Pulivendala is a small town about 400 km from Hyderabad and about 70 km from Cuddapah, the district headquarters in Andhra Pradesh. Once notorious for factional feuds and killings, today there's little to distinguish it from other small towns in the state.
Most of its businessmen are traders - organised industry doesn't exist. The town has no big shop. Agriculture offers sporadic employment to Pulivendala's residents.
But two factors stand out at Pulivendala - it is Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy's constituency; and it is the only place in the country where chrysolite asbestos is available.
Commonly known as white asbestos, chrysolite fibres may also be green, grey, amber or pink. Chrysolite fibres have high tensile strength, high resistance to alkalies and high flexibility. About 90 per cent of world asbestos production is chrysolite.
Strikingly, chrysolite asbestos is not considered harmful to health and is eco-friendly. Of the nine varieties of asbestos mineral available around the globe, the safest variety chrysolite is found only in a 20-km stretch at Pulivendala.
Logically, Pulivendala should be a booming mining town. But it's now virtually a ghost town. The central government had banned both the use of asbestos and asbestos mining in 1986 but lifted the ban in 1991 for industries that used asbestos.
Later, Parliament enacted a law prohibiting asbestos mining in the country. This killed mining at Pulivendala. So the government didn't renew the 10-20 year mining licences. Pulivendala had about 14 mines. Now, just one mine, owned by Y S Prakash Reddy, a cousin of the Andhra Pradesh chief minister, is open.
Says Reddy, "My licence expires in January 2005. I had one more mine which had a licence till August this year. It is sad that the government has put in place a blanket ban on asbestos mining despite the fact that chrysolite is absolutely safe."
V D Rajagopal, the MD of the Andhra Pradesh Mining Development Corporation, said though the corporation had interests in asbestos mines in this area, it sold them to businessmen after the national policy disfavoured asbestos. After the ban on the production of asbestos came into force, the director of mines and geology of Andhra Pradesh did not renew the mining licences of private mine owners.
As a result, 3,000 miners lost their jobs. Many migrated elsewhere in search of jobs, leaving families behind. The families of miners Narayana and Anjaneyulu, for example, are now looking for work in the nearby farms. Other miners borrowed money, bought land and started farming.
But since the rain gods having been less than bountiful in the last few years, these men are mired in debt. The average daily wage for agricultural labourers ranges from Rs 70 to Rs 100, but work is seasonal. In contrast, miners used to be paid up to Rs 4,000 a month, excluding provident fund and other benefits.
Some of the mines have also been submerged. "As asbestos mines are underground mines, it has become very expensive to maintain them. A lot of water accumulates in pits and it is very expensive to drain them," says Y Srinivas, who used to run a small asbestos mine.
Mine owners have long argued that the variety of asbestos mined here is harmless. That is backed by the state health department. Apart from the district medical and health office of Cudappah, the National Health Centre too issued a certificate that chrysolite asbestos is not hazardous.
Says mine owner Prakash Reddy: "It will be a great loss to the Pulivendala area if the government does not exclude chrysolite mining from the ban."
Reddy may note, however, that P Dayasankar, director of mines and geology, says that the ban on mining may well be lifted.
"We are aware that the state and central health agencies have endorsed the view of mining operators. We have already represented the matter to the government of India for the appropriate decision. To my knowledge, the Centre is on the verge of taking a positive decision," he says.