Sand mining

Rivers no more

Print edition : August 07, 2015

A sand-mining and stone-crushing unit at Raipur Khadar village in Uttar Pradesh's Mathura district. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Heaps of accumulated sand on farmland in Atta Gujran village in Gautam Buddh Nagar district, Uttar Pradesh. Photo: DIVYA TRIVEDI

The Yamuna river in Faridabad in Haryana. On the otherside of the river is Uttar Pradesh. Photo: T.K. Rajalakshmi

Carts loaded with sand are a common sight outside most homes in villages of Haryana's Faridabad district. The sand is mined from the Yamuna. Photo: T.K. Rajalakshmi

Stone crushers at work on the riverbank in Haridwar. Photo: Purnima Tripathi

Swami Shivananda of the Matri Sadan Ashram in Haridwar. A campaign led by him and other leaders of the organisation has forced the Uttarakhand government to intervene in the indiscriminate sand mining in the Ganga riverbed. Photo: Purnima Tripathi

Pebbles gathered from the riverbed in Uttarakhand being ferried away. Photo: Purnima Tripathi

The riverbed destroyed by excessive dumping of silt in Urdana village in the Narmada valley. Photo: By Special Arrangement

A tractor carrying sand from Perkhad village in the Narmada valley, in Dhar district of Madhya Pradesh. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT


Anything for sand

By Divya Trivedi in Greater Noida and Gautam Buddh Nagar

Not far from New Delhi, as one drives east in western Uttar Pradesh through Greater Noida of Gautam Buddh Nagar district, either side of the sleek road is flanked by skyscrapers in various stages of construction, all of them uninhabited. It is as if they are waiting for the day when Delhi will finally burst its seams and decide to move here.

The population pressure on Delhi has spurred a construction boom around its borders, and the real estate sector makes hay while the sun shines. This has led to a spurt in indiscriminate mining of minor minerals along the banks of the Yamuna and Hindon rivers. While sand mined from the Hindon is wet and used mostly in brick kilns, sand from the Yamuna feeds 330 construction sites in Noida and Greater Noida with 200 more projects in the pipeline; 200 construction sites in Gurgaon; 80 construction sites in Ghaziabad; and 100 to 150 in Delhi, according to Vikrant Tongad, an activist with SAFE (Social Action for Forest & Environment), a non-govermental organisation. While sand mining can be carried out legally after obtaining proper clearances, mafias linked to henchmen with strong political ties dominate the indiscriminate mining in this area. Any opposition to their activities risks reprisals.

Gautam Buddh Nagar could have been another Gurgaon or Ghaziabad in the making had it not grabbed the headlines two years ago when a young Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officer, Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) Durga Shakti Nagpal, was suspended for taking on the sand mining mafia in the district. She reportedly seized hundreds of dumpers, tractors, trolleys, cars, two-wheelers and earth movers, some of which belonged to powerful politicians. First information reports (FIRs) were lodged, more than 100 people arrested and lakhs of rupees collected in fines from people mining without proper permits. In July 2013, a mining officer, Ashish Kumar, who assisted the SDM in her raids, was transferred to Bulandshahr. Three days later, the SDM herself was suspended, but the suspension was revoked following an uproar. The publicity helped to make sand mining a national issue.

In February 2012, Justices K.S. Radhakrishnan and Chandramauli Kr Prasad of the Supreme Court said in an order: “We are expressing our deep concern since we are faced with a situation where the auction notices dated 3.6.2011 and 8.8.2011 have permitted quarrying mining and removal of sand from in-stream and upstream of several rivers, which may have serious environmental impact on ephemeral, seasonal and perennial rivers and riverbeds and sand extraction may have an adverse effect on bio-diversity as well. Further it may also lead to bed degradation and sedimentation having a negative effect on the aquatic life....We order that leases of minor mineral including their renewal for an area of less than five hectares be granted by the States/Union Territories only after getting environmental clearance from the MoEF [Ministry of Environment and Forests].”

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) followed this up with an order in 2013 restraining sand mining in riverbeds without environmental clearance from the MoEF. In January this year, the NGT once again stressed that those holding mining leases at present also need environmental clearance and gave them three months to obtain them. The mining mafia, however, dug in its heels and used violent means to continue with indiscriminate mining. Hundreds of people opposing the mafia have been intimidated or killed since the Supreme Court order of 2012.

