The yellow river-sand is turning out to be no less than gold. There is a veritable ‘sand-rush’ and those who have been able to plunder have become millionaires overnight. The demand for the stuff is seemingly insatiable with construction lobby willing to go to any length to get at it. The mostly black-money financed construction has witnessed unabated, hectic rise all over the country and added to that are the government infrastructure projects.
Reports are coming from the far corners of the country about the loot that is going on of sand from river beds, their banks and coastal beaches. The diminutive sand even assumed the role of currency and played skewed “sand for Vote” role in Moga during the elections to the Punjab legislative assembly earlier this year. The problem is so acute that environmentalists have asked the government for conducting research to find an alternative for sand. Well organised mafias under the patronage of the powerful politicians are hard at work excavating mostly illegal sands for sand-hungry builders and construction companies. Whosoever comes in their way is brought to harm – sometimes with fatal consequences.
The most recent example is that of Durga Sakti Nagpal, a young Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer functioning as Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) of the New Okhla Industrial Development Area (NOIDA) of Uttar Pradesh (UP) who took on the sand mafia operating in the flood plains of Yamuna River. A local member of the UP legislative assembly having substantial interests in the operations brazenly claimed to have had the SDM placed under suspension within 41 minutes at the dead of night on the orders of the chief minister. A frightful storm is blowing as a result. Not only the bureaucracy is up in arms, the local ruling party has even taken on the Centre for its moves to intervene in the matter.
The SDM was lucky since the mafia did not harm her physically. Soon after her suspension a crusader against illegal sand mining in the same district was shot dead while asleep at home. Earlier in March 2012 a young and brave Indian Police Service officer was crushed under the wheels of a tractor-trolley loaded with illegally mined sand from River Chambal in Morena district of Madhya Pradesh (MP). Numerous reports have appeared in the press about illegal sand mining operations in UP, MP, Maharashtra, Andhra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Himachal, Uttarakhand, etc. where the mafia have displayed violent proclivities.
Two prominent environmentalists of Mumbai have written to the Minister for Environment & Forests (MoEF) that well organised mafias are prepared to kill public-spirited individuals if they interfered with their illegal activities. Law enforcement authorities are helpless as the mafias have intimate links with politicians in power as exemplified by the NOIDA incident where the ruling party is all set to fight it out with the Centre.
Illegal sand mining is a very profitable business. In the NOIDA, Greater NOIDA and Ghaziabad areas the construction activity is progressing at a frenetic pace and the realtors are always in the lookout for cheaper sand. The mafias are concentrating on the mines of Yamuna, Hindon and Ganges Rivers. No royalty is paid on the sand illegally excavated or dredged from the beds of these rivers. While a dumper-full of licensed sand is worth Rs. 20000/- the same volume of unlicensed sand is sold for half that amount to the realtors. Besides if they have permit for one, they land ten dumpers or trucks earning huge profits. It is the builders who benefit most from illegal sand and with their deep nexus with the powerful and influential politicians regardless of their political colour are able to negate the rule of law.
In UP, for instance, the current government of Samajwadi Party and its predecessor Bahujan Samaj Party, both turned a blind eye to the ongoing plunder of sand from ecologically sensitive flood plains of the State’s major rivers. They have, over the years, brazenly ignored the orders of the Supreme Court that mining of minor minerals – sand being one – from even less than 5 hectares of land would require environmental clearance.
In their hunger for power and riches the politicians and their allies in the underworld have developed only contempt for environmental protection. They consider it to be an obstruction in the pursuit of their activities that are nefarious by any standard. But none can touch them as they happen to wield power and influence. This situation obtains virtually in every state of the Union. In Maharashta illegal sand mining has been declared a crime under the tough Maharashtra Control on Organised Crime Act and yet despite ceaseless denudation of sands from the state’s coastline adversely impacting its morphology and bio-diversity not one mafioso has been nabbed – such is their clout. In MP the chief minister’s own brother is reportedly active in illegal mining in Narmada.
One wonders whether the Ministry at the Centre and governments in the states appreciate the serious damage that is being caused to the river systems in the country by unchecked sand-mining. According to experts, reckless mining activities can cause physical harm to the river or stream by erosion of channel bed and banks, increase in channel gradient, and change in channel morphology. These impacts may cause: (1) the undercutting and collapse of river banks, (2) the loss of adjacent land and/or structures, (3) upstream erosion as a result of an increase in channel slope and changes in flow velocity, and (4) downstream erosion due to increased carrying capacity of the stream, downstream changes in patterns of deposition, and changes in channel bed and habitat type.
Mining with heavy equipment like dredgers for removal of channel substrate results in re-suspension of streambed sediment, clearance of vegetation, and stockpiling on the streambed. All these have ecological impacts leading to direct loss of stream habitat, disturbances of species hosted by streambed deposits, reduced light penetration and reduced feeding opportunities, adversely impacting the native riverine biodiversity. That the failure of men and machines in preventing oil leaks, in uncontrolled dumping or stockpiling of overburden cause poisoning of aquatic organisms and fouling up of the water quality need hardly be emphasised.
Excessive sand-mining from rivers is also accompanied by plummeting ground water tables in the riparian zones. This has happened in Kerala, Andhra and several other states and may also well happen in such zones of Yamuna, Hindon and Ganges, rendering agriculture a losing proposition raising the question of livelihood in the areas.
With outright and brazen breaches of the orders of the Apex Court in regard to licensing of mining of minor minerals in less than 5 hectares of land only after environmental clearance the National Green Tribunal, thankfully, has also got into the act in reinforcing the orders. Hopefully, the states will wake up and enforce the extant orders and decisions or else India’s rivers might suffer irreparable harm subjecting the people to untold privations.