Indian Fossil Bed Being Ground Into Cement

Indian Fossil Bed Being Ground Into Cement

Paroma Basu in New Delhi, India
From  National Geographic News

February 6, 2008 – A fossil-rich region of India’s war-torn state of Kashmir could be blasted out of existence by mining operations, according to eyewitness accounts by geologists.

Fossil beds in the rocky Guryul Ravine, just south of the city of Srinagar, date back 260 million years to the pre-dinosaur Permian period.

Specimens from the site include primordial corals, small invertebrates, plants, and a group of mammal-like reptiles known as therapsids.

But the fossils lie inside rich tracts of limestone—a key ingredient in cement manufacturing.

Local authorities declared the Guryul site a protected area last year and claim that mining activities have ceased.

But there are still quarry owners who supply stone chips to small-scale cement factories in nearby towns, said Ghulam Mohamad Bhat, a sediment geologist at Kashmir’s University of Jammu.

Bigger pieces of exploded rock are used in road and housing construction.

Quarry operators earn about 600 rupees (U.S. $15) per truckload of stones, according to a recent report in the Telegraph, a leading daily newspaper of eastern India.

“Underhanded mining has gone on for years and is still going on,” Bhat said. “Sadly, the fossil section at Guryul has been entirely put to sale.”

Hundreds of millions of years ago, the prehistoric Tethys Ocean flowed where Kashmir’s Guryul Ravine now stands.

Guryul’s fossils, which were first discovered by a British scientist in 1886, represent a variety of ancient marine life.

Most of these creatures perished in a massive extinction event that took place between the Permian and Triassic periods about 251 million years ago.

While the event is also captured in stone in other parts of the world, including Iran and China, it is best preserved in the Kashmir section, Bhat said.

“Studying these fossils can tell us how life evolved afresh after the extinction,” Bhat said.

At the same time, Indian cement manufacturers say that the limestone deposits in northern Indian states such as Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh are of particularly high quality.

Stone quarries crush and ferry limestone chips to factories where they are treated in kilns and eventually ground into cement.

Before mining any area, companies must obtain a series of government permits, including approvals from the Indian Bureau of Mines, the Ministry of Environment and Forests, and the involved state’s pollution control board.

But in the disputed region of Kashmir, this system of environmental checks and balances may easily fall by the wayside.

Despite the high-grade limestone, India’s leading cement companies have not opened shop in the state due to its chronic history of violence, said Asim Chattopadhyay, vice president of geomining at the cement manufacturing giant Lafarge India.

Kashmir’s population is majority Muslim, and the region has been at the center of a bitter, decades-long territorial dispute between India and Pakistan that has taken tens of thousands of lives.

“There may be the possibility of illegal mining, because in such a disturbed state, nobody is willing to go and check the situation. There is a real life risk in doing so,” Chattopadhyay said.

Bhat and other geologists caught wind of the mining activities at Guryul last April and immediately alerted Kashmir’s geology and mining department.

Pervez Malik, the director of the department, said mining activities over a 1.5-square-mile (4-square-kilometer) stretch of the Guryul Ravine stopped soon after.

“We have brought the matter to the notice of the central government, which is now in the process of notifying the area as protected,” Malik said.

But local operators can still collect loose materials lying around the fossil beds, Malik added.

Under this loophole, many operators explode Guryul rock in the middle of the night before “removing it in the name of loose materials,” according to another mining department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Michael Brookfield is an emeritus professor of geology at the University of Guelph, Canada, who is now based in Taiwan.

He traveled to Kashmir last year and saw for himself the Guryul Ravine—and the mining activities that are tearing it apart.

“If the Guryul section is destroyed,” Brookfield said, “then one of the most important areas [showing] one of the most important changes in life in geological time will no longer be available for study.”

It’s sad to see things like this in the news.  These bedrock layers obviously contain large amounts of information about the Permian period.  However, political conflict has left the government too busy to enforce environmental protection laws.  You can’t really blame the people taking the stone because they’re just trying to make a living.  So how is this situation resolved?  Increased pressure from academics on the Indian government?  Thoughts?

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