Murder and threats

The first such murder was committed right after Durga Shakti Nagpal’s suspension: Paleram Chauhan was shot dead by assailants in broad daylight in his home at Raipur-Khadar. Chauhan had spoken out against illegal sand mining on community land in the village and had filed complaints with the local authorities. The men who are alleged to be his killers lead the mining mafia in the village. They were arrested but later released on bail. Six months later, one of Paleram’s sons, who was a witness in the case, was found dead near railway tracks under mysterious circumstances.

Another son, Ashok Chauhan, was visibly disturbed as he said: “Family members and well-wishers advised me not to press the charges. They said we had already lost enough and should avoid further trouble.” Life has been hard for the family. Before all this happened, Ashok Chauhan had a job and a life. He gave up his job as threats became routine, and now he is financially unstable. His path often intersects with those of his father’s alleged killers in the small community where all are Chauhans. After having received many threatening calls on his mobile phone pressuring him to drop the case of his father’s murder, he now does not take calls from unknown numbers. His friends and relatives get calls urging them to disassociate themselves from Ashok Chauhan. “They know exactly when we meet him, for how much time and where. We get calls from people posing as our well-wishers advising us to ostracise him for our own good,” said a relative, requesting anonymity. Village heads who want to be re-elected next year remain passive onlookers, unwilling to take a stand one way or the other.

In Gautam Buddh Nagar, newspaper reports of mysterious deaths of people known to be vocal against the mining mafia are not uncommon. In Badauli in July 2012, 22-year-old Sandeep, who had complained against dumpers ruining a part of his field every time they crossed it but had failed to get his complaint registered, was run over by a dumper. The police refused to link his death to illegal sand mining. In 2013, in Deshrajpur village of Barabanki, farmer Ram Manohar Verma was attacked with knives and his body was thrown into the river, allegedly by henchmen of a brick kiln owner who is reportedly linked to the sand mining mafia and is also close to the Samajwadi Party. Verma had complained about illegally mined sand being stored on his agricultural land. After the murder, villagers demanded the arrest of the accused, but the police responded to their protests by firing bullets and tear-gas shells. In July that year, the activist Mangeram, who had filed a complaint against illegal sand mining, was shot dead in Noida. Farmers and activists who have protested against the mafia and bureaucrats who have tried to rein them in have been attacked. SDM Vishal Singh escaped an attempt on his life three years ago when a bullet was fired at him; Ashish Kumar also had a similar escape. If one takes stock of all the killings that have taken place, it reads like a Bollywood movie script.


Right behind one of the gargantuan buildings on the Greater Noida Expressway is UrbtechNPX, hidden behind which is the village of Kondli in Gautam Buddh Nagar, two kilometres from the Yamuna. Rampant mining goes on in Kondli, though the village Pradhan, Sham Singh, denies it. “There were a few cases [of mining] in the past, but now there is a PAC [Provincial Armed Constabulary] post in Kambuxpur, two km from here, and all is quiet,” he said.

Some residents said, on conditions of anonymity, that the entire village was involved in sand mining. “But we cannot talk about it as it will single us out and we will be ostracised. It will even affect our children’s marriage prospects,” one of them said. Sand mining brings in easy money. Those who can use their trucks and tractors to transport sand can sometimes earn as much as Rs.20,000 in a single night depending on the number of trips they make, one resident said.


Residents of Gharbara, known to be a haven for indiscriminate mining, point to unemployment. “We are a stone’s throw from the capital of the country, but there is no job to be had here, and sand mining is easy money with zero investment,” said Harish Bhati, who is planning to contest the gram sabha elections this year. “When Durga Shakti was suspended, the whole world descended on Gharbara, and mining was halted for a while. But even the media doesn’t come here anymore and it is back to business now, especially at night when truckloads pass through our fields,” said Ajab Singh, another resident.

Station House Officer (SHO) Shahnazar Ahmed is posted in a brand new police station close to the village and next to Gautam Buddha University. He has 12 villages under his jurisdiction. Ahmed echoes the residents’ sentiments about unemployment leading to illegal mining. He claims to have carried out five arrests in a month and shows off the truckload of wet sand that the police confiscated the previous night. The culprits, he says, will be punished, if necessary under the Goondas Act. “We have become very strict. There are only a few villagers engaged in illegal mining now but we are clamping down on them,” he said.

