Sand Mining

Dredging up trouble

Print edition : August 07, 2015

Sand mining at Vaitarna creek. Photo: Sumaira Abdulali

Sumaira Abdulali, who was brutally attacked while investigating complaints about sand mining.

With so many reasons for sand mining to flourish in Maharashtra, it is hard to see how the State will be able to regulate the activity or make it sustainable.

Travel along the Thane creek near Mumbai and it is common to see small boats out on the water manned by men and boys wearing little more than loincloths. The activity is usually hectic, with the men diving underwater with plastic sacks and without breathing apparatus. After a few moments, they surface with sacks bulging with wet sand, which they either empty into the boat or which they stow before going down with another. With no rest, they plunge back down again and again until the boat is full. Then they return to the shore to get the sand weighed and paid for. Others have a different system. Divers go down with a metal bucket attached to a rope. After filling it with sand, the diver tugs the rope from the bottom, and the boat crew hauls it up. The diver stays down as long as he can, sending up buckets while holding his breath. Some come up to the surface with their buckets before ducking down again. Those who cannot afford boats use their ingenuity and cover an inflated rubber tube with plastic to make an impromptu “boat”. The plastic is held in place by one person while the other dives and collects the sand in a sack, which is emptied into the “boat”. The more sophisticated miners use suction pumps, mimicking the giant multinational companies that have special ships that literally vacuum sand off the ocean floor into their giant holds.

All along the Konkan coast, the story is the same. Young men and boys find sand diving a proposition that pays relatively well. A young, fit diver does 150 to 200 dives a day. He dives down 20 to 30 feet (six to nine metres), but this depth is gradually increasing. Creek beds and riverbeds are being eroded as the sand is scooped out faster than it can be replaced. This has its own ramifications for fish, birds, mangroves, creek-side residents, bridges and other construction. With all the activity, the sand churns in the water, and the faces and hair of the divers are matted with sand. The first breath they take when they surface is mixed with sand, and over a period of time, the inhaled grit invariably leads to respiratory and eye problems. The work is exhausting and takes a toll on them, but this flourishing cottage industry earns them Rs.900-Rs.1,000 a day, which is more than they would make driving an autorickshaw, doing agricultural work or even fishing. These activities would bring in half that amount, so it is understandable why local people opt for sand mining and cannot fathom why it was banned.

The first ban on sand extraction in Maharashtra came in 2009 when the Bombay High Court responded to a public interest litigation (PIL) petition asking for the ban. The battle started in 2002 when the petitioner, Sumaira Abdulali, realised that the beach outside her family’s vacation home in Kihim near Mumbai was being stripped of sand. While protesting against it locally, she was attacked by the sand mafia in 2004 but remained undeterred. In 2006, enraged at the inaction of the authorities concerned, she filed a PIL against sand mining and bolstered her case by citing threats to the environment and to human safety. Her efforts were rewarded in 2009 when the Bombay High Court ordered a halt to all “activities of excavation, transportation, and mining of sand illegally by dredging from the CRZ [coastal regulation zone]” in the coastal districts of Maharashtra. Simultaneously, there was a protest against this PIL filed by a union of manual sand excavators called the Sagar Shramik Haat Pati Vaalu Utpadak Sahakari Sanstha. To give them some relief, the court directed the State to finalise a sand excavation policy, which the State Revenue and Forest Departments did in October 2010. Since it included a provision for taking action against illegal excavation of sand, the court revoked the ban on sand mining. The State’s policy was further revised in March 2013 following the order of the Supreme Court that made environmental clearance mandatory for sand excavation.

Any benefit of the 2009 ban was short-lived because a flourishing black market began almost instantly, and the sand mafia operated with impunity, hitting out violently at activists and conscientious officials. The situation worsened when sand mining barons became politicians and vice versa. In fact, one former State Environment Minister was believed to run a sand mining business. Innumerable cases of scuffles between illegal miners and the authorities occurred regularly all over the State, especially in the Konkan area. The latest outrage was in May this year when a tehsildar in Raigad district stopped trucks carrying wet sand. He had got information about a consignment of sand illegally mined from the Savitri river. When the trucks were halted, the drivers hurled wet sand in the tehsildar’s face and assaulted him before escaping. While he was lucky to get away without serious injuries, the activist Sumaira Abdulali was not. She was in the same district investigating complaints about sand mining when she was attacked with such brutality that she almost lost her life. She and her organisation, Awaaz Foundation, were undeterred and continued the fight.

Sumaira Abdulali has opposed illegal sand mining in Maharashtra through advocacy and legal interventions. On her website she writes: “These initiatives have compelled policy change for the entire State of Maharashtra and at the Union government level to tighten and implement laws against sand mining in environmentally sensitive areas. They have also facilitated experimental and commercial building and infrastructure projects using alternative technologies without natural sand and recycled sand extracted from debris which is another major environmental hazard.” Sand barges that were operating along the coast without a licence up to 2010 were stopped until changes in the State’s sand mining policy ensured that they were regulated and no longer posed an environmental or security threat.

