Hemla Bhima, a 60-year-old farmer in Chhattisgarh's Dantewada district, dreads the monsoon season.
He has been fighting an uphill battle to save his farmland from Shankhani river's 'lal paani' ever since he started farming. Every monsoon, the river swells and washes into Bhima's land carrying iron ore sludge particles which turn the water red and get deposited in the soil.
The chemical pollution has slowly and surely killed the fertility of his farm.
Almost half of Bhima's 13-acre land in Padhapur village at the foot of the Bailadila hills range has been destroyed by chemical waste from the National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC)'s iron ore mining projects in the area. Around 26 villages within a few kilometres of the mines have been affected by lal paani over the past 5 decades since the first NMDC project was built. NMDC is the country's largest public sector iron ore producer and exporter.
In the poll-bound state's insurgency-hit Bastar division, Bhima and 46 other farmers in villages around the Bacheli mining township have lost at least two to five acres of land and are suffering reduced crop production due to iron ore sludge pollution.
"I grow paddy, maize, and sugarcane among a few other crops. The quality and quantity of the yield have reduced significantly over the last decade. I depend on paddy for my livelihood, but the crop is weak now due to the pollution in the soil and groundwater," says Bhima, who is the deputy sarpanch of the village.
Surveying his sparse paddy field discoloured by grey-black patches of sludge deposits, he says, "Loha-pathar mein nahi hota hai na dhaan, nahi hota hai na, nahi hota (Paddy cannot grow on iron and rocks, it just can't)," highlighting the despair that is echoed by most farmers in the area's settlements.
Pandu Kunjam, 35, owns five acres of land in Patalpada, a neighbouring hamlet.
"I have lost around an acre of my land. There is no irrigation facility, so largely, we follow the rain-fed system. Most of the hand pumps in our settlement also give only lal paani. We are facing a scarcity of water," he says.
Every year, the farmers equip their land with protection against the polluted water by building mud bunds around parts which are in the vicinity of the river's multiple 'nullah's or streams. However, the bunds are not able to withstand the abundant flow of water during the monsoon and get washed away.
Budhru Kunjam, 30, points at a wall made of rocks built as reinforcements in a neighbouring field across the stream in the Bhandapada hamlet. "The farmer over there has built a wall as an added layer of obstruction against the water. We have to look out for ourselves and try to save as much of our farms as possible," he says.
The farmers say that the Raman Singh-led state government provided a cement wall along one stream after protests from the locals a few years ago. "There is only one stream in an area of around 26 villages which has a boundary wall made of cement so that the water cannot enter the soil. But even that is incomplete," says Pandu.
However, NMDC chief of communications Rafique Ahmed Jinabade, says that the company has taken steps to stop the pollution in the area. "We have put in places systems to dispose the mud residue from the mines by planting trees in those sections to prevent soil erosion. Tailing dams, which are walls that are built for the purpose of stopping iron ore and sludge particles from continuing downstream in the river, have also been built in the immediate area around the mines," he says.
The effects of the iron ore sludge pollution are not restricted to the productivity or fertility of farmlands. Madhe Mandhavi, a farmer in the Pandupada hamlet, lost at least 10 animals from her livestock this year. She was unable to provide clean drinking water.
"Six goats and four cows died this year after continued consumption of the water from the river. Sometimes, the water we use from the river even has oil residue. So eventually, they fell sick and died," she says. "Two bore wells with clean drinking water were installed in our village two to three months ago by the NMDC."
Mandhavi owns less than half an acre of land, of which half has been rendered infertile by the polluted water. "Neither we have not registered a complaint in the district collector's office nor have we complained to the company. Even if we do what is the use?" she asks.
However, in spite of receiving compensation only twice in the past 50 years, most of the farmers have not accepted the pollution as part of their daily lives and still steadfastly fight against it.
Bhima says, "Three or four years ago, I received a compensation amount of Rs 10,000. Since then there has been nothing."
He adds, "In 2017, Padhapur village's sarpanch Sukhram Kunjam and I had met with NMDC DGM Ashok Shukla to ask about compensation and he said that he had released the amount to the collector. But we have not received any compensation money yet."
Bhima also says that the district administration conducts a survey of the affected area every year and promises affirmative action for those who have lost their livelihood due to the mining activities, but the assurances only remain on paper. "Every year they come for a survey and say they will fix this situation and give us compensation, but they forget," he says.
Bastar, which is a tribal division of Chhattisgarh, is scheduled to vote in the first phase of the state's Assembly elections on 12 November. Among the farmers in the Bacheli area of Dantewada, the opinion is divided about which party to support in the upcoming polls.
Older farmers have refused support for any party due to the lack of solutions for their problems, however, farmers in the age group of 25-30 say they will decide based on farmer-centric promises in the campaigns of the parties in the running.
"I am not supporting any party in the elections. I have not put up flags of any party around my house. They will not ask about us after they win," said Budhru Netam, a 65-year-old farmer.
On the other hand, Balram Bhaskar, 22, who has received a diploma in software engineering, is a third generation farmer. He says, "I will vote for the party that has promised betterment for farmers."