NONGTALANG, India — “Bomb, bomb, bomb!” shouted the miner, and his warning echoed off the walls of the decapitated hillock. Seconds later, an explosion sliced off yet another chunk of limestone, which crumbled into a pile somewhere near where the center of the hill used to be.
The mine’s owner, Alldrina Nonglamin, 40, barely noticed the explosion. On that morning in early January, she wore her bed slippers and a sarong tied over her shoulder as she surveyed the pile of rock that had once underlaid her orange and betel nut garden, her former source of income.
Proudly showing off the mounds of ammonium nitrate she uses as an explosive, she said, “I want to finish the hill quickly so I can level the land and build a big house. It might take 20 years, but maybe less also.”
Ms. Nonglamin is one of the many new mine owners in the Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya State who were surprised to find out that the pile of rocks they were living on might as well be made of cash. In the last few years, her village of Nongtalang, like so many other communities across this hilly northeastern state, has become home to an increasing number of family-owned limestone mines, whose owners are seeking wealth unheard of in a region accustomed to subsistence farming.
Hundreds of limestone mines now line the 60 kilometers, or 40 miles, of highway that lead through this region toward the border with Bangladesh.
Ms. Nonglamin took loans of more than $150,000 to purchase mining equipment after seeing the profits her neighbors were unearthing. In just one year, she has paid back more than half of the initial loan.
“My earnings are now 100 times better, and the loans are easily paid. My kids go to private school in the city. I’m a businesswoman with more than 100 employees, when before I was a farmer and sometimes a tailor,” she said.
With so many villagers rushing to mine the hills, small-scale miners are now extracting more rock per year all together than massive multinational corporations would in a smaller network of bigger mines, environmental activists say, and with little to none of the regulations those big companies are normally subjected to.
Just under 1,000 trucks of the low-grade rock are exported from the small mines to Bangladesh daily, where the world’s largest cement manufacturer, the French company Lafarge, buys most of it, processes it and churns out the fine cement powder that is ultimately transformed into the building blocks of that country’s infrastructural development.
Very few in this village of 2,000 resist the lure of mining in these hills, but those who do say runoff from the mines often goes straight into rivers that provide drinking water. Helpme Mohrmen, a local Unitarian minister who has organized poorly attended local protests and traveled to Delhi to speak to distant advocacy groups, refers to himself as “The Lone Ranger.”
“Our people have always had a deep reverence for nature,” Mr. Mohrmen said. “We give our rivers personalities. We call the animals our brothers and sisters. Each plant carries some meaning. I cannot understand why we have gone about killing our rivers for this mining, but now no one will join me because they don’t want to fight against their clan members.”
Tribal society in this part of Meghalaya is structured around clans, which often form political blocs and share economic interests. Those who open mines often employ fellow clan members, or at least spread the wealth earned through mining in the form of lavish gifts and parties. Clans also traditionally have viewed land as communal among members.
“There is this idea that we, as tribals, have inherited our land and have the right to do as we want with it,” Mr. Mohrmen said. “But no one can own a river.”
Nongtalang is Mr. Mohrmen’s home village, but he can count his allies there on one hand. One is Brightstar Pohsnem, 26, an elementary school teacher and the president of the one-year-old Nongtalang People’s Unity Movement, which has about a dozen members. They contend that the village can survive on farming alone and that the mines are not sustainable.
“In this village, we get our water straight from the river,” Mr. Pohsnem said. “As soon as the mining started, the water became undrinkable. Now they say they have stopped mining near the river, but they have buried the headwaters of the streams already. Maybe with the money they make from mining, they can buy clean water, but that is not a solution.”
Workers in the mine can earn as much as 3,000 rupees a day, or $50, all year round. That is on par with what they could earn on a market day selling oranges or betel nuts if they are lucky, but markets are held only once a week and only during the harvest period.
Mr. Pohsnem said villagers constantly lobbied him to recognize the value of mining. “People offer to buy me coffees, clothes or to go on picnics with their mining money,” he said. “But I know that is just how they became interested in mining, because of all those things you can get with money. They are not thinking properly about what they are doing.”
Yet the immediate benefits of the newfound wealth abound. Dolly Khonglah, a mine owner who also heads the Meghalaya International Exporters Chamber of Commerce, was able to fly her son to an upscale, private hospital owned by the Apollo Hospitals group in New Delhi, where he underwent a liver transplant.
“We have been interior-type people, so we are happy to see changes,” she said during an interview at the hospital.
“The limestone is a blessing of the land. Ten years ago, we couldn’t even go to Shillong,” she said, referring to Meghalaya’s capital. “Now we can come to Apollo.”
As the new prosperity brings advantages like access to better health care and a higher standard of living, even Mr. Pohsnem’s closest kin have questioned his stance. “My best friends from school and my neighbors have stopped talking to me,” he said. “They don’t understand why I am against mining.”
Looking at the floor in his small home, Mr. Pohsnem said that his feelings about mining boiled down to a fundamental difference in how he saw the future of his village. He does not imagine that the wealth, or the rock itself, is sustainable.
“We used to have deer and bears around here, but even the squirrels ran away after the mining. If they cannot drink the water, then how can we?” he asked. “It’s no use fighting — better that we buy a place elsewhere where there’s no mining.”
He laughed, mostly to himself. “The sad thing is that the mine owners are the only ones who have the money to do that.”
Both Ms. Khonglah and Ms. Nonglamin dream of passing on their mines to their children, but when Ms. Nonglamin was reminded that she had earlier said there might be only 20 more years of rock left, she said, “I cannot imagine that day. I haven’t thought about it.”
Ms. Khonglah admitted, “It is true. The rock may not last.”
Max Bearak is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi. Follow him on Twitter @maxbearak.