Wreaking havoc on rivers

Unsustainable sand mining has emerged as a major threat to the rivers across the country. Central and state governments need to act tough against the defaulters to curb the ecologically hazardous practice, says Bhim Singh Rawat

UNSUSTAINABLE sand mining is turning into a national menace, affecting rivers and people in mountains, plains and coastal areas. Due to illegal mining, four bridges, two canals and one barrage were damaged across India in 2018. 

At least 10 government officials, journalists and environmental activists lost their lives in attacks by the sand mafia, while about 18 others were killed in illegal mining-related incidents across the country. 

Central and state governments have miserably failed to rein in illegal mining. The nexus of mafia-officials-politicians is getting bigger and stronger. The agencies concerned are ill-equipped and short-staffed to take action against illicit extraction of a limited resource. 

The guidelines of the Central Government remain on paper. The orders passed by the Supreme Court, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) and others largely lack serious and sincere implementation by the departments concerned at the Central and state levels. 

Most of India’s rivers, including Jhelum, Tawi, Sutlej, Beas, Thoubal, Ganga, Yamuna, Ken, Betwa, Sone, Narmada, Subarnarekha and Cauvery, and the coastal areas of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu are at the receiving end of unsustainable sand mining operations. 

For India’s rivers, 2018 was another year of exploitation and degradation. The rivers, already fragmented and sullied by dams and rising pollution, are now succumbing to the threat of unregulated mining which has been ravaging the ecosystem for over a decade.  

During the past year, almost every river, big or small, was mined unsustainably and mostly illegally. Apart from the damage to the river ecosystem, the rampant mining resulted in an adverse impact on dependent communities and led to protests by many of them. 

The states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat have possibly been affected the most. Sutlej, Beas, Ghaggar and other rivers kept bearing the brunt of mechanised sand extraction. The situation in the case of the Yamuna (in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh) and the Ganga (in Uttarakhand and UP) has been equally bad, if not worse. 

Back to square one

Following the 2017 mine auction controversy that led to a minister’s ouster, the Punjab Government formed a sub-committee to work on a new sand mining policy. The sub-committee held several meetings and also visited Telangana to learn about its sand mining policy and practices. But later, the panel’s key recommendation  — the formation of a mineral development corporation to bring the sand mining business under state government control  — was pushed to the back-burner. The government decided to auction sand mines through progressive bidding, which had earlier failed to attract bidders. 

In October 2018, the state government notified the New Sand Mining Policy. This policy focused more on revenue generation and bidders’ interests rather than addressing the plight of rivers and local people suffering due to illegal mining. It relied on technological solutions like GPS, barcode, online monitoring and drones, which have so far failed to produce encouraging results. Finally, with the Punjab and Haryana High Court putting the policy in abeyance in December 2018, things are back to square one. 

 In Jammu & Kashmir, local residents complained of illegal mining in the Jhelum in the guise of dredging work. Despite the High Court ban, illegal mining continued in the Tawi river. 

The Ravi river in Himachal Pradesh witnessed rampant mining. After the administration failed to check it, the local residents of Kangra district formed a group to protect their farms and properties being affected by illegal mining. 

In Uttarakhand, revenue generation took precedence over promoting sustainable mining practices. Illegal riverbed extraction cases were reported from Dehradun’s Sushwa, Song and Jakhan streams, which are tributaries of the Ganga. In May 2018, the Supreme Court stayed the Nainital HC order banning mining activities in the state. The government also planned to resume mining operations in the Ganga in Hardwar after the NGT reportedly disposed of the case in December 2018. The bridge on the Tons river in Birpur, Dehradun, collapsed while an overloaded sand truck was passing over it in December last year, killing two persons. 

Swami Sanand died on October 11, 2018, after fasting for the Ganga for over three months. Among his demands was a ban on mining activities in the river. Another saint, Swami Atambodhan, is on a fast-unto-death since October 2018 with the same demands as those of Swami Sanand. 

Illegal quarrying of rivers is fast catching on in rivers and streams in the North-East. The protest against illegal mining in the Thoubal river in Manipur rocked the state last year. The Thoubal River Conservation Committee (TRCC) kept petitioning the government and launched a statewide stir to highlight the adverse impact of unabated mining which was affecting water quality and people dependent on the river. 

In Haryana, the Ghaggar and Yamuna rivers are being robbed of sand. The sand mafia has been active in Panchkula, threatening government officials and farmers for objecting to illegal mining. 

The Yamuna river in Yamunanagar, Karnal, Panipat and Sonepat stretch is being adversely affected by large-scale mining. Miners from Uttar Pradesh are also active in border areas. Google Earth images of the river showed several illegal bridges and in-stream mechanised mining. 

Ironically, the landmark Supreme Court verdict of February 2012 was delivered following negative consequences of sand and stone quarrying activities in Yamunanagar district. Seven years after the judgment, the river has again fallen prey to the mining menace. Ever since the construction of the Hathini Kund Barrage, the stretch of the Yamuna between Yamunanagar and Sonepat has remained dry for most of the year. Sand deposits are essential for the river in this stretch to ensure lean-season flow. 

The mining mafia has also not spared canals. In September 2018, there was a huge breach in the Western Yamuna Canal in Karnal, submerging crops over a large area. This reportedly occurred due to illegal sand mining. 

Though the NGT had in May 2018 and then in February 2019 reprimanded the district collectors of Sonepat (Haryana) and Baghpat (Uttar Pradesh) for failing to stop illegal mining in the Yamuna, there has been negligible impact of the court orders. 

