Changing landscapes

Published : Jul 22, 2015 12:30 IST

Sand being mined from the Periyar near Vazhakkulam in Ernakulam district. A file picture.

Sand being mined from the Periyar near Vazhakkulam in Ernakulam district. A file picture.


Ruining river systems

By R. Krishnakumar

Kerala's rivers are a sight to behold during the rains, torrents of muddy water and silt from the forested catchments of the Western Ghats that flow swiftly to the Arabian Sea. Such bounty during the monsoon is a facade. Environmentalists say the rivers are all “dying” and are under immense pressure because of various human interventions, the indiscriminate extraction of sand being the most prominent among them.

The State has 44 rivers originating at the Western Ghats. Only three of them, all tributaries of the Cauvery, flow east. The rest flow west. But, compared with the Himalayan rivers, for example, the rivers in Kerala are rather fragile. They are short, are fed by the monsoon and flow to the sea rather too quickly. Only 11 among them are more than 100 kilometres long as they wind their way across the State. The longest, the Periyar, is a mere 244 km. The total catchment area of these rivers is around 43,000 sq km, nearly half that of the Cauvery. They are, however, the lifeline of over 30 million people and have a total utilisable yield of 4,900 million cubic metres. Many of them drain into wetlands or backwaters, and the rich nutrients and sediments that they bring down have sustained life in diverse ecological niches along densely populated regions of Kerala for decades.

Since the 1970s, when a construction boom began in the State, sand mining has become a critical factor in the degradation of these unique river systems, especially in the downstream areas. Deforestation in the catchment areas, habitat fragmentation in the ghats, construction of dams and diversions all along river courses, dramatic changes in the land use pattern along their banks and increasing pollution have added, in various measures, to their degradation.

Rampant commercial mining of river sand from the in-stream areas and the floodplains began in the late 1990s and reached a peak around 2004-06, when administrative and legal controls began to be imposed. Summer months make the effects of such mining harshly evident, especially near urban centres, where riverbeds continue to sink, water intake structures emerge from their moorings and remain exposed, pump houses along riverbanks run dry and earth movers commissioned by government agencies dig huge holes within river channels for a few days’ supply of muddy water for the local panchayat or municipality.

The Bharathapuzha, the second longest river in Kerala, for example, tapers into a scrawny stream and some pools of water within a sandy “desert” during the summer months. Thickets and shrubs grow far above a person’s head on the river channel, rodent holes and mining pits trap strangers, and small trucks and men on bicycles queue up on the river’s bosom like desert ants and return with loads of sand.

Along the Kallada, a 124-kilometre-long river in south Kerala, with 108 mining sites (according to a recent estimate), the landscape is pockmarked with deep pits full of water. The miners had for long found the alluvial plains near the river to be a rich source of clay and sand. Once the clay from the surface layers is dug out, a rich treasure of pure river sand presents itself underneath. Miners have been digging deep, sometimes up to “90 to 100 metres”, according to local residents.

Craters left by the miners at many locations are at a lower level than the nearby Sasthamkotta lake, which is on the List of Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention. Local people say that at least one-third of the total area of West Kallada panchayat has been mined for sand thus, often using heavy-duty motors. Studies have indicated that the water is flowing into the mining pits from the lake instead of the other way around. There is a fall in groundwater levels in the nearby areas. The laterite mounds on the three sides of the lake too have been heavily excavated. When Frontline visited the area some time back, only a few red pillars were still standing, as is the case in many districts of Kerala, keepsakes of non-existent hills.

Environmentalists have also been looking with concern at the severe long-term environmental and ecological damage caused by extensive in-stream and floodplain mining, far beyond natural replenishment levels, along the seven small rivers draining into the largest coastal lagoon in western India, the Vembanad lake.

Beyond replacement A study by the scientists of the National Centre for Earth Science Studies (NCESS) in Thiruvananthapuram in 2006 found that nearly 11.73 million tonnes of sand and gravel was being extracted from the active channels of these rivers every year, half of which was from the Periyar, which flows through Kochi. Other rivers in the group include (in the order of severity of the problem) the Muvattupuzha, the Manimala, the Achankovil, the Chalakkudy, the Pampa and the Meenachil. The quantity of in-stream mining was found to be 40 times higher than the replacement levels recorded at the gauging stations —a trend found in almost all major rivers.