Atta Gujran

The Pradhan of Atta Gujran village, Ravindra, says sand mining is lucrative. Between 200 and 400 trucks laden with sand ply every night, and Rs.5,000-6,000 is earned for every truckload. Farmers, too, engage in sand mining on their farms. “Why not? In one bigha of land, if you grow rice you can earn Rs.10,000 in one year, but if you mine sand there, you earn Rs.10 lakh in 10 days,” he said. He admitted that he had also tried his hand at mining sand but later gave it up and urged the SSP to take action against mining. The trucks moving at night ruin the roads and farms in the village and were a nuisance, he claimed.

He spoke of an unholy nexus between politicians, the police and the mafia. When the police station received a sum of Rs.50,000 every month, why would the mafia be restrained, he said. “Once, the police were beaten up by the miners when they tried to intervene. They [the miners] have paid protection money, so they treat the police the way they like.” The boom in sand mining in the village has given rise to builder lobbies as well, he said.

Rahul Chaudhary, counsel for the NGT’s Bar Association, said his clients in Faridabad and Banda who had complained against illegal mining in their areas got beaten up and even had false cases foisted on them. In Jhansi, a client was forced to withdraw his complaint. “Things are very blatant. In Banda, they have gone ahead and built an illegal bridge over the Ken river, bordering Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. In Tilpat range, which is part of IAF [Indian Air Force] land, the issue of cameras being installed to monitor mining has become important, but not illegal mining.” He claimed that miners had placed informers all along the mining areas and thus managed to defeat raids conducted by the administration. By the time a raiding team reaches the spot, the miners have fled.

The activist Vikrant Tongad says mining at night has disturbed wildlife near the Yamuna. “While up to three metres of mining is allowed, the miners go as deep as 10 metres sometimes, causing flood problems. Recently, the Greater Noida authorities averted a major flood by damming, without the media getting to know of it. Miners do not understand the impact the activity has on the environment and think that sand is of no use to the river. Sand filters the water and without it, the river gets polluted. This water seeps through the ground and goes to the nearest habitation. City folks are also dependent on underground water, and the use of RO [reverse osmosis] to filter water is increasing now.”

In August 2013, an Environment Ministry report acknowledged the existence of rampant and unscientific mining and recommended a “cluster approach for collecting baseline data, which shall adequately cover every single Lease Area under consideration before seeking environmental clearance”. The idea is yet to be implemented.

District Magistrate Nagendra Prasad Singh, who was posted in Gautam Buddh Nagar in February, promises a three-pronged approach to tackle the mining mafia– legal action, economic penalties and awareness. “The mafia is almost finished now, and it is a handful of village residents who are into mining as they have become addicted to the taste of easy money. But we are conducting raids, seizing Pokland machines, have collected penalties to the tune of Rs.1,35,00,000 from people on whose farms we found accumulated sand. I have given motivational speeches in Jhatta, Kambuxpur, Gulawati, Yakootpur, Badoli, Momnathal, Raipur-Khadar, Nagla-Nagli and Chhaprauli in the presence of villagers, and the police are asking people to turn into informers in order to protect the water and land. The syndicates have run away as I confiscated 310 dumpers, trucks, 18 JCBs and 7 Pokland machines in the four months since I took charge. We have invoked the provisions of the Gangster Act against two people of Momnathal and those of the Goondas Act against 22 people. Eighty people have been made to pay penalties to the tune of Rs.5-10 lakh. The PAC has also been brought in at Momnathal, Kambuxpur and Yakootpur, and they are watching the routes through which sand is transported. This time, we will surely eliminate them from the roots.”


Digging up the Yamuna

By T.K. Rajalakshmi in Faridabad

A shallow and dirty rivulet separates Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, narrow in some parts and wider in some stretches. It is the mighty but highly polluted Yamuna river that has become a narrow trickle in summer in Haryana’s Faridabad district. The water is filthy and polluted and even the air smells musty and dirty. But amid all this filth and pollution, sand is mined from the riverbed, and it is a source of livelihood for many.

