Illegal sand mining — the open secret of a multi-million crore scam
The city of Mumbai is an ever expanding asphalt jungle. Tower cranes looming over under-construction buildings is not an uncommon sight. Nor are billboards advertising luxurious new residential areas at attractive prices. Other metropolises like Bengaluru, Delhi and Hyderabad are witnessing a similar growth in urban infrastructure. In fact, cities and towns all over the country are developing at a rapid pace to match the rising rural to urban shift. Despite the current slowdown, India’s otherwise booming 157 billion dollar construction sector is expected to grow in the coming years. This means that the demand for sand and other minor minerals will increase as well, making it more difficult for the government to curb the methodical and unlawful abuse of riverbeds and coastal areas.
Sand is an important component needed for construction. But there are only a few state approved areas from which licensed contractors can mine sand after receiving environmental clearances. Consequently, the process of acquiring it becomes expensive and time taking for builders. Even the amount of sand available for construction would be limited. Hence, numerous illegal sand mines guarded by dangerous mafias have cropped up in almost every state. Rampant or, as the government refers to it, “unscientific” mining for construction material has had an adverse impact on major rivers and their surrounding ecology.
Indiscriminate extraction of sand from floodplains or river banks destroys the flora and fauna and decreases fertility of the land. Similarly, dredging river beds or instream mining kicks up loose sediment particles into the water body, thereby polluting it and damaging the health of aquatic life. Additionally, the course of the river is altered and so is its speed. Without enough sand in the river bed to act as a buffer, the river’s velocity increases leading to erosion of adjoining banks and downstream flooding. Infrastructure like bridges and embankments become vulnerable to damage due to such dredging. Local residents too suffer from contaminated water supply and decreased groundwater levels.
There have been several attempts by State and Central Governments and the Judiciary to restrict illegal mining, most notably the Supreme Court’s order in 2012 that banned all sand mining, including that on land less than five hectares, without the approval of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). The National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2013 issued notices against violators of the SC order, following a petition filed by the NGT Bar Association. The Tribunal also directed existing mining lease holders to get environmental clearances from the MoEF, giving them three months’ time to do so. Despite such efforts, by state representatives as well as the public, sand miners have managed to protect their illicit operations and continue to feed the construction sector:
Extensive illegal mining is prevalent in the state of Andhra Pradesh, especially in districts such as Guntur, Krishna, Srikakulam and East Godavari. An estimated 2,000 trucks of sand are transported to Hyderabad every day. Now that the foundation stone has been laid for the new capital Amaravati, there will surely be a surge in sand extraction activities. The city is set to develop along the banks of the Krishna river, which has an abundance of sand deposits.
Andhra Pradesh has strict policies when it comes to sand mining. Under the Andhra Pradesh Water, Land and Tree Act (APWLTA) 2002, instream mining is only allowed where the thickness of sand is above eight meters. It is strictly banned for sand with thickness below two meters and near structures like dams, bridges etc. In 2006, the government prohibited the use of heavy machinery as well, allowing only manual labour or bullocks in sand reaches (areas where miners are allowed to remove sand by the state). However, miners in the state have carried on as before, gravely depleting groundwater levels and sand reserves. The administration is now hoping to cut out middlemen by providing free sand from existing quarries to consumers, who simply have to pay for transportation costs. The new policy introduced this year bars people from hoarding the free sand and aims to ensure stringent monitoring.
The death of IAS officer, D K Ravi, who famously tried to stop illegal mining activities in Kolar district of Karnataka, brought to forefront the power of the sand mining lobby in the country. Though no link was established between his death and the sand mafia, he was under immense pressure for taking them on and many think that there is a conspiracy involved. High requirement for construction sand in cities like Bengaluru and Mysore sustains these illegal projects in the state. Unchecked mining in rivers such as the Cauvery, Kapila and Suvarnavathi has reduced groundwater availability and degraded productive lands. Even areas that come under the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ), where mining is completely banned, have not been spared. However, the government has entrusted the Public Works Department (PWD) with the mining and sale of sand at state prescribed rates in its revised policy and set up district and taluk level committees to check unauthorised sand excavation.