“Indiscriminate mining has lowered the bed of the Pampa river (sacred to thousands of Ayyappa devotees), up to 3-4 m in the past three decades. The riverbed has turned into pools with depths of over 6 m, at some places. Around 30 million tonnes of river sand has been extracted from the Kerala rivers (as per a report) in 2005-2006 from more than 2,000 sand mining locations,” said D. Padmalal, a senior research scientist at the NCESS.

According to a research report (“Impact of river sand on the groundwater regime in Kerala”) by officials of the Central Ground Water Board, Kerala Region, the removal of every cubic metre of sand from a riverbed results in the loss of approximately 0.5 cu. m of aquifer storage space (assuming a porosity of 50 per cent), which, in an undisturbed condition, remains saturated with water almost throughout the year. Hence, the mining of such huge quantities of sand results in the loss of a large quantum of groundwater storage in the riverbed itself, in addition to other adverse impacts, the report said.

“The small rivers in the State are very sensitive to such human interventions. Kerala’s rivers have been mined extensively. The environmental impact is big and there is little sand left in any of the rivers. The water table in the surrounding areas has lowered markedly, riverbanks have become unstable, structures like bridges have been damaged, there is so much ecological disruption, and reduction in agriculture productivity,” Padmalal told Frontline .

Beach sand minerals But river sand is not the only natural resource that has caught the miner’s eye in Kerala. Drive along Alappad and Arattupuzha, or any such coastal village in Kollam and Alappuzha districts, and the concern of the local people over a recent High Court order asking the State government to reconsider 29 applications from private and joint sector companies for beach sand mining in their neighbourhoods will seem fully justified. For the most part, these villages are mere strips of land sandwiched between the sea and the Kayamkulam lake and are known for their rich mineral sand deposits containing rare earth minerals such as ilmenite, rutile (the chief minerals of titanium), leucoxene (brown ilmenite), monazite, zircon and sillimanite. Despite the widespread awareness about the strategic and economic importance of exploiting the mineral wealth in these sands, the environmental damage that came as a result of ongoing mining activities had proved to be too costly for people living in such villages.

The narrow beachfronts of Kollam and Alappuzha guard one of the most populated coastal regions in India from sea erosion and from saltwater intrusion into the Kuttanad region, a “granary” famous for its rice cultivation in areas that lie below sea level. The vulnerability of this region was evident when the tsunami struck in 2004. Over 170 people died on the Kerala coast in the tsunami, out of which 158 were from these two villages, many of them drowning in the lake as the sea rushed over the thin beach, crossed the coastal road and drained into the lake. Local people have always viewed the mining on the Kollam coast conducted by the public sector Indian Rare Earths Ltd and Kerala Minerals and Metals Ltd, and illegally on behalf of private mineral-exporting companies in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, with mixed feelings.

Many villagers have witnessed the land of their ancestors and the property for which they were paying taxes until a few years back all disappear under the sea because of what they believe is indiscriminate mining in a region that is even otherwise prone to sea erosion. Large swathes of villages have disappeared. At some places, the area between the sea and the lake is a narrow bit, about 20 m.

The recent High Court ruling, which the Kerala Government says will be challenged in the Supreme Court, is with regard to the issue of allowing mining in the environmentally fragile Alappuzha stretch, too, and comes as the culmination of a legal battle over State government policy on whether private sector participation should be allowed in the exploitation of the strategic beach sand minerals.

Meanwhile, there are persistent reports, corroborated even by State Ministers, that the black sands on the Kerala coast are being illegally mined regularly by networks serving some private companies in Tamil Nadu. Others say these are exaggerated reports, serving eventually only to favour one company over another. But some media reports, quoting Revenue Department documents, have claimed that private companies in both the States have bought large stretches of land in the area anticipating a shift in State policy favouring private/joint sector mining.

Land-grabbing by miners, perhaps, is a bit more evident in the granite quarry sector, which too is a booming “industry” in Kerala, with the construction lobby now almost fully dependent on it for raw materials, especially for “fine aggregates”, to compensate for the acute scarcity of river sand. “River sand supply has dried up. Instead, most builders have switched to fine aggregates from the quarries. We need to strike a healthy balance between restrictions on using natural materials and the growing needs of the construction industry,” said V.S. Jayachandran, a prominent builder with residential projects in many districts in Kerala.

