Subji Bazar in Making

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Bholu calls Sunayan Bhai. He informs, “There is not a drop of water in the pools! Openbills have arrived but have not started nest building. There is no sign of rain. If it does not rain in two-three days, they may leave.” All in all, he is suggesting no use visiting Bharatpur bird sanctuary.

Incidentally, any keen bird watcher, at least in India would know Bholu. He has spent his whole life watching birds in Bharatpur and is a knowledge bank on avian. Sunayan has been involved in research in one spell of his posting here in 1990s and in another spell as manager in 2000s.

Sunayan Bhai calls me to tell about the futility of visiting Bharatpur in absence of water. I check the weather forecast. There are indications of rains three days later than our planned dates. So we postpone the visit for three days.

I am mentally prepared and sure that we will meet the arrival of monsoon and the visit is going to be unique. Delhi to Bharatpur is short train journey of about 170 km, taking three hours. All signs are positive. It starts raining at Delhi railway station itself and throughout the journey, either it is overcast or raining and so it is, at Bharatpur station! What luck! Weather gods are with us.

Luckily, Sunayan Bhai has been driving from Jaipur and has timed the arrival at Bharatpur as my arrival time here. Thanks to Sunayan Bhai, has he been not at Station, it would have been very difficult to get transport to Ghana, as the forest of Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, i.e. Keoladeo Nation Park is called, as the whole city is water logged. It’s raining almost continuously.

It’s heavenly scene at Shanti Kutir, the Forest Rest House – peaceful, serene, tranquil…

So our decision turns out right. It has been raining heavily since last night. Some water has collected in pools, ponds and lakes in the Park. It’s lush green all around. Everything – herbs, shrubs, trees, animals, birds, people – all are happy and cheerful.

Next morning we go inside the Park. Incidentally, many wildlifers wouldn’t know that Bharatpur is important birding area in monsoon as well. People know this largely as migratory bird abode. Migratory birds come around autumn and leave before summer.

During monsoon, Keoladeo comes alive with formation of heronries in several parts of the Park. Locations are generally groups of scores of trees partially submerged, in middle of ponds and lakes. Its ‘n’ number of species of herons, egrets, cormorants, storks crowding in thousands of nests – some pure colonies and some mixed.

Right from nest building, mating, egg laying, chick emerging to grown babies ultimately flying away, it is all the time action packed with movement of the birds, foraging,  food collection, noise of chicks pressing parents for food, defending nest and chicks… One is never tired of watching something new happening all the time – never a dull moment.

Today is just the beginning of the heronry formation. And the first species to start is the Asian Openbill Stork (Anastomus oscitans). At two sites, we could see four trees taken up by more than 200-250 birds for nesting. In fact, some are repairing the old nests – discarding or adding twigs. Bholu tells me, Openbill is always the first one to start heronry and they prefer pure colonies.

This is first time I am watching Openbill closely. I realise two things – it’s a beautify bird with pure white body and black tail with reddish pink long legs but its bill (on which it is named) looks like a deformity! Reading literature makes it clear that this deformity like structure has evolved over a very long period of time because of the food habit of the bird – it eats snails and like stuff and the gap in centre of upper and lower mandible allows it to be able to crack the shells and enjoy the food!

All the time several birds are flying away, several are arriving with twigs for nest while some pairs are busy in love making and some are actually mating. Some are busy in aerial displays to impress or attract a mate. They seem to be happy lot. Some of these are wading through swallow waters of the pond for food. The wing span reveals its large bird. Number of nests on each tree is large. It is indeed crowded. But this number also provides security from predators and raiders.

The signal about monsoon arrival and beginning of nesting season has gone down faster than satellite phone. Already some Darter and Cormorant are exploring vacant trees adjacent to Openbill nest trees. Bholu tells, soon it would be like a subji bazar. For those who do not know, subji bazar i.e. vegetable market is known to be most unorganised, crowded and noisy place in India!


125 floors below the ground!

My forester friend is finalising my visit to Sona Wani forest in Lal Barra Range of Balaghat Forest Division in the backyard of Madhya Pradesh. By the way, he asks me, “Will you like to see a Manganese mine?” I am not able to say yes or no immediately, as this is something out of blue. In my 60 plus years, I have not seen a Manganese mine or for that matter, any other mine closely from inside.  I say, “Yes!” with excitement – something really new.

We start at 9 am and reach Balaghat town around 11 am – 100 km drive from Seoni. All things are grand and protocol is followed. Accordingly, we can proceed further only after tea, which has been arranged at Balaghat FRH. The mine is another 8 km. A senior forester has arranged permission and guided tour for us.

In the meanwhile, I Google for Manganese mine and gather ‘Bharveli Manganese mine in Balaghat district is largest and deepest underground mine operating in Asia.’ Wow! Underground mine, another surprise.

The industry is big. It is evident from the highway itself. I can see huge residential colony to begin with, and a massive entrance gate. There is elaborate security process, which takes about 10 minutes!