The activity begins in the early hours of the morning and resumes after sunset after a brief interregnum in the day for fear of being caught. In the day, signs of the previous night’s activities can be seen in the mounds of sand loaded on the “buggies” in front of homes. Almost every home in the village that Frontline visited had a mound of sand excavated from the river. There are around a thousand buggies in this village alone. Much of the sand is used for small-scale construction—for plastering of homes. The monsoon marks a period of lull in mining activity, but it is not as if mining comes to a total stop.

Residents of another village on the riverbank in Faridabad district said that following the NGT restrictions on riverbed sand mining, they need a No Objection Certificate for environmental clearance, which is not easy to get. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had promised to lift the ban on all forms of mining if it was elected to power.

A notification of the Haryana government’s Department of Mines and Geology, dated March 19, allowed for the extraction of sand in Sonepat district, but it listed several conditions that must be met in order to address environmental concerns and prevent the further degradation of the river. On March 15, the NGT warned the Haryana and Rajasthan governments of strict action for not ensuring compliance with its order of 2013, imposing restrictions on sand mining.

In 2012, the Supreme Court in the Deepak Kumar case, directed that no mining activity, auctioning of mining rights, and renewal of mining leases should be permitted in even areas under five acres without clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests. (See “Legal imprints”, Frontline, July 24, 2015.) The bench recommended an effective framework of a mining plan be developed to address environmental issues and long-term, rational and sustainable use of natural resources. The following year came the NGT’s blanket ban on sand mining.

Sand mining is a source of livelihood amid increasing fragmentation of land and dwindling employment opportunities. Sand is in demand in construction activities in developing areas, and rivers like the Yamuna are major sources of sand. Earlier, when sand was mined under the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957, a contractor leased land from an agriculturalist in return for an agreed sum and paid a royalty to the State government. Sand was excavated to a depth of 12 metres in the Yamuna basin.

In 2007, the Haryana government commissioned a study by the Karnal-based Central Soil Salinity Research Institute (CSSRI) to investigate the impact of sand mining on soil properties and crop growth in comparison with un-mined fields in the Yamuna basin, which stretches over 1,700 square kilometres from Yamunanagar to Delhi. The CSSRI study recommended that there should be regulation and not a ban. It estimated the basin to have 300 billion cubic metres of sand below agricultural land. It did not completely rule out the benefits of sand mining though it said that it degraded land, disturbed the soil profile, spoilt the surface configuration and altered the topography. Smaller mines were prone to flooding and erosion and posed a permanent threat to adjacent lands, the study said. It said that sand mining led to low yields in major crops for the initial two or three years, but added that an improvement was seen after five years of land reclamation. It recommended that the mined lands should be returned to agricultural use after concurrent reclamation under the guidance and monitoring of agricultural experts.

There has been a construction boom in the National Capital Region, creating a huge demand for sand. According to an insider in the sand trade, indiscriminate and unregulated mining of sand continues and the government loses out on royalty; much of this sand is used for small construction. “There are 40 to 50 villages in the NCR region of Faridabad from where sand is regularly transported on carts to Ballabhgarh and elsewhere. The contractors do not operate the JCB machines in the day for fear of being caught,” he said. Heavy police presence because of communal violence in parts of Faridabad in May, June and July acted as a deterrent to open sand mining. “If a builder wants more sand, it comes from across the river in Noida, in Uttar Pradesh, which is expensive. Before the NGT restrictions on sand mining, I sold a “traula” (mega trolley) carrying upto 400 cubic feet of sand, at Rs.450. Now the rate for the same quantity is between Rs.4,000-Rs.5,000. When sold in black, it is Rs.10,000. The sand from the Yamuna is very good,” he said and added that politicians in both Haryana and U.P. owned sand mining contracts. But sand mining will stop as the monsoon sets in and resume in November-December. Local people in the area explained that the poor cannot afford stone dust for building their homes. Sand is cheaper. Farmers whose lands got covered in sand during floods made money selling it. Village residents told Frontline that nothing much could grow on agricultural land that had heavy deposits of sand. “There are no input costs. Only a JCB has to be used to lift the sand. Now the JCBs are lying idle. People had taken fat loans to buy the machines; even small farmers bought tractors to transport the sand. It was a side business for them. Now it happens at night and when no one’s watching,” said a man who earlier had a mining lease. Most land holdings in the area are under three acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare). This means that the December 2013 MoEF notification, which said no mining lease area of less than five hectares would be considered for environmental clearance, now stops most landholders from leasing out mining rights.