Although there is no clear estimate on the number of stone quarries functioning in the State, it is obvious that not even a small fraction of the ongoing construction activity would be possible if stone and quarry sand from the licensed units alone is what is being utilised. A few years back, the ecologist Madhav Gadgil, who led the Western Ghats Ecology Expert panel, said that there were 1,700 illegal units operating along the crest line of the Western Ghats in Kerala, including stone quarries and crusher units. But the danger is not from the illegal quarries alone. Equally worrying is the mindless exploitation by quarry contractors holding valid permits and long-term leases. In June this year, for example, while considering the cancellation of the licence of a private quarry in Pathanamthitta district, the Revenue Department found that the company had been mining 36,00,000 tonnes every year though according to the lease deed it was permitted to mine only 36,000 tonnes of granite a year.

While such units continue to mushroom, those who bear the brunt of their illegal operations are, again, the local communities, the victims of a corrupt nexus that has extended its tentacles right up to their doorsteps. At many such locations, explosions rock entire neighbourhoods, damaging buildings and other structures. Flying stone splinters pose a constant danger. Huge plastic sheets hanging in front of homes are full of dust and dirt and stone fragments. Wells go dry or get polluted. Where once people woke up to the chatter of birds and squirrels, they are now resigned to the incessant rant of crusher units and the deafening blasts on the hills. Lung diseases caused by long-term exposure to mine dust are being widely reported. Narrow, winding hill roads in many such localities have become hazardous for daily commuters, including schoolchildren, because of the heavily loaded tipper lorries rushing back and forth relentlessly.

People’s movements too are sprouting up everywhere and gaining strength with each passing day. At Kalinjoor panchayat in Pathanamthitta district, for example, a local movement has been effectively campaigning against the 103 quarries that were disrupting the lives of around 2,200 families in the locality. According to the protesters, entire hills, some deep in the forests, would disappear without a trace in a day or two. Hundreds of trucks full of stone, sand and rubble would pass through the forest tracks every day—a clear sign of politically blessed mining being stretched to the limit.

Eroding hills Similar stories can be heard along the entire highland stretches in Kerala. At the landmark Mookkunnimala hill on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram, where a people’s movement is now attracting national attention, nearly 100 granite quarries and crusher units have been functioning illegally for years, roughly about a two-hour-drive away from the State capital. They operate on government land transferred to 89 individuals in the early 1960s under a programme to promote rubber cultivation. But most of the plots are now in the hands of illegal miners, and people who refused to leave are facing daunting challenges in their everyday lives.

The hill, once known for its rich forests and biodiversity, is being stripped bare, and its sides are littered with quarries and crusher units and the deep pits and gashes that come in their wake. In February 2012, on the basis of a petition filed by some affected people stating that the assignment rules allow the land to be used only for rubber cultivation, the High Court ordered the closure of all quarries at Mookkunnimala. Several such legal and administrative challenges followed, but strangely, the quarries have continued to function. Recently, after visiting some of the quarries, the Narmada Bachao Andolan leader Medha Patkar said: “The quarrying at Mookkunnimala is a classic example of how the government machinery bends established norms to serve the interests of the mining mafia. There is a state within a state here. It is strange that mining goes on unchecked even after the government admits that the quarrying activities are illegal. It is a horrible sight—an entire hill being wiped out like this.”

Early this year, the Thiruvananthapuram District Collector imposed a ban on mining at Mookkunnimala following a request by the State Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau soon after it launched a criminal investigation into “the illegal conversion of government land for commercial mining activities” But the High Court later quashed the Collector’s ban orders on some technical grounds. Miners have therefore continued to tear apart Mookkunnimala, or what is left of this verdant, beautiful landmark, the huge explosions that they engineer muffling the protests in the valley as well as the staccato sounds of gunfire from the Indian Army’s decades-old firing range at its foothills.

As a Revenue Department official told Frontline , no government can solve the problem of illegal mining without addressing the issue of scarcity of building materials and the growing demand for them in the State. Many of the laws governing the operation of these quarries were framed decades earlier, when the machinery and techniques available to the miners were benign and not so destructive. Nowadays, they are “tailor-made for quick plunder” and there is “no limit to the loot that the miners can take away, more so, if they obtain a permit”.