In Kerala, tributaries of major rivers such as the Pampa and the Manimala have become thin stretches due to years of unsustainable sand mining. The Bharathapuzha and the Periyar rivers, the largest in the state, have been acutely degraded, with the Bharathapuzha now almost dead. The districts and villages that depend upon these rivers are facing a severe water shortage. And it’s not just rivers, the hills that are being plundered as well. The Mookkunnimala hill near the capital Thiruvanathapuram is being stripped of its green cover for sand in spite of protests. The state government instituted a ban on sand mining in six rivers including the Neyyar and Chandragiri in 2015. However, bans have failed to stop miners in the past, as was evident in the case of Andhakaranazhi beach where locals continued to gather sand despite prohibitions.
In July this year, two high ranking officials of the state mining department were fired by the Telangana Minister of Mines and Geology for their involvement in illegal sand mining in Mahbubnagar. It is one of the many districts where uncontrolled sand mining persists in collusion with government officials. Similar to other states, though the administration has checks and controls in place, they are not strong enough to restrain miners. Major rivers like the Tungabhadra, the Godavari and the Krishna are squeezed for minerals. But they do not have enough deposits and state is now looking to rock sand as a substitute. However, the environmental implications of rock sand mining are not completely known and some fear harmful consequences of its practice.
The Yamuna river has been drained of its life through unceasing pollution. As if it’s not enough that all manner of waste is dumped into it like a pit, precious sand and minerals are mindlessly extracted from its floodplains as well. Farmers also mine on their agricultural lands to make easy money. However, a state authorised study found that the productivity of such lands decreases for a few years after mining. The mined sand is mainly used for small local constructions in the state. The NGT had completely banned sand mining on the banks of the river in 2015 pending an investigation, though the state denied that any illegal mining took place. The government was again criticised by the Tribunal the following year for failing to curb unsanctioned mining in the area.
The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) once again came to the rescue of the river, which flows through the state, when Medha Patkar filed a complaint with the NGT against illegal mining in four districts near the Sardar Sarovar Dam project. The complaint also claimed that NBA volunteers were threatened by the sand mafia. The NGT followed up by appointing two commissioners to inspect, who found widespread violation of laws and environmental rules in the districts. Sand mining has degraded the Narmada river and its banks as well as affected agriculture and fishing in the region. The government hasn’t been able to effectively control indiscriminate mining. In fact, the mafia has openly attacked and threatened police officials, journalists and locals for stepping in their way.
The Matri Sadan Ashram in Haridwar is famous for its fight against the sand mafia in the state. Following the death of Swami Nigamananda, who fasted for 115 days to protest against illegal mining on the Ganga river, under mysterious circumstances in 2011, mining activity reduced in the region. However, the decline was temporary and the activity picked up again in 2014. Other districts in the state are exploited in a similar manner. The Union MoEF in fact allowed sand mining in the Baur river in the Terai region, an environmentally sensitive area. The flash floods which ravaged the state in 2013, claiming the lives of more than 6,000 people, were primarily caused by excessive mining on floodplains. Despite the massive reality check, illegal sand mining is being carried out unabated in the state.
In Uttar Pradesh, construction boom in the National Capital Region (NCR) as well as a lack of employment opportunities fuel the unlawful mining. The suspension of Durga Shakti Nagpal, an IAS officer and former sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) of Gautam Buddh Nagar, after she launched a drive against illegal sand mining in the district is perhaps one of the most important cases to highlight the close ties between the sand lobby and government officials. The Yamuna and Hindon rivers are unscrupulously mined using illegal machinery. Though the NGT banned all mining in the Yamuna in 2015, the administration failed to follow through.
An unhealthy partnership between politicians, the police and miners is driving the pandemic crime. Additionally, it is a significant source of livelihood for a large number of people. While it is important for the government to put an end to this unbridled corruption, it is equally necessary to find substitutes for natural sand and regulate its extraction. For as long as there will be a demand for construction and no alternatives to the use of sand, its exploitative mining will continue to prevail.