Sunday, November 16, 2003
Environmental concerns
Meghalaya’s nemesis: Jhum and mines
Peeyush Agnihotri

Coal mining continues just a few kilometers away from the Shillong-Sohra highway.
Coal mining continues just a few kilometers away from the Shillong-Sohra highway.

Jhum cultivation, limestone quarrying and coal mining are ruining the ecology of Meghalaya hills. The majestic mountains are in a shambles and the forest canopy lies in tatters.

One of the primary threats to the forests is jhum (shifting cultivation), the practice of clearing land and cultivating it for a short period of time, until the soil is depleted, and then abandoning it and clearing more land for cultivation.

More than 66 per cent of the NE (North-East) eco-region has been cleared or degraded and less than one per cent is protected. Jhum is being considered the primary cause of deforestation in the NE. As per the Forest Survey of India’s 1999 report, the estimated forest area affected in Meghalaya due to jhum is 1800 sq km.

Dr K.K. Satapathy, a principal scientist with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, is disillusioned. He says: "The unsuitability of shifting cultivation begins with the reduction in shifting cycle, accelerating both on site and offsite degradation due to erosion, run-off, nutrient losses, loss of biodiversity and deterioration in watershed hydrology. Deforestation in the region has reached an alarming stage owing to the practice of shifting cultivatio. The clearing of forests, the burning of debris and the use of land for cultivation proved to a big shock to the ecosystem, leading to a change in vegetation and resulting in preponderance of secondary growth of weeds and bamboos different from those of seasonal forests."

Jhum or shifting cultivation might have been suitable in the past when population pressure was less and was practised in a cycle of 20-25 years. In the present context, the frequency of the cultivation has been reduced to five or six years. Even if the soil base is good, natural forests need nearly 30 years to regenerate. Maybe more.

V.K. Nautiyal, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Government of Meghalaya, nods grimly. "The situation is pretty serious," he says. "Large tracts of land are under jhum. Let’s not forget that the area is a high-rainfall area. This combination is proving to be a nemesis for the soil cover. Topsoil is being eroded heavily. Our estimate is that nearly 1 million tonnes of soil is topsoil is lost every year due to jhum and there are ominous signs of deforestation already."

The Forest Department has launched various projects to educate the local population about the NE biodiversity and ill-effects of land degradation. The department organises vanmahotsava and observes wildlife week. "Do you know Meghalaya forests are home to 700 of 3000 medicinal plants throughout India? Something needs to be done to save this," urges Nautiyal.

The Forest Survey of India points out that between 1993 and 1995, nearly 800 square kilometers of dense forest area was lost in the NE due to jhum.

"If the tropical forests, with not much soil support are once felled, they are likely to be lost forever. Therefore, the inevitable consequence of shifting cultivation in such areas is complete desertification," Satapathy warns.

Even the government is fully aware of this environmental nuisance and the Government of Meghalaya Website,, points to it pertinently.

As a local journalist points out: "The Meghalaya hills have become bereft of forest cover because of jhum. If this goes on, the state will have no landscape to boast of. Instead ‘jhumscape’ will dot the countryside."

On the one hand, jhum continues to take its toll, on the other hand, limestone quarrying and coal mining are compounding the ecologists’ worries.

Meghalaya’s total reserve of 5,000 million tonnes of estimated limestone is being exploited to feed cement factories. The state has nearly 200-km-long good quality limestone beds occurring along the southern border. These are being aggressively quarried in Cherrapunjee, Shella, Siju, Sutgna, Nongkhlieh, Syndai and Nangwalbibra, to name a few areas. Rampant quarrying in this region may become a scourge in the near future though right now the situation is not grave.

It, however, is in Meghalaya’s coalfields. Meghalaya is estimated to have a coal reserve of 640 million tones, of which the Garo Hills contain 360 million tonnes. And locally, coal is mostly of the sub-bituminous type, known as tertiary coal. The ash content is much lower though a high sulphur content is its bane. And a threat to region’s ecology.

"Geologically speaking, this coal is of high calorific value and is younger as compared to the deposits found in the Bihar-Jharkhand belt," says D,Vasudevan, Deputy Director General, Geological Survey of India (GSI).

The problem lies in extraction. In Meghalaya, mines are not controlled by the government but by private individuals who are the actual owners of the land. They claim they are rendering a service to society by employing local population but the mining tactics they resort to are risky and a potential environmental and safety hazard.

Dr O.P. Singh, a Reader in the Centre for Environmental Studies, NE Hill University, comments: "The sulphur from coal dissolves in underground water thereby making it acidic and polluted. Due to this, the land is getting degraded and forest cover is depleting. Agricultural fields are also getting less productive. Farmers are abandoning the farms and social as well as ecological imbalances are being created."

The Shukla Commission Report, 1997, was critical of this. The Central Pollution Control Board has also pointed out that coal mining is being done in an unscientific manner in Meghalaya. The coal is exploited by the rat-hole method. For this a narrow tunnel is dug in the hills parallel to ground surface. The water accumulated in the quarries is acidic which ultimately joins the nearby surface waters, says the report submitted by the board.

The coal-smeared writing on barren jhumscape is clear. An ecological disaster is imminent in Meghalaya unless this frenzied meddling with nature is stopped.

(This article has been facilitated by a fellowship given by the National Foundation of India under its North-East Media Exchange Programme).