Dangerous nexus

By Ravi Sharma

The Chamarajanagar Town police station sits rather uncomfortably on the busy National Highway 209 that runs 456 kilometres from Bangalore to Dindigul in Tamil Nadu. It is a few minutes to daybreak and half a dozen men work at a frantic pace transferring sand from a tractor on to a lorry parked a stone’s throw away from the police station, sand that will likely be transported for use in building construction to towns hundreds of kilometres away either south of the Karnataka border in Tamil Nadu or west of the State’s border in Kerala. Sand is being illegally quarried with the help of excavators in all-night operations from the banks of the Cauvery river or more frequently its non-perennial tributaries like the Suvarnavathi, the Chikkahole and the Yenehole.

Villages such as Hebbasur, Koodlur, Homma, Chandakawadi and Ambale that lie along the banks of the Suvarnavathi, nearby small towns in Chamarajanagar district’s Kollegal taluk like Kempapura, Mulur, Agrahara, Hampapura and surrounding areas, and Tirumakudal Narsipur town in Mysore district are highly vulnerable as layers and layers of sand deposits are being indiscriminately excavated to almost the bottom of river beds and feeder channels as the police and officials from the district administration, the Public Works Department (PWD), and the Mines and Geology Departments watch nonchalantly, either because they are helpless or because they are in connivance with the perpetrators. Tractors, bullock carts, and tippers and 10-wheeled trucks are used to transport the sand. Besides the sand, trees along the banks also disappear in overnight operations.

Much to the chagrin of local farmers and environmentalists, the illegal extraction of sand has led to the depletion of groundwater levels in the region, drying up hundreds of acres of fertile land. Also, owing to this mining, rivers like the Suvarnavathi hardly have any water in them even during the rainy season. According to farmers in the area, although the Suvarnavathi reservoir has been filling up in recent years, the water released from it hardly flows for a kilometre as the water seeps into the large number of pits that have been dug to illegally extract sand. A farmer said: “Because of groundwater levels going down, coconut and arecanut plantations have dried up. A coconut tree hardly fetches Rs.100 in some of these areas.” But farmers in the area are cautiously optimistic. They hope the situation will be better this monsoon since, according to them, the district administration has prohibited extraction of sand and even started to take some measures to monitor the activities of the illegal sand mining mafia.

For Philip D’Souza, a fisherman and long-time resident of Pavoor Uliyakudru, a tiny island on the Netravati river in Dakshina Kannada district, problems are aplenty. In summer, a temporary wooden bridge connects him and the tiny fishing hamlet’s 300 plus residents (around 50 families) to the outer world, but during the monsoon a rickety common passenger boat is the only means of transportation.

More than the absence of a “pucca” bridge and diminishing catches of fish, he is worried about the looting of sand from the island, where the sand mafia uses sand mining boats and has even set up docks around the island to store the sand from where it is loaded on to boats and then transported to trucks waiting at Adyar village on the mainland.

According to D’Souza, rampant sand extraction on the island has increased erosion, degraded the environment, killed much of the flora and fauna, affected fishing in and around the island and even begun to bifurcate the island. This, despite the fact that the island and its surroundings are under the Coastal Regulatory Zone–I category and sand extraction within its limits is prohibited.

Speaking to Frontline , A.B. Ibrahim, Deputy Commissioner of Dakshina Kannada district, said boats and lorries used in illegal sand mining operations at Pavoor Uliyakudru were being seized regularly.

Sand mining is now banned in the entire Dakshina Kannada district because of the monsoon and fish breeding season, but that has not stopped the mafia from operating. If transporters are not caught during the time of actual loading of the sand on to lorries, they usually claim that the sand has been brought from across the State border—either Nanded in Maharashtra or Karimnagar in Andhra Pradesh.

Only a chemical analysis can indicate where the sand was actually extracted from, and this is not available to the State administration, so the perpetrators get away. The districts close to the Kerala border are even more vulnerable. Ibrahim said: “There are over 50 internal roads that sand transporters can use to get across the border to Kerala. This makes it difficult to monitor.”

