his native place, Nichhamma, a remote area 21 kilometers west of Handwara, North Kashmir, with an un-taped humongous amount of Lignite, alias Brown Coal, lying under the ground for no good.

Started in 1983, the lignite extraction plant that is spread over 300-600 kanals of land, established by Department of Geology, Government of India, was aimed to raise its slice of rice in the economy of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Though shut since 1989, the administration has not only failed to utilize the presence of this mineral to a significant extent, but also left hundreds of jobs clinging to uncertainty.

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Talking to The Kashmir Walla, locals told that administration last landed here in 2015 for a regular survey, but since then, no one has visited to assure about its reopening. Mr. Mir says that his uncle, Ghulam Ahmad Mir, was working in the plant as a laborer in its functional days. “He would earn 200-300 back in the ’80s, and it used to be family’s only source of income,” said Mr. Mir.  “After the plant was suddenly stopped, he stayed at home. Falling out of option, being helpless, he had to leave the village and work outside.”

According to a report of the Geological Survey of India, Valley holds the lignite deposit of around 5 crores 60 lakh tons. Drilling operations were started first in the Nichahama-Chowkibal area, which discovered an estimated 4.5 million tons to a depth of 40 meters.

“Our ancestors had no knowledge about this particular mineral, but they fully supported the administration,” told Mr. Mir. “After being told that their land could produce electricity, villagers presented their land for the extraction as well.”

According to an official, who wishes to be anonymous, an intensive mineral survey in 1975 had confirmed the presence of enormous mineral resources in the district. As he told, the then geology and mining team from India government had set up huts in the area to start the mining, and it went on for two years only. “Though, after militancy, the situation in the area became worse, and the extraction of the mineral was stopped,” he said.

However, no one from the area knows why the plant stopped suddenly. A few locals also believe that when the initial years of armed insurgency-hit north hard, the mining was stopped. “The geology and mining team from India left the area, while the drilling machines were stolen,” says Abdul Rashid, 45, a local laborer.

Pros of its existence:

Abdul Majid Butt, a Kashmir based globally recognized geologist, told The Kashmir Walla that this project was initially started in the 1960s, for the manufacture of briquettes (combustible biomass), though, it was stopped soon because of cheap technology and a lot of obnoxious smoke it would produce.

After it, as per Mr. Butt, various suggestions flew in from different places, including Poland and Germany to use improved technology. “We decided to have gasification according to the modern technology,” said 76-year-old Mr. Butt.

As per his knowledge of the subject, he believes that the lignite which is spread across Nichamma to Tangmarg, could be used for the generation of tar, electricity, fertilizers, and chemicals.

Adding to the pros of its existence, Mr. Butt added that when they send sample of local lignite to Bharat heavy electricals Ltd (BHEL) in 2005-06, to test the fluidized bed combustion process to Trichy, in return, they confirmed that electricity could also generate from it, “which would be sufficient to sustain for at least 30 years.”

Walking with me on a narrow muddy lane, Mohammad Ashraf, a 26-year-old boy, says that if the administration would start the extraction again, many locals, who got to leave their home for labor would get jobs in their own area. “It becomes very difficult for people here to travel 50 kilometers to find work in cities,” said Mr. Ashraf, a postgraduate student. “When they could have easily adjusted here if this plant was functional. Most of the people are laborers in here.”

As per Mr. Butt’s calculation, restarting this project would demand at least a thousand crore, “But, the outcome would be thrice of that, if the extraction of the mineral would be taken care of.”

Fatima Begum, 70, also used to work alongside her husband, late Ghulam Mohammad Mir, in the lignite extraction plant. As she recalls, what she says were good days, she would usually go and take lunch for her husband, who would come home late from his work. “We were living happily. It was the basic source of income those days,” she said. But when lignite extraction was stopped in 1989, around hundreds of employees lost their livelihood.

Talking to The Kashmir Walla, a social activist and lawyer, Mir Imran, explained that the extraction and exploration of these resources could provide increase tax revenues and bring employment to the economically-backward region. “If we embark on utilizing our mineral wealth, our area would be far ahead in terms of development,” he added.

Adding to it, Mr. Imran stated that government should come up with bold economic reforms, aimed at balancing the ecosystem while sustaining the economic growth and boosting human development to utilize these untapped resources.

What about the environment?

Irfan Rasool, 39, a forest conservator from North Kashmir, told that the area doesn’t come under forest area. “We recently demarked the land after a Mumbai based company needed a clearance regarding whether it is forest land. But, it doesn’t come under that so if the extraction is started again we don’t have any objection.”

The executive magistrate of Handwara, Mohammad Altaf, 38, stated that environmental clearance becomes another hurdle which perhaps is barring authorities to rework on it, adding that the area is prone to landslide as well.

However, Bashir Ahmad Peer, a resident of Handwara, and an earlier employee of Geology and Mining Department told that the area won’t be affected with landslides when the mining will be restarted. “Lignite is present in the innermost layer of the earth, while the second layer, the white clay, which is prone to landslide, will already be cleared when the soil is dug deep,” he said.

Mr. Peer added that now that the soil is being used for cultivation of maize and other cereals are giving comparably less profit to the people living in the area, majority of whom are now working as laborers outside the native place. “If the state government would start the extraction, more than a thousand households will get employment, not only of Nichhamma area but the people of Rajpora, Wader Payeen and adjoining villages of Handwara as well.”

Quratulain Rehbar is a Features Writer at The Kashmir Walla