Illegal sand Mining A Blight of India’s Development module

Col Satish Singh Lalotra
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world, indeed it is the only thing that ever has”… Margaret Mead
Progress in areas of material acquisition is a direct function of an individual’s outreach in terms of money, muscle power and his/her capacity to outsmart rivals in all circumstances favourable or otherwise. Development if guided by larger interest of human welfare yields positive results ,but if done with an eye on to solely replicate /multiplicate his riches gives riser to toxicity all around .Something of a similar nature is happening around in India for the last few years with the development definition having undergone a sea change propelled by ulterior motives of a chosen few.Sand mining in India is one of the latest scourges to have hit the country with the fury of a Tornado, in the bargain affecting all and sundry in its wake from environment to animals, plants and humans alike.To most of us Sand the lowly resource /particle which is ubiquitous in its role in building concrete buildings, ceramics ,metallurgy ,petroleum fracking and even glass on smart phones has suddenly become the cynosure to range of people from industrialists to politicians, sand mafia etc.
Sand with its multifarious utilities in life also comes in various hues and sizes and of all the varieties available i.e river sand, desert sand and oceanic ,it is the river sand which is the best and most preferred. The desert sand grains being too much round in shape and unfit for industrial use and oceanic sand being corrosive in nature render both not as a useful material. A UN study calculates that humankinds total consumption of sand which is to the tune of 40 billion tons a year is now more than double the amount of sediments being replenished naturally on earth by the sum total of its world reserves .Today sand has become so valuable that it is shipped across continents from Australia to Saudi Arabia for land reclamation projects.Interestingly India ranks second after china in its use of construction sand, a dwindling and increasingly valuable source.In fact sand mining off late has acquired such monstrous proportions in the recent past that sand miners have turned into sand Mafioso and have killed law enforcement officers ,who have tried to halt this nefarious activity of strip mining of India’s rivers. These sand Mafioso groups have murdered the reporters who have exposed this forbidden practice of excavating various waterways across india.
Illegally mined sand does not conjure the dark romance of say blood diamonds or the pathos of trafficked wild life ,but instead casts an ominous shadow with much bigger consequences on the humanity as such .If one drives along various road ways of our country one can see backhoes of numerous JCB machines peel away the sandy beds of scores of rivers ,exposing bare channels of bed rock ,silt and clay with Rickety barges floating mounds of sand to make shift ports .Indian roads are warped and pot holed by over laden armadas of sand trucks .The environment toll of this poorly regulated business is now only being realized and factored in various scheme of things. Sand mining can in fact change the course of a river and hence cause damage to sheltered endangered species marine/Bio life etc. The mining hurts wildlife by removing basking and egg laying habitat of Gharials /an endangered crocodile in national Chambal sanctuary as an example.Rampant sand mining has directly and indirectly affected lakhs of Indians all over and by stripping rivers of sand it causes their water tables to drop which is an ominous concern in India where millions already face water shortages. Massive sand mining has also eroded river deltas across Asia exposing coastal communities to severe land loss and worsening the effects of climate change induced sea level rise.
The state of Uttar Pradesh in fact has declared a mining ban until its rivers can recharge their sandy principal with prohibiting large scale industrial operations. Permits cap land harvests, but then profits from India’s construction boom has helped the sand mafia and their frontiers lawless . On Betwa river in MP the miners who live in raw camps along the river side ,narrate harrowing tales of their tents and belongings washed away from sudden dam release ,whereas on the Ganges in UP roving backhoes of JCB machines chew into sands beneath the funerary ghats -riverside pyres where the Hindus cremate their dead. At places like Sone riverside in Bihar thousands of men work day and night to load about 300 trucks everyday with sand earning Rs 500 /a truck ,twice a field hand’s wages. Due to this the river bed of Sone has gone down by over 6 feet, a very precarious condition for the environment around. All these activities ensure that the sand mafia will not go away in a jiffy, because it thrives on an unholy nexus of politico-bureaucratic -police combine .The police’s cut of the royalties alone inflates the price of sand from Rs 15000/ a truck load to between Rs 40000 to Rs 50000.
In our own union territory of J&K with the scrapping of special status the doors have been opened for mining business from different states and companies from Punjab ,UP and Rajasthan have participated in public auctions and on lease to mine the union territory’s reserves of coal ,marble and limestone etc.This increased competition has yielded about 60% higher returns for J&K ,but the flip side of all this is that the local businessmen just can’t match the appetite of outsiders with deep pockets and their ability to pump in money at a much larger scale.There are about 554 mineral blocks in J&K of which 261 or so are in 10 dists of Kashmir and of these 261 blocks each measuring 10 hectares or more lease about 150 to 160 contenders .A significant number of these mineral blocks are located along river Jhelum ,considered a life line of J&K .Coupled with the mining activity is the problem of encroachment of river bank /bed in river Jhelum by the land mafia which resulted in the infamous Srinagar deluge of 2014 affecting practically all the high and mighty as well as the commoners alike.Similarly the writ of miner mafia runs unabated in and around river Ravi bordering Punjab. Ravi river on account of its rich mineral and sand deposits is a cynosure of corrupt officials of geology and mining staff of the local dispensation who have colluded together to cause an unparalleled harm and loss of crores of rupees to the exchequer by their collusion with the miner mafia.
A joint team of the flood control department, irrigation, roads and buildings and rural development found that there is active connivance of state and non state actors in this nefarious activity which has also resulted in the weakening of the Dhussi bund further down the course of Ravi along Pakistan thereby having dangerous consequences for our defence potential along the border.All these activities led the NGT/National green tribunal in 2018 to pass a series of orders forcing thereby the MOEF/Ministry of environment and forests to issue detailed guidelines after a gap of 2 years in 2020 to monitor and check illegal sand mining in the country. The enforcement and monitoring guidelines for sand mining 2020 released by the GOI in January this year includes directions to states to carry out river audits, constantly monitor mining with drones, aerial systems ,ground surveys etc. The guidelines also make the sale and purchase of sand and other river bed materials transparent. The detailed guidelines by the MOEF in Jan 2020 are to be implemented simultaneously with sustainable sand management guidelines of 2016 ,but in cases where the 2 sets of guidelines seem to be clashing,the new set of guidelines will take precedence.
The sustainable sand mining guidelines of 2016 in fact require the preparation of DSR/ District survey report which is an initial step before granting the mining lease.But the GOI has found out that the DSR carried out by the state authorities was not comprehensive in nature, allowing space for illegal mining.The new guidelines of 2020 hence has very clearly detailed procedure of how the DSRs are to be made including the making of an inventory for the first time of a river bed and other sand resources in the district.All in all for country of India’s size and diversity with its rich floras ,fauna and bursting population pressure on the land resources ,it is but natural that a differential set of norms to control ,guide and use these resources are kick started in a right time frame. As Mahatma Gandhi rightly said…..There’s enough on this earth for everyone’s need ,but not for a single man’s greed.