Other districts such as Bellary, Kolar, Shimoga and Tumkur also face similar issues. Sand is extracted rampantly with officers unwilling or unable to put an end to it. The sand mafia in Kolar, which sources said is driven by powerful politicians (as is the trade elsewhere), met its match somewhat in the late D.K. Ravi, who as Kolar Deputy Commissioner undertook a number of raids and booked cases against those mining sand illegally from lakes, ponds and dry riverbeds. But those who worked with him said he was under constant pressure to go slow against those involved in illegal mining. Sand mining has also caused excessive damage to the Uttara Pinakini river that flows in Chikkabalapur district. In 2013, the 32-metre-long Yaladabagi bridge in Tumkur district’s Sira taluk, built in 1999-2000 at a cost of Rs.28 lakh, collapsed owing to indiscriminate sand mining.

There is little doubt that officials like Ravi face pressure and intimidation when trying to tackle illegal sand transporters. After raids on trucks carrying loads of sand above the prescribed limits, officials routinely receive phone calls asking them to release the vehicles.

According to reports in May, H.C. Divakar, a senior geologist of the Mines and Geology Department in Hassan district, sought voluntary retirement from service since he was under constant pressure to “work in favour of illegal transporters”.

And Divakar is not alone. A senior official who has spent years in the Mines and Geology Department told Frontline that it was unfortunate that only his department bore the brunt of criticism for illegal sand mining, when nine government departments were involved in the control and regulation of sand mining. Many officials also expressed disappointment over the non-cooperation of police officials during raids, claiming that the police did not provide adequate security to the officers conducting the raids.

Pilfering of Karnataka’s natural resources, be it iron ore, timber, granite or sand, has been rampant for decades. And the perpetrators have, more often than not, been the ruling class, operating either through their own henchmen or picking up a hefty percentage of what the organised mafias make by selling the contraband. Prathap Simha, the Member of Parliament from Mysore, had even accused the Siddaramaiah government of allowing illegal sand mining in Mysore district, adding that Congress Ministers’ sons and their supporters were the ones committing the crime.

While unlawful felling of timber such as teak, rosewood and sandalwood and unauthorised mining of granite and iron ore have arguably declined, thanks to stricter enforcement measures following Supreme Court orders, the illegal extraction of sand is on the upswing, the chief reason being the very high demand from the construction industry, especially in the urban conglomerate of Bangalore and to a lesser extent in cities such as Mysore, Hubli, Mangalore and Bellary, and across the borders in Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

Senior IAS officer Tushar Giri Nath, who was involved in fine-tuning the State’s sand mining policy a few years ago in order to incorporate environmental concerns expressed by the Supreme Court, said the huge demand for natural sand in the State is the primary reason for the illegal mining.

He said: “A few years ago the demand for sand was in the region of eight million to 10 million tonnes a year. Today, the requirement is in the region of 25 million to 26 million tonnes. Karnataka’s rivers are not perennial and we produce only around seven million to eight million tonnes every year. This huge gap and pressure for sand feeds the illegal sand mining trade. Earlier too the demand was being met by illegally mined sand, which was being extracted without any concern for the environment and also because the rules and regulatory mechanisms were not as stringent.”

He added: “Today, increased vigilance and enforcement by government departments have curtailed the sand mining mafia’s activities. This has resulted in less sand being mined illegally and lower availability and (naturally) higher prices. Earlier, at the district level hardly eight officials could book cases and that too only for offences like overloading and theft under the Indian Penal Code. The government’s new policy has now empowered 30 to 40 officials even at the taluk level to register cases against those involved in illegal sand mining. This has resulted in tighter controls. Sand-monitoring committees have also been set up at the district and taluk levels to monitor illegal sand mining and the district-level committees have the powers to fix the retail price of sand. The taluk committees identify the sand mining blocks and mining allowed in the blocks through tenders by the PWD.”

Giri Nath also said that only “manufactured sand (M-sand) could meet the State’s demand for building sand. But the very limited quantity of M-sand that is produced is cornered by cement factories, ready-mix firms and builders, in that order. It is hardly ever available to individuals who want to build a home. Until it is accepted and available, the price of natural sand will continue to skyrocket.”

Vidya B., an information technology professional who is building a house on a 2,400-square-foot plot, said that expenses on sand had blown a hole through her construction budget. According to her, the price of 440 cubic feet of sand, which was around Rs.36,000 in January, has now shot up to Rs.60,000, while the price of a 240-cubic-feet load has gone up from Rs.22,000 to Rs.35,000 during the same period. Tougher regulation has meant higher costs and less availability.