The crux of the problem is the absence of regulation. The supply of sand will be guided by demand, but it is large-scale extraction that is worrying. However, there are livelihood issues, too, that need to be addressed.


Assault on the 'holy river'

By Purnima Tripathi in Haridwar

A continuous stream of trucks laden with sand, gravel, stones and pebbles is a common sight on the Haridwar-Laksar road in Uttarakhand. The area near the riverfront presents a picture of frenetic activity: huge excavators digging sand from the riverbed and piling it on to waiting tractor trolleys, gigantic stone-crushers continuously whirring, belching out gravel and dust, and stones and boulders being loaded into the crushers. It is all so openly done that it is hard to imagine that anything could be wrong with this “brisk economic activity”. In reality, it is one of modern India’s most brazen stories of loot.

This was the scene on July 2-3, a good three weeks after Chief Minister Harish Rawat promised to put a stop to illegal riverbed mining and Swami Shivananda broke his protest fast. The intervention has apparently stopped illegal mining, at least for now, but “legal” mining is still on, in violation of the NGT’s order of April 21 that all riverbed mining in the State should stop.

Human greed has not spared the supposedly holy Ganga, which is regularly and unscrupulously stripped of its rich minerals, sand, stones and boulders. The rampant and illegal mining of sand and stone from the riverbed is carried out right under the nose of the authorities, at times even with permits granted by the administration, irreversibly damaging the local topography and ecology.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who swears by the Ganga, has launched a “clean Ganga” mission called Namami Gange, which has been sanctioned Rs.20,000 crore, in order to ensure clean ( nirmal) and uninterrupted ( aviral) flow in the river within the next five years. He has also created a dedicated Ministry for this purpose headed by Uma Bharati. The rampant mining in the riverbed, however, raises doubts about the seriousness of the project. The Prime Minister himself, the Minister concerned, and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislators in Uttarakhand are all reticent about the problem. Documents available with Frontline prove that some BJP MLAs have an active role in the mining. The Ganga, incidentally, has been declared as one of the most polluted rivers in the world; its water is not fit for farming, let alone drinking.

Seer’s fast

In June 2011, Swami Nigamananda, a young seer from the Matri Sadan Ashram in Haridwar, who was carrying out a campaign to get stone crushers banned from the riverbed, died under controversial circumstances after having fasted for 115 days. His demand was that the Himalaya Stone Crusher in the vicinity of the Ashram and inside the Kumbh Mela area should be removed as it was causing air and sound pollution. It was indeed removed after his death, and mining activity along the riverbed in Haridwar witnessed a lull for the last two years of the tenure of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre. But mining resumed last year, and since then it has been business as usual. Heavy JCB and Pokland machines started digging the riverbed once again, forcing the Matri Sadan seers to take up a fast again. A relentless struggle by Swami Shivananda and Swami Atmabodhanand of Matri Sadan led to the State government putting a stop to all mining activity in Haridwar in April, pending a scientific study on how much mining can be permitted on the riverbed, and at which locations. The move followed a report by a committee consisting of representatives from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests and the State government and the NGT’s April 21 order that said all mining should remain suspended, pending scientific studies on the impact of mining on the riverbed.

But the ban was effective only for a few days. On May 16, JCB and Pokland machines were back in business. Matri Sadan seers started protests again. On May 21, Swami Shivanada started a fast. The State government intervened and the machines withdrew once again. Harish Rawat himself offered juice to Swami Shivananda on June 7 to break his fast and promised that no “unscientific” mining would be allowed.

There is a problem here. Who will decide what is “scientific” mining and what is “unscientific” mining? There is no policy document available, no permanent body of experts to advise, and no consistent supervision of the mining activity. Periodic and limited mining is indeed necessary to remove sand and silt, which the river brings downstream and deposits on its bed once it enters the plains at Haridwar. Proper pattas are allotted to contractors for this purpose. But there is no way to ensure that these contractors remove silt only in the allotted area and in the specified quantity.

