Bengaluru Rotarians “create fruits from poison” in KGF

Ravishankar Dakoju, member of RC Bangalore, holding out Singapore cherries being grown in the Kolar Gold Fields.

Of all the places in the world, in the erstwhile cyanide dumps of the Kolar Gold Fields (KGF) township, where till only recently, dusty, dry, barren and ­cyanide-laden soil reigned supreme, blowing in the windy season tiny and fine particles of poisonous cyanide over the KGF township, I get my first taste of Singapore cherries! And they are delicious.

Ravishankar Dakoju, past president of RC Bangalore Orchards, but better known for his ₹100 crore donation to the TRF, who teaches me how to squeeze the juice of the tiny cherries into the mouth, happily takes me back to his club’s “hat-ke (different) project which proved to the whole world that only Rotarians can grow sweet and delicious cherries out of poison (cyanide dumps)!”

His exuberance is palpable as we drive towards the infamous cyanide dump area of KGF, being thrown around in the SUV during the bumpy ride, and notice the assembly of a plethora of big vehicles, the biggest being the OB van carrying a generator for a film shooting crew, parked alongside the road.

“Oh god they are back again here…,” groans Dakoju, who as RC Bangalore Orchards pres-ident (he has since then joined RC Bangalore) spearheaded a transformational environmental project in this area, about 100km from Bengaluru. His exasperation is justified going by just one factor — when I google KGF for its history, one of the options the search engine throws up is this: ‘Is KGF bigger than Bahubali’!

A small hill formed from layers of slurry waste of cyanide and other residues left behind after the gold was extracted from the ore.

Dakoju explains that during the British rule, gold was extracted from the Kolar gold fields, and the process of extraction left behind a slurry, filled with cyanide, the lethal chemical which was infused into the ground to extract the gold. After the mining of the gold, layer after layer of this slurry was dumped on the adjacent fields, and as it dried, it formed a flat heap akin to a flat, layered mountain. He gives the comparison to African tabletop mountains, but the brown and dusty flat hills remind me of the road… more like a wide dirt track… from Kabul to Bamiyan in Afghanistan, nestled among tall, stark brown sandstone cliffs. Through this stark landscape of Afghanistan we had driven in 2005 to take in the heartbreaking visual of huge gaping holes from where the Taliban had blasted ­­­out — using dynamite — the ancient, historic Buddha statues.

As I struggle to totally understand how those flat hillocks could have been formed by the piling of slurry, he makes it simpler: “It’s like putting one dosa on top of another, till you’ve put hundreds of them, and they pile up in a heap. The slurry spreads and then solidifies.”

A film shooting in progress.

Adds Srinivasa Rao, a retired deputy conservator of forests, who has helped the Rotarians to convert a significant part of what had literally become the “killing fields of KGF’ into a green zone, “The region around us that you see are the cyanide dumps; an area of 100–120 acres. The British used cyanide as a component in gold extraction and that got mixed up with the soil, which in the form of slurry was dumped here layer after layer and it all dried and formed into flat hillocks. As this is a dry area and there is no humus on this land, it didn’t allow any form of vegetation. So during the dry and windy season, a thin layer from this pulverised soil, with content of the poisonous cyanide, would blow into the township, causing all kinds of health problems for the local residents… problems related to the lungs, eyes and skin.”

The seed of this project was planted in Dakoju’s head when he met, about 5–6 years ago, Almitra Patel, “an MIT graduate and an amazing woman. She is 90 but full of energy, hails from a big industrial family and is very passionate about the environment. She told me that the cyanide dumps of KGF are very disturbing and explained to me how the British used cyanide to extract gold from the ground. I could see she was very disturbed and as she explained to me how during the windy season, the wind blows cyanide dust across the township from these dumps causing all kinds of health problems. Listening to her, I started wondering that the British took away the gold (see box), but left behind the poison through these cyanide dumps,”
says Dakoju.

Dakoju with Srinivasa Rao, former deputy conservator of forests, and RC Bangalore past president V S Ranga Rao.

His club member, Neil Michael Joseph, firmly agreed that something had to be done to help the people of KGF township. That is not all, he adds. As they discussed and debated the issue, Joseph briefed him that when the rain falls on the dumps, the water carrying bits of cyanide from the dumps goes down the flat hillocks and percolates into the groundwater and water bodies, including wells. “That water can’t be used for productive agriculture, fish cannot survive in such water and birds can’t drink it. The whole thing was an ecological disaster. Both Almitra and Joseph said something had to be done; she said please go there and see for yourself.”

So he went, along with Joseph, came back and “promptly fell sick. I am asthmatic from early childhood; the moment I opened the car door, and took in that air, my health problems started. I had a respiratory infection and skin eruption and it took 4–5 days for me to recover.”

Well before his presidential year (2018–19) when Dakoju began planning this project, he knew Neil Joseph had to be involved “as he has both passion and vision for such issues. And his roots are here; he is the son of a miner from the earlier gold fields, he ­studied in the KGF school and his heart beats for KGF; his uncle’s statue is still there.”

Neil Michael Joseph, member of RC Bangalore Orchards.

