SANDRP report points to increasing violence by illegal sand miners and calls for urgent need to regulate riverbed mining

Print edition : January 15, 2021

Illegal sand mining in the river Somb, a tributary of the Yamuna, at Kanalsi village in Haryana. Photo: Surender Solanki

Kamal Shukla, Editor of Bhumkal Samachar, mobbed and assaulted outside a police station in Kanker in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region. He had gone to the police station in connection with the alleged assault on a journalist by municipal corporators for filing RTIs on illegal sand mining. Photo: GroundXero

SANDRP’s report on deaths caused by incidents relating to illegal sand mining and attacks on law enforcement agencies exposes the devastating impact of the operation on the lives and livelihoods of riverine communities and underlines the need for regulating the activity.

SAND mining, fuelled by the booming construction industry, has grown into a huge business in India though much of it is illegal. The South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) has documented the impact of illegal sand mining on the lives of people in a report titled “Sand Mining Violence India: 2019-20”. According to the report, for almost two years, between January 2019 and November 15, 2020, at least 193 people died in incidents relating to illegal sand mining such as riverbed pit mine collapse, drowning, gang rivalry and attacks on journalists and environmentalists by the sand mafia.

The report, compiled by Bhim Singh Rawat of SANDRP from press reports from all over India, does not claim to be a comprehensive one. While some of the deaths such as those caused by mine collapses or drowning are directly related to sand mining interests, deaths due to road accidents caused by speeding sand-laden lorries may require validation before its connection with illegal sand mining is established. In view of its illegal status, sand mining is not monitored and the operators naturally bypass all regulations.

Himanshu Thakkar of SANDRP said: “We do not know the full extent of the violence… but by the existing figures it is clear that at least two people have been killed every week in sand mining-related incidents in this period in India.” Brutal violence, injuries and threats are not included in the list.
Also read: Illegal sand mining in Tamil Nadu

The report presents the situation zone-wise (north, south, east, west and central), but there are gaps in the information. For instance, the north segment has data only from Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh as “there are insufficient media reports on the issue from Jammu & Kashmir, Delhi, Chandigarh and Ladakh. Likewise, though sand mining is rampant in Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Goa it is poorly documented in the media.” Despite “insufficient media reports”, the facts collated by the SANDRP are a shocking eyeopener.

Ninety-five people were killed in the north zone States, 42 in the west and central zones, 41 in the east zone and 19 in the south.

In all, 95 deaths were caused by drowning in sand mining pits and 27 following collapse of sand mounds and caving in of sand mines. Twenty-six deaths are attributed to road accidents connected with illegal mining operations. Illegal miners killed 23 farmers/villagers and 11 government officials, including forest guards, policemen, revenue officials, mining personnel and district officials.

Fighting between rival mining groups resulted in the death of three illegal miners while three people were killed in police encounters. Forty-five deaths, including that of illegal miners, occurred as a result of direct assault on villagers, government officials, activists and reporters.

Illegal mining indirectly claims other victims, too. Of the 95 people who died by drowning in sand mining pits, 76 were minors or teenagers. The report shows that these deaths occurred in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh Bihar, Punjab and Uttarakhand.

Reporters and activists are a common target. One reporter in Uttar Pradesh and two activists in Odisha and one each in Bihar and Tamil Nadu were killed “for opposing and exposing illegal sand mining”. One reporter each in Uttarakhand and Chhattisgarh and one Right to Information (RTI) activist in Kerala were attacked by the sand mafia.

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There were 84 incidents of threats and attacks on citizens, reporters, activists and even on government officials. Illegal sand miners were reported to have fearlessly attacked forest guards in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand and the police personnel in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Twenty-six policemen were injured in two major attacks in 2020; in Kutch, Gujarat, in July, and at Panchkula, Haryana, in November.

There were 47 incidents of threats and attacks in the north zone, 18 in the west and central zone, 11 in the east and eight in the south. SANDRP said the figures for west, central, east and south regions were lower because local media reports were not accessible.

While the situation is grim all over India, it is worst in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. Uttar Pradesh “has topped the chart with 62 deaths caused by riverbed mining and transportation. 31 or 50 per cent of the deceased are either young children or teenagers”. The report found a steep rise in such incidents in recent years. The sand mafia killed five villagers and five government officials, including policemen and forest guards. Constable Sonu Chaudhary was killed in Agra on November 8, 2020. In October, two policemen were killed in Rae Bareilly. The report has recorded several instances of attack on villagers and threats to government officials and activists.

It says, “Such is the terror of the sand mafia here that even MLAs (Member of Legislative Assembly) are not spared. In July 2020, Yoghesh Dhama, MLA Baghpat, appealed to the Chief Minister to save his life from the notorious gangster Sunil Rathi. In his letter, the MLA expressed fear for his life as the gangster held him responsible for administrative actions on Rathi’s illegal sand mining activities. Similarly, another MLA, Yogesh Verma of Lakhimpur Kheeri, sustained bullet injuries in March 2019. [News] reports mention that the MLA had faced lethal attacks in the past for being active against illegal sand mining in his area. A relative of an MLA of Banda of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has alleged threats and attacks by the sand mafia in January 2020. It is shocking that [the family of] Ram Lal Verma, a DIG rank police official, has been seeking justice 16 years after an attack on him by the sand mafia. The official, who was then SP, Unnao, had sustained multiple bullet injuries when the sand mafia opened fire in 2004. The culprits have not been brought to justice so far.”


Attacks in Haryana

Haryana has reported 19 sand mining-related deaths primarily caused by drowning in riverbed sand pits and road accidents.

There were eight threats and attacks on villagers and government officials in Haryana. In October 2019, a police team was attacked by illegal miners in Panchukula. In the first week of November 2020, the roles were reversed. Villagers opposed illegal mining in the Rattewali river but the administration permitted it. The villagers objected to sand mining as it lowered ground water levels and riverbed pits caused cattle deaths. But the administration was keen on allowing more mining there. The clash between the villagers and the police resulted in injuries to 21 police personnel, which is the highest for a single incident in the north zone. The villagers are facing administrative actions for opposing river sand mining.

The report says: “Similarly, the villagers of Yamuna Nagar and Panipat have been facing attacks, threats and hostile administration for opposing illegal mining in the Yamuna river for the past two years. A local reporter in Panipat also faced false report against him by the police for highlighting illegal mining impacts. The regular media is afraid of publishing reports and the independent ones have been silenced by the threats.”

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In Ganjam, Odisha, the local administration was reluctant to fight the sand mafia. In April, the local people set fire to eight vehicles engaged in mining. According to the SANDRP report, the administration registered cases against eight villagers. This further infuriated the villagers who staged a protest demanding the withdrawal of cases. The police resorted to lathi charge to disperse the crowd. Two policemen and several villagers were injured in the melee.

Stringent regulations are required to regulate sand mining especially since big infrastructure projects are coming up. When sand is mined there are important implications for local economies. Dredging alters river currents. In drastic cases, it can alter a river’s course thereby affecting farming, fishing and riverbed cultivation and other livelihood activities of the local population. Entire riverine ecosystems and communities will be affected in ways that may not be visible immediately but will manifest after a few seasons. Courts have been issuing orders in favour of regulation of sand mining but they are hardly implemented. With many political parties and politicians involved in the mining business the situation is bound to become worse.

(For SANDRP’s full report and photographs, click here.)

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