Sunil Pawar, Deputy Director of the State’s Mining Department, said: “There indeed is a problem and we try our best to ensure that mining is done within specified limits. But incidences of contractors digging deeper than allowed, removing stones and boulders instead of sand and silt and digging in a bigger area than allowed come to our notice. We do take action also, but at times they do escape our attention.” According to him, whenever transgressions come to the government’s notice, pattas are cancelled, as was done at Maletha in Tehri district recently, where the licences of seven stone crushers were cancelled. He told Frontline that the Cabinet was considering drafting a policy on mining and a “government notification is expected soon”.

Stone crushers operate indiscriminately in the Haridwar-Laksar region. At least 60 huge stone crushers are active in the area and they need a constant supply of stones, which are procured from the Ganga. It is a game in which politicians and bureaucrats often become willing or unwilling partners. Swami Shivananda, trying to explain the worrying regularity with which illegal mining keeps resuming, said: “As long as the stone crushers continue to operate in Haridwar, the Ganga riverbed will keep getting torn because the unscrupulous sand and stone mafia would keep digging the river bed to supply the material for the stone crushers.” He said that influential politicians owned stone crushers and thus had a vested interest in mining activity, with the connivance of pliable bureaucrats.

He said that after the NGT order banned riverbed mining in April, two BJP MLAs, Swami Yateeshwarananda, of Haridwar Rural constituency, and Sanjay Gupta, of Laksar, wrote to Haridwar District Magistrate H.C. Semwal on May 6 and May 7, respectively, saying that sand and silt deposits in the Ganga should be removed to prevent flooding during the monsoon. The letters ( Frontline has copies of both) were identical and they demanded that digging of sand from the river be allowed.

Semwal immediately passed an order that a four-member committee, comprising the Sub-Divisional Magistrate of Haridwar and Laksar, an Irrigation Department executive engineer, a Forest Department officer and an official from the State’s Geology and Mining department, should examine the position in seven villages along the areas mentioned by the MLAs and submit a report “within three working days”. Curiously, this order, which was passed on May 6, took cognizance of Sanjay Gupta’s letter which was sent to him on May 7. Anyway, the committee inspected all the seven locations and submitted a report on the same day, May 6. It said that sand deposition in the middle of the river did indeed pose a grave danger to villages on the riverbank and that JCB and Pokland machines should be deployed to remove the deposition ( Frontline has a copy of this report). The result was that the stone crushers were back in operation soon.

Swami Shivananda went on a fast on May 21 and ended it only on June 7 after the government ordered the machines out of the river. Illegal mining has stopped for now, but for how long is anybody’s guess. “With influential politicians and even big ashram heads owning stone crushers in Haridwar, how long can the river be spared?” wondered Swami Shivananda. Frontline has a copy of a letter of permission ( anumati patra) from the District Magistrate to the Parmarth Ashram, one of the biggest ashrams in Haridwar, granting permission for mining in the Ganga and mentioning that the required monetary deposit has been made.

“With even the sant samaj [community of religious leaders] getting involved, how can mining be stopped?” Swami Shivananda said. He was determined to start fasting again if the mining resumed. “I cannot allow the mafia to destroy Ma Ganga. By holding these fasts, I am only doing my duty. It pains me to see the heavy JCB and Pokland machines tear the heart of Ma Ganga.”

Matri Sadan’s questions under the Right to Information (RTI) Act reveal that there is no document to show who got the contract to mine the river recently and where all the material has gone. “Material worth at least Rs.200 crore has been transported out. The government should tell the people who the beneficiaries were,” Swami Shivananda said.

When contacted, Semwal acknowledged that mining in the river was a problem but said the government was doing all it could “to ensure that no illegal mining takes place”. “There were reports of some illegal activities last year, but none so far this year since I have joined duty here on January 16,” he told Frontline. He admitted that the government had no consistent policy to check illegal mining but said that action had been taken in the past and penalties imposed if anyone was found to be transgressing the permitted limits. He admitted that a “blanket ban on all mining as demanded by Matri Sadan seers cannot be allowed” but the administration could impose checks and balances.


Narmada's woe

By Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta in Badwani

The Narmada riverbed at Nimola village lies bare and desolate. A narrow stream winds its way through countless hillocks made up of an unnatural mixture of clay and pebbles. A cloud of dust envelops the river through the day. Babool shrubs, planted by the Forest Department nearly a decade ago, dot the margins of the riverbed. Monsoon rains have turned the kaccha roads leading to the river into pools of slush. Devoid of even a single soul, the desolateness of the landscape is stark to any passer-by.