In an unprecedented move, the National Security Act (NSA) was invoked on the sand mafia for constructing an illegal bridge on the Yamuna in Gautam Budh Nagar district of Uttar Pradesh in August 2018.  Sand miners also encroached upon a huge portion of the Yamuna floodplain land in Noida and Faridabad. The land belonged to the Indian Air Force. A petition regarding the dispute is pending in the Delhi High Court. 

NGT strictures

In September 2018, the NGT termed the District Level Environment Impact Assessment Society an incompetent body lacking expertise and prohibited it from granting any kind of mining permission in an area of 0-5 hectares. The order stated that permission for any kind of mining would have to be secured from the state-level Environment Impact Assessment Authority. Thus, the court overruled the Union Environment Ministry’s 2016 notifications that exempted mining activities up to 5-hectare area from prior public consultation and the environmental impact assessment (EIA).

For the past many years, the region of Bundelkhand in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh has been plagued by sand mining. The Ken, Betwa and other rivers in the region have been exploited ruthlessly for the red quartz locally known as Balu or Morang, which is in great demand in Delhi and NCR areas for its superior quality, besides in the respective states. 

Backed by politicians, the mafia is so strong in the region that the departments concerned refrain from exercising their duties against illegal mining. Violent attacks and murders of reporters, activists and villagers have been reported. 

The NGT twice directed the local administration in Uttar Pradesh to take proactive action against the culprits. After observing non-compliance, the court had in July 2018 banned mining in these rivers. The situation broadly remains unchanged. 

In Madhya Pradesh, before the 2018 Assembly elections, the Congress promised strict action against illegal mining. But after the elections, the situation is apparently getting worse. Similarly, the NGT order and Living Entity status to Narmada river have proved ineffective in deterring illegal mining from the river.

The plight of Chambal and its tributary Parvati, and the Kali Sindh river in Rajasthan is the same despite the SC’s ban on quarrying activities. The Tapi, Orsang, Bhadar and Sabarmati rivers in Gujarat have suffered in 2018. Illegal sand extraction was rampant in the rivers and coastal areas of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, affecting Godavari, Krishna, Cauvery, Periyar, Phalguni, Palar, Tungabhadra, Thamirabarani, Nambiyar and Noyyal rivers. 

Eleven persons, including five government officials and one reporter, were eliminated across the country for objecting to or exposing illicit sand extraction in 2018. One person each was murdered in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Telangana and Gujarat, while two each were murdered in Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka, and three in Tamil Nadu.

Protesters in action

There have been public protests in Manipur, Kerala, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka and Haryana, demanding action against unsustainable mining practices. The Save Alappad movement against indiscriminate beach mining in Kollam district of Kerala managed to catch the nation’s attention. The case is pending before the NGT. The green court has also banned mining in Subarnarekha river in Odisha and West Bengal after taking cognisance of enormous damage to the villagers’ health and the river itself.

There was a protest against mechanised mining in West Champaran (Bihar) that was damaging the embankments, thus making villagers vulnerable to flood disasters. In Kerala, unsustainable mining of rivers was linked to the August 2018 floods. However, after the catastrophe, the malpractice resumed.

During 2018, rampant mining activities led to the collapse of four bridges, one each in Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. It also damaged the Narmada aqueduct on the Orsang river in Gujarat. The Mukkombu barrage and Killidam steel bridge in Trichy, Tamil Nadu, were washed away in August 2018. 

Weathered through the natural process, the riverbed material, including sand, silt and gravel, is an integral part of the ever-mobile river ecosystem. The sandy stretches of a river particularly play an essential role in providing habitat to aquatic animals like turtles, crabs and gharials. 

The sand deposits on floodplains of rivers work as a sponge, soaking floodwaters and recharging the shallow aquifers, a large part of which percolates deep into the groundwater. It is these recharged aquifers which feed the rivers with base flow in the lean season. However, unsustainable mining practices are destroying the ecological foundations of our rivers. This is becoming more evident in form of loss of aquatic life, a fall in the groundwater table, and adverse changes in river geomorphology. There has also been a dearth of useful scientific studies determining the sand-carrying capacity and judicious extraction of sand.

Minor mineral, major issues

On an average, two persons are losing their life every month either due to an attack or accidents caused by illegal sand mining in India. In 2017, about 26 persons were killed in sand mining-related activities, while 28 lost their lives in 2018. Due to illegal mining, four bridges, two canals and one barrage were damaged across India last year. 

Sand is classified as a ‘minor mineral’ under the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulations) Act, 1957, which puts its development and management under the state government’s jurisdiction. The Act also empowers governments to frame rules to prevent illegal mining, transportation and storage of mineral sand.

Observing the profound impact on environment and rivers, the Supreme Court and National Green Tribunal had in February 2012 and August 2013 prohibited sand mining activities without prior environmental nod.

According to rough estimates of the Union Ministry of Mines, demand for sand in the country was around 700 million tonnes in 2017-18. It is increasing at the rate of 6-7% annually. 

Most of India’s rivers, including Jhelum, Tawi, Sutlej, Beas, Thoubal, Ganga, Yamuna, Ken, Betwa, Sone, Narmada, Cauvery and Subarnarekha, and coastal areas of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu are at the receiving end of unsustainable sand mining operations.

In a first, sand made its way to list of imported items in 2017 with Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala importing 55,000 tonnes, 54,000 tonnes and 45,000 tonnes of sand, respectively, from Malaysia.

The construction industry in India is the second largest after agriculture. It is expected to grow at 5.6% during 2016-20 and will become the world’s third largest construction market by 2025. As per industry estimates, urban and rural areas had a shortage of 18.8 million and 47.4 million housing units in 2012. 

— The author is associated with the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP)

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