At half the price in Hosur When this correspondent visited Hosur (some 40 km from Bangalore, in Tamil Nadu) just before dawn, masquerading as a potential buyer, sand-laden trucks were parked and ready for business. The sand, according to the drivers/loaders, was from either Karur or Tiruchirappalli, both in Tamil Nadu and more than 250 km from Hosur. After hectic bargaining, it was available for almost half of what it costs in Bangalore. Delivery across the border would escalate the costs since there are a “huge number of officials to be looked after”. Similarly, sand was also available at Hoskote Cross, an hour from Bangalore, this time towards the east.

Karnataka’s latest policy governing sand extraction, the Karnataka Minor Mineral Concession (Amendment) Rules 2013, is expected to not only help curb illegal sand mining but increase revenue to the exchequer.

It provides for a levy of Rs.10 on every cubic metre of sand extracted to revive the environment damaged by it and Rs.20 as an administrative fee at the district level. The policy also prohibits mechanised exploitation of sand.

Further, Deputy Commissioners, who head the district committees for overseeing sand mining activities, have been directed to register cases for any violation of rules. According to the new policy, only the PWD is authorised to scientifically identify and auction sand blocks and the sand should be sold only at government-prescribed rates. However, many of these new measures are yet to have the desired effect.

According to senior officials, the government is looking to issue licences on special security paper, fit every load-carrying vehicle with radio frequency identity tags in a bid to track every load from sand block to destination via GPS, and post home guards at check posts to check malpractices. The tendering process for the software to track sand-transporting trucks has been done and the system is likely to be in place before the end of 2015.


Good on paper, bad in practice

By Kunal Shankar

The Tungabhadra, flowing below the elevated National Highway 7 (Kanyakumari to Varanasi), is a natural demarcation line separating Telangana to the north and Andhra Pradesh to the south. On one side of the river is Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh and on the other is Mahbubnagar district of Telangana.

At Pullar, a predominantly Scheduled Caste (S.C.) village on the Telangana side, the river’s sand has been gouged out entirely, exposing sheets of Kadapa rock on the riverbed. Mounds of mined sand line the entire village right from the highway exit to the riverbed. Every day, 30 to 40 truckloads of sand are transported from Pullar, mainly to Hyderabad. Depending on the quality of the sand, tractor owners make anywhere between Rs.10,000 to Rs.15,000 a tractorload. The Congress sarpanch Anjaneyalu, who owns a tractor that is employed to transport sand, does not remember any tender being floated for mining.

He said: “The village had about 120 tractors two years ago. Now we have only 60 because there is no sand left to mine. The price of sand is fixed after discussions between tractor owners. Quarrying was robust when I came here 10 years ago. Only when I became the village sarpanch a couple of years ago, I began to notice that sand deposits were not replenishing to the extent they used to earlier.”

At Panchalingala village, with a population of 4,000, in Kurnool, sand excavation is going on at a brisk pace although the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) government cancelled permission for mining in that area in November last year, within a month after introducing a new mining policy for Andhra Pradesh in October with the lofty objectives of making women partners in the controlled extraction of river sands, arresting environmental degradation and ending illegal quarrying. In reality, the policy was a part of the government’s efforts to restore the State’s depleting finances.

Going by initial reports, the TDP government’s policy is beginning to bear fruit. The Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP), the organisation entrusted with the task of ensuring the implementation of the policy, gives real-time information on the sand trade on its website, where the quantity of sand, extraction point (sand reach), price per cubic metre, delivery status, and even the number of reaches in the entire State and their district-wise break-up are available.

The total revenue generated in 10 months (since October 2014) has crossed Rs.600 crore in the State. Highly placed sources in the SERP, which comes under the jurisdiction of the Rural Development Department, say that this is more than six times what the undivided State of Andhra Pradesh earned in an entire year. The policy envisages establishing CCTV (surveillance) cameras in all the 353 reaches in the 13 districts of the State to monitor the quarries from the SERP’s Hyderabad offices. A pilot project is on at one reach in Guntur district on the Krishna river, where the 360° revolving cameras transmit videos on two megabyte lines to Hyderabad, where a monitoring team is based. All trade is conducted online with no cash transactions. Three banks—Andhra Bank, State Bank of Hyderabad and State Bank of India—have been selected to handle cheque payments in person. The government also provides a point-to-point sale option by undertaking the transport of sand as well. SERP officials claim that these procedures have helped contain illegal and indiscriminate quarrying in a large way and broken the back of the sand mafia, which is usually a nexus between local leaders, often elected representatives, bureaucrats and wealthy villagers. Even so, one official, who did not want to be named, said the revenue inflow was only “25 per cent of what the government can make”. Seventy-five per cent of the sand still gets mined beyond the State’s purview.

