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“Sometimes, when the sun is high over our heads, I still hear the boom of the dynamite. I remember how the earth used to shudder, causing utensils to fall in the kitchen and the few remaining birds to fly off squawking into the trees,” said Sawan of Sirohi village in Faridabad. It was quiet in the noon day sun, and sitting rather sleepily on a charpoy under a tree, I couldn’t imagine what he was talking about. Then, he took me to the hills beyond the village and l understood. The Aravalis were scraped bare of vegetation, with lodes of gravel glinting like blood in craters laid bare by explosions. Yawning valleys lay where mountains had stood barely a decade ago — now so deep that groundwater had seeped through, creating huge blue lakes. They were eerily beautiful, mirroring the stark lines of the denuded hills. “Nobody knows exactly how deep they are, but we believe they’re at least 50 feet deep. But the water is still so choked with the chemicals from the explosives, even fish don’t survive in it,” he said.
As we walked through the rubble, Sawan explained that his village had been at the epicentre of stone quarrying in the Aravalis, until it was banned in 2009. “Everyone in our village made a living from it,” he said. It was done on land owned by villagers, and their Panchayat, so villagers suddenly found themselves rolling in easy money. With stones, rubble and sand needed to fuel Delhi’s building boom between 1995 and 2009, villages like Sirohi suddenly saw a veritable explosion of wealth.
“One of my relatives owned a huge tract of hilly land where the lake now lies,” Sawan said. “There were single days when he earned as much as Rs 5 lakh! Even villagers like me who worked as labourers often managed to earn as much as Rs10,000 a day.” Easy money led to big spending in Sirohi. “My neighbour first upgraded from a cycle to a Maruti 800, then a Santro. By 2009, he had a fleet of 14 trucks and bought swanky cars in pairs.”
But things changed overnight when quarrying was officially banned in 2009. The flow of money and jobs halted. “My brother had insisted on retaining our herd of cows, so at least our family had some income, fresh milk and butter to eat. Others reverted to farming, and some took to driving the trucks they had bought,” he said. Sadly, the youths who tried to get jobs outside the village didn’t fare too well. “The generation that came of age at that time was uneducated. Our village has only a primary school, but with money coming in so easily, nobody understood the value of education,” he said. And, having seen how much their fathers earned daily, these youngsters weren’t willing to settle for the low salaries offered to them.
“Nobody knows where all that wealth has gone today,” said Sawan ruefully. He showed me village homes made of marble, but in a sad state of disrepair. Outside these once-stately homes, garbage lay rotting. The sole government school in the village is up to Class V only. “The money, perhaps because it came too easily to us, wasn’t used for any constructive purposes,” he said. So, when it disappeared, it left Sirohi a ghost town with scars of its excesses and shades of its former glory.
“My arms are still marked by the explosions I’d to set off in the quarries,” Sawan said. I looked at his scars and then at the ravaged and scarred hills around us. “I don’t think they’ll ever heal,” he said. I didn’t think so either.