Taking the battle to another level, at a side event at the Convention of Biodiversity that India hosted in 2012, Awaaz Foundation and the Bombay Natural History Society raised the sand mining issue for the first time as one of the most severe threats to coastal environments. Sumaira Abdulali says: “The main convention, although coastal issues was one of the top focus areas, contained no mention of sand mining at all. Conceding the seriousness of the issues, individual members of U.N. bodies represented at the convention acknowledged that sand mining did not form any part of their numerous studies and documents on coastal environment and sand was not covered under any international convention in spite of trade between countries such as sand imported into India from Pakistan or into Singapore from Indonesia.”

In 2013, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) stepped in and imposed a ban on unlicensed sand mining in coastal areas in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. In 2014, it extended the ban to Maharashtra, Gujarat and Goa saying that sand mining was a major unacknowledged threat to the coastal and riverine biodiversity of India. In Maharashtra’s case, the NGT had to step in because the State’s laws on sand mining were being flouted. Hence, the seemingly draconian step the NGT took to stop all mining along the coast. Elucidating its order, it said that apart from ecological destruction there was a weakening of the natural coastal and riverine security. Indiscriminate mining weakens riverbanks, alters coastal and river currents and disrupts growth of mangroves, all of which prove dangerous to people living in the surrounding areas. It causes land erosion, contaminates sweet water along coastlines and rivers, and destroys entire habitats with surprising speed. A bridge whose foundation was weakened by sand mining collapsed. Lessons have not been learnt, and mining still happens periodically under a main line railway bridge on the outskirts of Mumbai over which trains such as the Rajdhani thunder over.

In May this year, the NGT’s ban was suddenly lifted in the coastal districts of Thane, Raigad, Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg—the very areas that need strict control. This was because the State government issued a new notification which, while continuing with the ban on sand mining, permits dredging for the purpose of clearing navigation channels within the port area. Sumaira Abdulali, who is still tackling the issue through legal means, responded to this by saying that it should then be the responsibility of the Maharashtra Maritime Board and the port authorities to ensure that sand was removed only for safety reasons and not for commercial purposes. The NGT lifted the blanket ban on the basis of the State’s assurance that mining would not be permitted and that the work of clearing channels would be strictly regulated and not affect the environment. However, illegal sand mining continues openly even after these assurances, and no action to implement the conditions of the new policy is visible on the ground.

Yet another issue also has to be considered in this already complex situation. The matter of the manual sand excavators had not been fully resolved by the Bombay High Court and they pleaded that sand excavation was a livelihood issue for them. And yet, commercial mining is still not permitted (only dredging for navigation and similar reasons). So it was that the manual excavators were allowed to “dredge” sand so that navigation channels are kept clear. This was seen as a better alternative to mechanical dredging if channels required clearing as stated by the State government.

Sumaira Abdulali has another suggestion to stem rampant sand mining. “I want the government to regulate sand mining at the point of use. Builders know in general how much sand they need for their projects. They should be asked to show documentation of how the sand they have was procured. This will also help protect government and police officers from risk of assault from the sand mafia at places where sand excavation is taking place illegally. The State government also needs to begin programmes for recycling debris and industrial waste to make aggregate [that can be used] in place of natural sand and adopt new technologies using materials such as plastic for construction. Such technologies have been successfully used in other parts of the world but are not being considered for use here in spite of their clear advantages.”Much of Maharashtra’s mining happens in the Konkan, and with the State’s 720 kilometres of coastline and beaches, it may seem as if sand is in limitless supply, but obviously, it is a finite resource. A point to be understood is that the construction industry requires river or sea sand or gravel from quarries, which is ground down to sand. Desert sand is of no use because its grain is rounded and thus does not adhere well when added to cement and concrete. Describing sand as “a finite natural mineral under severe threat”, Sumaira Abdulali is amazed that “most people express surprise that sand mining is a major environmental concern which may threaten the existence of over 70 per cent of the world’s beaches and also contribute to major land erosion, compromise water security, affect climate, etc. It is used for almost every type of industrial application from building to glass to computers, and yet is considered inexhaustible.” Worldwide there have been drastic outcomes because of the demand for sand. The demand from its construction industry resulted in Dubai importing sand from Australia. In Indonesia, over the last decade, a few dozen minor islands have been erased because of sand lifting. A constantly expanding Singapore has created ecological problems for surrounding countries to the extent that Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam have stopped exporting sand to it. It is estimated that more than 40 billion tonnes of sand are used every year on the planet. The worldwide industry is still hungry, and faced with a resource crunch, innovative entrepreneurs have started mining sand from the ocean floors using special ships with immense suction pumps.

India’s growth spurt is linked to the construction industry, and this in turn is linked to sand. Quoting a report from The Washington Post, Sumaira Abdulali writes: “After China and the United States, India has the world’s largest construction business which accounts for 9 per cent of its $2 trillion economy. The country plans to invest $500 billion in building up its infrastructure and $500 million has been earmarked for the construction industry alone.” In a State that brags of having the highest economic growth in the country, it is inevitable that infrastructure will be linked to growth. And it is equally inevitable that the sand mining industry will flourish because anything that needs cement or concrete needs sand. This does not bode well for the sustainability of mining natural sand. It is also worth noting that the country’s and State’s new aspiration to build smart cities will make the State the biggest builder. How does this fit in with its stated aim of regulating sand mining?

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