As we proceed to underground mine manager’s office (which is on the surface only) the pollution is evident. All plants and trees have turned blackish with industrial dust covering the leaves and canopies. So, is the situation with buildings and vehicles.

We are expected became evident when we reach the manager’s office. Though, there is no body in the boss seat, but one person joins and welcomes us. He is wearing a helmet. His shirt is torn at one place and soiled with some blackish stuff. He is wearing gum boots. He welcomes us and introduces himself, “I am senior engineer”. I am taken aback – what modesty! Soon water and tea are severed. Alongside, we are dressed for the mine visit – helmet, a mountable torch with battery strapped around waist with leather belt, gum boots, and blue gown! ‘Do I look like a clown?’ I think.

Soon a young man, a junior engineer, is introduced to us. He will be our escort and guide in the mine. First thing he tells us as we walk to a crude gate, “we are going down about 1000 ft. To be precise it is 383 m.” I make some mental calculation and am amazed to realise that this means virtually 125 floors down the ground! The mathematics shakes me a bit. Second thing he tells us, “There are levels in mine. We are going to 12th level, though there are levels below this also.” I think, “Oh my god, are they digging to the core of the earth!!”

When the crude gate is opened, I realise that we are entering some kind of lift around 5 ft x 7 ft. There are rails fitted on the floor i.e. this is used for transportation of material and machinery also! It is largely open from all sides with some filmy wire mesh and tin walls. All is summed up in the name of the device – it is called ‘Cage!’

We keep going down and down. Water is dripping from all sides and some drops splash on us. After every half a minute or so, there is some light appearing. This is from the level of the mine we cross. It has been 5-6 minutes but looks much longer when we reach 12th level and we walk out of the cage into a different world.

The mine floor is fitted with rails for transportation of ore and other material. It is slushy with accumulating fine dust, ore spillage and seepage water. There is about four feet space besides the rail to walk along. There is a channel on one side, where mine seepage water is rushing to a point from where it is drawn out. Otherwise, the mine can get flooded. On the sides, there are number of pipes of various size and colour carrying whatnot. The ceiling is low. But what is worrying, there are jutting rocks here and there. As a reflex action, I am ducking all along to save my head and mind. The engineer shows us how ceiling is managed from falling with fixing of more than an inch thick bolts and iron plates all over.

The engineer assures that all is perfect science, and all standards and guidelines are followed, indirectly reassuring us to relax and enjoy. We are walking carefully, watching the floor – so as not to slip, step on uneven ground or topple on rail, and avoid falling into the side channel; keeping an eye on ceiling – avoid jutting rocks, loose hanging lights and pipes. We pass by a room dug out in the side wall, decorated with gods and goddesses photos, one bench to lie on, a table, a stool etc. The engineer tells us, “This is primary health care point.” To me, it looks like primitive health care point. We pass another hole in the side which is emergency communication point.

When we entered the floor, it has been surprisingly cool, breezy and pleasant. As we go farther, it becomes warmer and humid, but quite tolerable.

The engineer stops at a point, where a cranky and narrow temporary iron stair is installed. He tell us this is going up one level and from there, again to another level where actual mining is happening –drilling, blasting and material shifting. “No, we cannot go up. Its 15 m up the stairs and difficult,” the engineer tells us. We can image this from frequent, loud noise of falling material.  On the opposite side, some ten metres away, he shows us a hopper from where the produced material slides down from mining level and is collected in small 1.2 tonne bogies. It’s all complicated arrangement.

It must have been 600-700 m to the last point. We start back and as we near the exit, we see the final exiting part of the mine – a mini train, a small electric engine pulling half a dozen 1.2-tonne bogies. It is returning after transporting material to a point from where it is shifted to the surface by a lift.

As we stand waiting for the cage, in the adjacent section there is ore lying. The engineer picks up a small rock to show the colour and texture of Manganese ore – a steel grey-green smooth rock with blackish dust sticking to it. I pocket this as a souvenir.

On the way back, in the car, I look at the souvenir in clear sun light. I realise that bit of Manganese has rubbed on my trouser pocket, hands as well as shirt! I also realise, I am carrying the metal in my mind, and here it is.

Pushp Jain


Post Script

Madhya Pradesh is rich in manganese ore, mainly spread in Balaghat, Chhindwara and Jhabua districts. The “Bharveli manganese mine” in Balaghat district is largest and deepest underground mine operating in Asia. The manganese ore deposits of the State are being extracted mainly by the Manganese Ore India Limited (MOIL). MOIL was originally set up as “Central Province Prospecting Syndicate” in the year 1896 in the region of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. It was later renamed as “Central Provinces Manganese Ore Company Limited (CPMO)” in 1935. In 1962, the Government of India took over the mining activities from CPMO. MOIL operates 10 mines, six located Nagpur and Bhandara districts of Maharashtra and four in the Balaghat district of Madhya Pradesh.