Thatched roofs and walls raised with Kadapa stones, which are the characteristic features of houses in the Kurnool/Mahbubnagar region, are missing in Panchalingala. Flush with money earned from sand mining, the village boasts multi-storey brick constructions. The village, with a dominant population of the Reddy community, depends on the Tungabhadra for irrigation needs, but when the river runs dry, mining activities commence. In October, a few months after forming the government, Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu, under a new policy, allotted sand reaches in the State’s rivers to the village’s women’s self help groups (SHGs) or organisations formed under the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh’s Mutually Aided Co-operative Societies (MACSO) Act, 1995.

However, the permission granted to the Panchalingala SHG was cancelled within a month. Neither residents of the village nor the SERP, which did not even have the reach listed as available for sand mining in its database, was forthcoming with reasons for the cancellation of the order. Gram panchayat members said mining was “beyond their control now” and that SHG members were nowhere to be seen near the sand reaches.

When this correspondent visited the village, sand quarrying was going on at a brisk pace. A young tractor owner from a neighbouring village said, “If we are caught we are fined up to Rs.20,000. To load one tractor of sand and dump it on the riverbank, we get Rs.300.” But he was unwilling to say who he was working for. Another villager gave the name of the SHG that was initially entrusted with the oversight of the quarry but was unwilling to put this correspondent in touch with the organisation. Mounds of sand lying on the river bank are transported entirely to Hyderabad.

Kurnool was a Congress stronghold until the death of Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy in 2009. The local people now support his son Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy’s YSR Congress. The party won 10 of the 13 Assembly seats in the district in 2014. S.V. Mohan Reddy, the MLA who represents Kurnool, is a builder and real estate magnate with other business interests as well. Another heavyweight from the region is the State’s Deputy Chief Minister and TDP legislator, K.E. Krishna Murthy. The local people allege that rampant mining in the area would not be possible without their patronage or permission.

Telangana’s policy Pullur is a Congress stronghold located within the reserved Assembly constituency of Alampur. Until 2009, Alampur was a general constituency and elected Challa Venkatrami Reddy, the grandson of the late President Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, in 2004. Even after it was converted into a reserved seat, the popular support has continued for Venkatrami Reddy’s loyalists.

In December last year, the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) government framed a new sand policy, almost mirroring that of Andhra Pradesh, handing over extraction and sale of sand to the newly formed Telangana State Mineral Development Corporation Limited (TSMDC). The policy says, “Sale of sand to all consumers will be from [TSMD-maintained] stockyards. Sale will be controlled by electronic surveillance [CCTVs] and electronic documentation linked to a central documentation monitoring facility. The way-bills for transportation of sand will have the security seal of the TSMDC and will be stamped with date and time. The vehicles will be tracked by way of GPS [global positioning system]. Any sand lorry found without TSMDC way-bill will be illegal and the vehicle should be seized.”

Officials were not forthcoming with information on where these stockyards have been set up. Unlike Andhra Pradesh, Telangana does not seem to prioritise revenue generation from sand as the State (as often stated by Chief Minister K. Chandrashekhar Rao) is “cash rich” now. River sand deposits are thin and scanty in the State as the major rivers, the Krishna, the Godavari, the Penna and the Tungabhadra, meander through rocks and gorges in this region.

Rock sand quarrying The near absence of river sand has encouraged the TRS government to lay emphasis on the extraction of rock sand, which is an important feature of its new policy. The policy considers it a “good alternative to natural sand”. It says, “Availability of rock sand will reduce the pressure on natural sand which is not found abundantly in Telangana. The technical viability of rock sand has been established without doubt. In fact, Larsen & Toubro has been using rock sand for the Hyderabad Metro-Rail Project.” The government has also decided to accord rock sand quarrying industry status and provide power subsidies and tax exemptions.

