By Salman Ravi
BBC News, Sahebganj, Jharkhand
Geologists are calling for an immediate ban on stone mining in the area
A treasure trove of history preserved by nature for millions of years in eastern India is threatened with extinction.
Plant fossils, scattered all over the Rajmahal Hills in Sahebganj district of Jharkhand state, are fast finding their way into the hundreds of crusher machines that are reducing them into stone chips to be used in road construction.
Spread over approximately 2,600 sq km, the Rajmahal Hills are home to plant fossils dating back between 68 million years and 145 million years.
Over the years, geologists and palaeobotanists from all over the world have visited the area for their research.
Here, scientists could lay their hands on some of the rarest plant fossils ever conserved by nature.
Examples of these Jurassic age plant fossils - known as Rajmahal Flora - are to be found in many museums across the globe.
The Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany in the northern city of Lucknow also has an impressive collection.
But this wonder of nature is fast disappearing and geologists say the fossils may soon all be gone.
The state government of Jharkhand has given out a mining lease in the area to private companies who are practically blowing up the hills to obtain rocks which are then crushed to make stone chips.
"This is what is worrying us. The treasure which nature has conserved for millions of years would be wiped out in a matter of months if an immediate ban on stone mining is not imposed in the area," says Syed Raza Imam Rizvi, head of the geology department at Sahebganj College.
"Those who have the mining lease are cutting down the hills. All the hills need to be conserved for research.
"If proper excavation and study is carried out, we could also find the fossils of reptiles and other animals which existed during the Jurassic and the Triassic age. Maybe one day we can even find a fossil of a dinosaur here," Mr Rizvi says.
The villagers in the area, from the Pahadiya tribe, say they are fed up with trying to protect the fossils from suspicious visitors.
"We have been guarding these fossils like our ancestors did in the hope that a park would come up here some day and the government would take care of it. Now everything is being wiped out," says Gangu Pahadiya, the headman of Tara village.
When the state of Jharkhand was created in 2000, the government announced a "Jurassic Park" would be set up in Sahebganj to conserve the rare fossils in their natural habitat.
Local people said the government erected a sign some years ago for the proposed park.
Rare fossils are being crushed and used in road construction
But now the board is gone, and some say the project has been shelved.
Since many villages in the region are inaccessible, the authorities decided to build a road to Tara village, where rare fossils lie scattered around.
The road has been christened "Fossil Road", but geologists say what is shocking is that the stone chips used for constructing the road are actually fossils.
A forest department official in the area, Pujan Singh, admitted that rare fossils were being used for road construction.
"The entire Rajmahal Hills are full of fossils of plants and reptiles. Those who have taken the mining lease don't care about it. They don't know about it," Mr Singh said.
"The fossils are finding their way into the crusher machines that are reducing them into chips. We have tried to stop it, but there is very little that we can do. The mining department has allotted them a lease," he said.
Jharkhand Chief Minister Madhu Koda promised the fossils would be protected.
"We are proud of possessing nature's precious gifts in the form of fossils. We are working on a proposal to conserve them," Mr Koda told the BBC.
But geologists say the authorities need to act immediately to save from destruction the evidence of a world that existed millions of years ago.
"The Rajmahal Hills need to be conserved in their natural habitat to facilitate further studies and research. If mining activities continue at such a pace, everything would be destroyed and the generations to come will never forgive us," said geologist Nitish Priyadarshi.