On the occasion of the World Environment Day, Bratindi Jena of ActionAid India explains how rampant and indiscriminate mining of sand has caused serious damage to river systems and is posing a great environmental threat.
A decade ago sand was a freely available material, with the growth of construction activities the importance of sand has grown, and it has become increasingly expensive. In recent years in India, sand mining has becomemore widespread and mechanised. The concept of seasonal sand mining is vanishing and mining activities go on in almost every season.Many riverbeds and streambeds are completely denuded of sand, prompting construction companies to look for alternatives to sand such as stone powder. The demand for sand has expanded sand mining in such an uncontrolled manner that it has come under the control of powerful interests with political connections referred to by the press as the ‘sand mafia’.The ‘sand mafia’ has attacked people who have stood in their way, including activists, journalists, administrative officials and police. Some of these attacks, which have occurred across the country, have resulted in deaths. Sand mining continues despite a National Green Tribunal(NGT) order in August 2013 restraining all sand mining activities without environmental clearance.
Sand plays a critical role to maintain the ecological balance of a river system. Unbridled pillage of sand across the riverbed along with stones and boulders is seriously damaging the rivers in India.Keeping this in mind, ActionAid India carried out a study “Stolen Sands” to investigate the impacts of sand mining. Sand mining leads to financial gain–the value of illegal sand mining is estimated to be Rs 1, 00,000 crore, but the environmental impacts of rampant sand mining operations needs to be studied and best management practices to minimise the adverse impacts need to be outlined and compliance ensured.
The study “Stolen Sands” which covered 25 villages situated on the banks of five rivers that flow in states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. In the course of the data collection and interaction with people for “Stolen Sand”diverse opinions from different people was collected on different aspects of sand mining. Key findings include:
1. More than 70 percent people living close to sand mining areas are facing the negative consequences of mining activities
2. Accidents are common while transporting sand in heavy vehicle through the riverbed. Very often livestock grazing on the riverbed are victims along with poor people engaged in such activities. Most people (67.4 per cent) expressed that they had observed accidents of different magnitudes after increase in sand transportation from their area.
3. The study found that 48.8 percent mining of sand takes place from both the streambed (channel bed under the flowing water) and wadi (dry river bed that gets covered during times of heavy rain). However, 12.6 percent of sand mining takes place from only streambed of the river and 38.6 percent sand is extracted from the wadi.
4. Sand extraction takes place from various locations of the river. Choice of locations depends on sand availability and convenience for transportation without taking care of its affects on river ecology or nearby human habitation. Sand mining affects the riparian community wherever they may be located.
5. Sand mining affects the natural fertile soil sedimentation on riverbank, which facilitates crop production after flooding. Over the year this process this process has been hampered. Around 80 percent people expressed experiencing such change. While 91 percent in Gujarat experienced such changes, 69 percent in Andhra Pradesh experienced this.
6. Agriculture practice on riverbeds has been on decline. Around 20 years ago agriculture practice was thriving on riverbank. But now there is no scope as sand mining activities continue round the year in different patches. This has cause a huge loss to female-headed households who were dependent on such commons. They used to earn for the whole year by cultivating cucumber, melon and pumpkin. This has been a source of food security for many such communities along the riverbank.
7. River bank erosion has become common in mining areas. This poses a threat to water and land. In rural locations drawing drinking water from riverbed by hand digging sand is an age-old practice. After every hour or so the hand dug pit gets filled with clear water, which can be collected for household use. But after sand mining water simply runs off and there is not much sand to retain it on the bed, depriving people of drinking water in many water scarce places. The distance women cover to fetch water has increased for 26 percent for about two to five kilometre a day.
There is a need to strike a balance between the sand deposited through natural processes and extracted through mining. Indiscriminate mining focuses on extracting the maximum sand. This is not only affecting the river water flow but also the entire river ecology. There are innumerable living organismsin the water and on the banks of a river, indiscriminate sand mining is threatening life in the river.
Vulnerable communitiesdependent on pasture land, inland fishing, and female-headed households on riverbed cultivation are also facing the brunt of such situation. Indiscriminate sand mining is causing irreparable damage to biodiversity, socio-cultural, religiousand economic fabric of many river dependent communities.This is widespread in many states like Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka.
The law is clear that sand mining needs to be regulated. Union Ministry of Mines (MoM)has classified sand as a minor mineral, along with clay, marble and other minerals. The Central Government is the owner of the minerals underlying the ocean within the territorial waters or the Exclusive Economic Zone of India, and the State Governments are the owners of minerals located within their respective territories.
The Environment (Protection) Act and Rules, 1986 were enacted and came into force on 19thNovember, 1986.The Union Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has issued various Notifications to regulate mining of minor minerals, stating required procedures under provisions of the Act and Rules of 1986.A Committee headed by the Secretary MoEFCC was set up in 2010 to observe the impact of sand mining and prepare a report. In the report it was observed that, many States did not specify the period and permissible area for mining in the Rules. Hence the Committee recommended the minimum period for mining to be five years and size of mine lease to be 5 hectares. However, many states have not made any sustainable, eco friendly mining plans.
On different occasions, Supreme Court of India and the National Green Tribunal passed orders banning sand mining in riverbeds. Supreme Court ruled that sand miners must seek permission from the Environment Ministry in 2012. However, it is felt that such ruling would not stop illegal mining rather add one more layer of corrupt practice.
Despite policies being in place illegal sand mining is rampant since there is no monitoring and punishment system in place. Open violation of environmental norms is a big challenge. There is no process to check the volume of sand mined from a particular area. There is a need for proper implementation of rules and regulations through community participatory planning for such resource management. Community awareness and political determination on protection of biodiversity and environment will be able to check illegal mining from their concerned localities.
Blood stains of sincere officers and activists are seen who undertook drive to check illegal mining in their localities. Swami NigamanandaSaraswati, MatriSadan Ashram in Haridwar died after a four month fast protesting against sand mining on Ganga, in June 2011. Few days before his death, Uttarakhand Government ordered a ban on mining activities in the region considered sacred. Civil servant Durga Shakti Nagpal was suspended from her position in 2013, for her efforts to check illegal sand mining in Uttar Pradesh. In 2013, an activist Mangeram, was shot dead on by sand mafia while protesting against illegal sand mining in Noida.
Sand mining is a major threat to river biodiversity. Sand is the survival base of the river and all forms of living being dependent on it. Unrestrained mining has a serious impact on the entire ecosystem.There needs to be a discussion about alternate materials for construction to reduce the demand for sand. While sand remains an essential requirement for infrastructure development, there is need to draw a line between ‘need’ and ‘greed’. The need of people and environment and the greed of a few.
(Bratindi Jena heads ActionAid India’s Natural Resources Knowledge Hub. You can contact her atBratindi.Jena@actionaid.org)