However, people of Nimola in Dhar district of Madhya Pradesh have memories of a lively, gurgling river that flowed through the village. “The riverbed was the only playground for children. It used to be the business hub for fishermen and the main source of irrigation for the farmers of our village. Women and children spent the mornings on the riverbed singing while doing their daily chores. It used to be a vibrant place. Sand mining destroyed our river,” says Mukesh Bhagoriya, a resident of Nimola and a campaigner against sand mining in the Narmada valley.

Nimola is one of the many villages in the river valley that has fallen prey to the unholy nexus of mining contractors, politicians and the police. “Narmada valley is one of the richest areas in terms of soil fertility, but the constantly depleting water level in the river has wreaked havoc on our lives. Because of sand mining, we are forced to look for alternative employment as farming and fishing have suffered hugely. Some of our farmers have turned into daily wage labourers,” says Bhagoriya.

The barren riverbed during the day transforms into an industrial hub during the night when truckloads of sand are dug out and transported outside. During peak seasons, anywhere between 50 and 100 trucks and some 300 tractor trolleys are loaded with sand from the riverbed and transported to cities from where the main contractor sends it to the State’s chief suppliers of sand. A truckload of sand fetches Rs.15,000 to Rs.20,000 for the contractor; a tractor trolley full of sand goes for Rs.8,000 to Rs.10,000.

In the Narmada valley, the process of sand mining is a little different from that in the rest of the State. The innumerable dams built on the 1,312-kilometre-long Narmada have affected the river flow, rendering the riverbed narrow at some places or unnaturally broad at others. This has led to excessive siltation on the banks. Years of siltation have created marshy landfills of clay and pebbles on the riverbank. Sand miners, therefore, have to first dig deep into these hillocks to access sand. The mud walls, ranging anywhere from 100 feet to 200 feet, make sand mining a complicated process that involves the usage of heavy machinery unlike in other rivers of the State. The process also involves sifting the sand out before it is loaded onto the trucks.

After sifting out sand, contractors dump the mud and pebbles on the riverbank, thereby creating artificial mounds of silt. This has not only affected the river flow further but also rendered the riverbank unfit for human use. “Constant movement of heavy vehicles like trucks and tractors has made the roads leading to the river so inaccessible for pedestrians that we hardly go to the riverbank. The sand miners, therefore, work with impunity and have almost a monopolistic control over the riverbank. Goondas employed by the miners to oversee sand mining look at the villagers also with suspicion,” says Deoram Dhangar, a campaigner against sand mining in Badwani district.

A visit to villages like Perkhad and Picholi, both big sand-mining sites in the region, confirms Deoram’s reading of the circumstances. The digging of mud walls to access sand in these two villages is so deep that it makes the sand mine look like an open cast coal mine. The roads to the riverbank have been damaged by the heavy tyres of trucks and tractors so much that it has become nearly impossible for a pedestrian to commute to the riverbank. A visitor is greeted by the prowling eyes of the mine’s overseers, who immediately instruct the labourers to stop work and hide.

The discreet ways of sand mining, made evident by the miners themselves, speak volumes about the illegality of this loot of the natural resource. Madhya Pradesh has become notorious for its mining-related crimes, which include the murder of honest police officials in recent times. The stakes attached to sand mining are high, with several politically connected people involved in the trade. Despite the growing concerns for environmental violations in the State, the government, in March 2015, launched a new sand-mining policy that has made sand mining much easier and lucrative. Ostensibly to stabilise sand prices in the State, the new policy will allow the government to permit sand mining in all tehsils of the 18 districts where sand mining is allowed.

“The State Mining Corporation at present is engaged in sand mining from only 53 tehsils of those 18 districts. The new policy gives the corporation excavation rights in all the tehsils of the districts. The corporation will give quarrying contracts through e-auction, and bidders for this process, under the provisions of the sand mining policy, will have to deposit only 10 per cent as security deposit as against the earlier 25 per cent. E-auction and rationalisation of security deposit amount will simplify the bidding process and bring in transparency,” Narottam Mishra, Cabinet Minister and the government’s spokesperson, told the media while launching the new policy. The State Mining Corporation has also been given the responsibility to identify new areas for sand mining.