This has alarmed environmentalists who say that the main characteristic of natural sand, unlike rocks, is its ability to fill up the riverbed once again when water flows in the river. The Hyderabad-based environmentalist Purushottam Reddy said: “The Deccan’s beauty is its rock formations, and the plateau’s purpose is to retain the scanty rains that we receive. Rock formations are in abundance here, but mining them would be prohibitively expensive and we do not yet know the environmental or health hazards of such activities.” He said stone crushing and quarrying was on the rise in the State and the trade was “thriving between Karimnagar in Telangana all the way up to Bombay [Mumbai]”.

Other industrial by-products are being suggested as an alternative to rock sand. Dr Lanka Hanumanth Rao, former Joint Director of the National Council for Cement and Building Materials, a research body under the Central government, said by-products such as blast furnace slack, which is formed while converting iron ore to iron, is a good option. Mixing it with river sand is a good alternative to rock sand and will reduce the demand for river sand. He said it would meet the Bureau of Indian Standards’ (BIS) standard for river sand and that 20 to 25 million tonnes of slack was available across the country. (The BIS has codified sand required for construction based on its finesse and density as IS 383.) Hanumanth Rao also suggests fly ash, a by-product of thermal power plants, which is available in abundance (300 million tonnes) across the country, and copper slack, which he says is heavier than sand and, therefore, a better mix for concrete. “While granite or lime stone quarrying leaves sand stone as a by-product, it does not meet the IS 383 standard, but it could again be mixed with river sand. This would increase our natural inventory of sand,” he said.

Rich deposits in Andhra Pradesh The delta regions of the Godavari and the Krishna have rich deposits of sand and Andhra Pradesh is hoping to make substantial profits from the sand quarries there. One such region is right around where Andhra Pradesh’s new capital city, Amaravati, is to come up, the plains and riverbed of the Krishna as it flows south of Vijayawada. With an impending construction boom, political and business interests have peaked so much that the TDP government’s Chief Whip, Chintamaneni Prabhakar, has been accused of aiding illegal mining there. The accusation has turned into a full-blown confrontation between government officials and Prabhakar. Revenue Department personnel downed shutters on July 10 demanding the arrest of the legislator for allegedly letting SHG women defy orders issued by Vanajakshi, tehsildar of Musunuru mandal in Krishna district, to stop work. The women are said to have “bodily lifted Vanajakshi, who lay down in front of tractors in order to prevent their movement, and threw her to the ground causing bodily harm. Reports allege that this happened in full view of Prabhakar, who was present at the mining site.

The issue is about mining permits that were granted for one region being used as a cover for extraction of sand at areas beyond the demarcated boundary of the sand reach. Such incidents have led to a growing perception that the SHGs have become fronts for the sand mafia. Prabhakar has denied any wrongdoing.

The Amaravati region in Guntur district is known for launching protests against illegal sand mining. One such protest culminated in a legal battle in the Supreme Court with the court ordering a complete ban on sand mining in 2012.

In Government of Andhra Pradesh vs Annam Sivaiah and others, the court held that the process of sand reach auction and private contractual quarrying led to the loot of the State’s natural resources, causing severe environmental damage and creating powerful mafias who operated under political and bureaucratic patronage. The case was initially filed by Sivaiah, a resident of Amaravati, in the Andhra Pradesh High Court. Sivaiah sought to restrict a miner from extracting sand from areas that were not allotted to him. He requested the court to ensure that Didugu Sand and Boat Workers Cooperative Society did not use heavy machinery to extract sand from “in-stream” reaches, meaning the riverbed, as it had permission only for manual quarrying and the use of boats. A number of individuals and environmentalists supported Sivaiah’s campaign. The case, for the first time, brought to light the collusion between miners and government officials in awarding contracts that allowed indiscriminate mining.

Erstwhile Andhra Pradesh is one of the few States in the country to have a stringent law on the use of natural resources. The Water, Land and Trees Act, or WALTA, introduced in 2002, laid down regulations for sand mining. It separated mining into five broad categories on the basis of the size and quality of the sand available and laid down rules on the method of extraction that could be employed and the necessary clearances required. Like many other such initiatives, WALTA remains an example of a good law not followed up with strong-willed executive action.


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