Joseph says he grew up near the cyanide dumps and still gasps for breath, probably from inhaling the dust all these years. “Many of my friends have passed away due to lung diseases and kidney failure. Finally, there was an opportunity before me to do something to help my birthplace with help from some outstanding Rotarians.”

As Dakoju started musing about the project, “we decided on one thing… that we have been around for more than a century, so we have to move beyond planting trees and taking selfies, which unfortunately seems to have become the norm for many clubs. Now, looking back, I realise that we conceived and executed this project because of our innocence and with no clue on the huge problems and challenge we would face.”

While they were debating what to do and how to handle this project, they chanced upon this “outstanding DCF (deputy conservator of forests) ­Srinivasa Rao. He said I am retiring in 18 months and before that I want to do something that is substantially good for the environment. Help me achieve that dream, and let us jointly take up this challenge of helping the people of KGF by greening this area.”

Trenches made on the ground to hold water.

Almitra had said the Rotarians must provide a green cover at the cyanide dumps, an area of around 120 acres — by planting trees, bushes, grass and ensure that the moisture is retained by the earth, so the dust from the extremely dry dumps doesn’t blow across to the town.

The project began with a soil test “and they said nothing can grow here. So Rao came out with the brilliant idea of doing 2ftx2ftx14 of interlocking trenches. The juxtaposed trenches — 14,000 of these were created by the Rotarians — ensured that the water would get trapped within the trenches and provide the required moisture for the planted flora.

The next problem was the poisoned soil; obviously nothing would grow on land filled with cyanide. Dakoju recalls that after the initial planting of saplings, the growth was fine, till the roots touched the poisonous cyanide in the soil, and the plants started to die.

Compost being spread in the trench to enrich the soil.

Rao said: ‘Ravi, organise compost to be put in the trenches.’ This was easier said than done. A huge quantity of 700 tonnes of compost was required… “as you know compost stinks, and we had to stealthily smuggle it out of Bengaluru to KGF… would you believe it, in the nights? Because we didn’t want the people of KGF township to think we were bringing stinking garbage here!”

Through this mammoth project, the Rotarians planted all kinds of greenery under Rao’s expert advice… Singapore cherries, algae, sesbania, which provides rich fodder for the cattle, wild grass and algae to bind the soil… Pongamia (which provides biofuel), algae, Peltophorum which gives yellow flowers and is commonly known as copper pods and which has medicinal properties and, babul trees. Asked why babul trees, Rao says it was to provide the green cover. With the the rainwater providing the moisture and the compost the necessary nutrients, the trees now started growing.

“The cyanide levels have come down and the town people have almost forgotten they had such severe health problems,” says the forest conservator, estimating that at least 80 per cent of the residents’ health problems have reduced thanks to the green cover given by this project binding the soil, and arresting the blowing of cyanide dust across the town.

We decided on one thing… that we have been around for more than a century, so we have to move beyond planting trees and taking selfies, which unfortunately seems to have become the norm for many clubs.
Ravishankar Dakoju, RC Bangalore

Adds Dakoju, “Now it is very difficult to understand how barren and desert-like this area was… there was nothing here. We have also planted ficus, for which, as also the Sesbania, the rabbits come here and their droppings adds humus and manure to the soil, so the cycle is established. Not a single drop of water was required from us to water the plants, and yet you see such greenery around you. We totally relied on rain; during the first rain of the season, the planting was started.”

Now a variety of birds also come for the greenery, and the bats in particular love the cherries. “We have also planted bamboo; their growth is not that good but they have at least survived.”

He adds wryly, “Now the place is good enough for shooting; after the success of KGF: Chapter 1, everyone wants to shoot movies here.”

A transformed KGF township surrounded by greenery.

But the cheerful optimist in him takes over the next moment, as I reach for the sanitiser to clean my hands once we are back in the car. He quips: “But as you can see, we Rotarians can grow fruits out of poison.”

On the return drive, he regales everyone with this unforgettable story: “She made a dash for the ­Singapore cherries and devoured the fruit, dust, cyanide and all. And now she is sanitising her hands.”

Well, as long as one lived to tell the tale, all’s well, I suppose!

A picture postcard town

Past president of RC Bangalore Orchards Ravishankar Dakoju comments that “once upon a time, KGF, with its gold reserves, was more prosperous than Bangalore.”

Researching its past glory,
I come across a wonderful article written by Bengaluru-based journalist Gita Aravamudan, describing how in the 1950s, KGF, where she grew up and attended school, was a “a picture- book colonial town with big bungalows, colourful gardens, churches with steeples and a sprawling clubhouse surrounded by a golf course.”

Her father, an accountant, was one of the first Indian officers to be hired by the British mining ­company John Tayler & Co, which had leased the land for mining from the Mysore Maharaja. They lived in a little bungalow with a tree-filled garden in the mining area, “almost within touching distance of the Champion Reef Mine, which had the deepest shaft in the world.”

The British lived in royal style; around 1901, two decades after mining activity started in KGF, gold production peaked and in the subsequent years the best quality of gold was mined and sent to England. “In those 10 years, over 170,000kg of gold was extracted, all of which went directly to England,” she writes.

Only in 1956, the mines were nationalised, but the quality and grade of gold had dipped, as also the quantity. In 2001, the 120-year-old gold mine was closed, being considered unviable for both economic and environmental reasons.

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