Usually, the revenue accrued from sand mining is divided between the State Mining Corporation and the State government by separating areas of control. According to the mining corporation, District Collectors auction, operate and control 1,237 sand mines over an area of 2,677.554 hectares at present. Of them 1,181 mines on 2,070.01 hectares are under five hectares each and 55 mines (607.54 hectares) are above five hectares each. Under the new plan, some 9,570 hectares of land will be given to sand mines; of this, Collectors will control the operation of 586 sand mines above five hectares and the corporation will run 423 mines.

The new sand policy estimates that the State government can generate Rs.880 crore as revenue against Rs.180 crore from the 2.28 crore cubic metres of sand auctioned every year at present. Activists, however, say that the new policy will spell disaster for the State’s flora and fauna, apart from having a detrimental impact on the livelihoods of lakhs of people.

Despite a monitoring mechanism laid out by the State environment management authority, sand miners have flouted regulations at every level. And despite several orders by the Supreme Court and the NGT restricting sand mining without necessary environmental approvals, miners continue to violate the norms.

Most miners exceed the quantity of sand allowed to be mined and the allotted area. They bid for mines in the “less than five hectares” category to save on the royalty payable to the government and then mine indiscriminately. For example, in 2011, a team led by District Collector Girish Sharma, who was transferred 13 times in his 14-year-old career, found blatant violations in sand mining at Sehore. When the team carried out unannounced checks, it found illegal sand excavation on 51.3 hectares by a Rajasthan-based mining company and a contractor of the State Mining Corporation. The company is alleged to have illegally extracted 1.9 million cubic metres of sand. The team also found that the company had far exceeded its allotted 4 ha mining area each in Badgaon and Saatdev villages at Sehore. It was allegedly involved in illegal mining in 38 hectares in Badgaon and five hectares in Saatdev. Incidentally, Sehore is where Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan comes from.

Sharma’s team found two other major violations across the State. First, mining lease areas were not demarcated on the ground before assigning them to contractors. This resulted in actual mining areas far exceeding their allotted area. Second, leases for minor minerals were sanctioned without newspaper advertisements. “If such illegal sand mining can happen in the Chief Minister’s own backyard, how are other areas of the State safe? It proves that miners have no respect for any regulations,” said Deoram Dhangar, who has been campaigning against sand mining in Badwani district.

The Congress, the main opposition in the State, alleged that in 2012 a team led by its party members found that the same Rajasthan-based company had illegally mined 661 hectares against the allotted lease of 16 hectares in Sehore’s Nasrullaganj subdivision. In fact, the favouritism shown to the company by the State government has been a political issue in the Assembly for many years now. About 60 per cent of the total mines in Madhya Pradesh have been allocated to the corporation. In 2012, out of the 464 mines the State Mining Corporation had, 250 were leased out to the company.

Similar is the situation in the Narmada valley where sand mining is rampant in the villages which are demarcated as “to be submerged” by the Sardar Sarovar Dam. Indiscriminate sand mining has destroyed the riverbed, and activists fear that this may increase the submergence areas beyond the official level. “The Narmada Valley Development Authority [NVDA], a State agency to oversee rehabilitation and resettlement in Madhya Pradesh, has acquired all the villages falling in the doob [to be submerged areas]. That the State Mining Corporation is leasing out lands owned by the NVDA is in itself a blatant violation,” said Meera of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA).

Owing to consistent legal efforts by the NBA, the Madhya Pradesh High Court has stayed all forms of mining in areas acquired by the NVDA. However, this correspondent noted that miners continued to mine sand discreetly. Activists accuse the police of arresting labourers and mud pickers instead of targeting the sand mafia.

The State government has been trying to circumvent the court order in every possible way. In 2013, it made changes to the Madhya Pradesh Minor Minerals Rules, 1996, by constituting district-level environmental committees for granting environmental clearances to projects, thereby scuttling authorities like the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority. However, the NGT deemed these changes as illegal as they were in direct conflict with the Central environmental laws.

Since then, it has been continually appealing to the NGT to seek many exemptions and exceptions for mining activities, mostly to facilitate the construction industry, which it thinks is necessary for the infrastructural development of the State. However, the human and environmental cost of such development is drastic, in which a minor mineral like fluid sand, essential to create concrete buildings, has unfortunately become the bane of Madhya Pradesh and its people.