A sandstorm is coming: Courtesy sand mafia and sand mining

Sunday, 4 August 2013 - 6:50am IST Updated: Sunday, 4 August 2013 - 9:09am IST | Agency: DNA
Rampant sand mining will have dire ecological consequences, warn environmentalists.

Nasrul Dalvi is up early for his namaaz and sehri. His home in Karanja village is near the Dharamtar creek of the Amba river on the eastern side of the Mumbai harbour. The monsoon wind howls as he sits down for a meal with his family. Yet, wafting in over this bellow is a steady hum.

“Those are pumps extracting sand,” Dalvi explains. “I know it is illegal, given how close these pumps are to the nearby bridge. But authorities are in collusion with the sand mafia, and keep ignoring our complaints.”

As day breaks, one can see the pipes and pumps lined up all along the beach, with huge mounds of sand waiting to be ferried by trucks to Mumbai and its suburbs where the raw material will feed the city’s insatiable construction industry.

Environmental activist Sumaira Abdulali, who has been working relentlessly against illegal sand mining in Maharashtra, puts it all in context. She alleges that such large-scale sand mining in violation of guidelines of the Bombay high court cannot happen without officials' complicity.

She cites the example of the ecologically-fragile Bankot Creek, which falls in a coastal regulation zone and whose banks are lined with mangroves. “The state has given licences to dredge sand there, purportedly to clear waterways for navigation. But, there is no boat traffic on this stretch; nor is anyone, except barge operators carrying sand, allowed to enter the area, which licence-holders claim has been 'bought' by them.”

Abdulali, who runs Awaaz Foundation and is also associated with the Bombay Natural History Society, contends that sand mining is controlled by politicians. “All terms of licences are routinely violated, including the amount of sand dredged, timings of dredging operations, and number of dredgers permitted to operate in a given area. Sand is also dredged from beaches. Any opposition to illegal sand-dredging is met with threats and violence, and there is a nexus between politicians and the administration in protecting the illegal activity."

Silencing whistleblowers
Abdulali knows this too well. In March 2010, while returning after photographing 14 dredgers in action at Bankot Creek, she and a team of accompanying journalists were attacked by goons of “the owner” of the creek. They chased their three cars on the lonely ghat road, and a truck rammed into the vehicles on a bridge, trying to push Abdulali’s car into the river below. Abdulali and the journalists escaped by the skin of their teeth, but not everyone does.

Those engaged in illegal sand mining are violent and go to any extent to stay out of the radar.

On May 26, musclemen working for a sand miner attacked a team of officials in Agra who were following a tractor carrying sand from the Yamuna riverbed. They almost mowed down the tehsildar and toppled the team's vehicle with the sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) inside it. The SDM escaped unhurt, but the tehsildar was injured. More recently, whistleblower Pale Ram Chauhan was shot dead in Gautam Budh Nagar in UP. There have been reports of a number of revenue officials being murdered in Tamil Nadu. All these officials were said to have been either investigating or clamping down on illegal sand mining.

That’s how ruthless the sand mafia is. It also knows how to keep well-meaning officials in check. The suspension of Durga Shakti Nagpal, the SDM of Gautam Budh Nagar, for taking on the powerful sand mafia in east UP, is a case in point.

But not everyone is as lucky as Nagpal, at least in terms of being in the news. On the evening of February 27, 2012, dozens of workers at an illegal sand mine in Billi-Markundi region under the Obra police station of UP's Sonebhadra district were buried under rocks when the mine collapsed. It was never known how many people actually died, or whether any compensation was awarded. The news was given a quiet burial — for a reason.

The Billi-Markundi region, called the Bellary of Sonbhadra, is being ravaged by some 300 sites that have continued mining despite the legal expiry of their leases. Some mines have been dug as deep as 100ft. Toxicity of air in the area has been increasing, threatening the health of the people, besides, of course, causing revenue losses to the government. Few know, fewer care.

Back to the mines
Impunity is the watchword here. Though the Bombay HC had pulled up the Maharashtra government over unabated sand mining in the state, the reprimand has made little difference to the ground situation. “The suction pumps, unlike dredgers which have to stop work during the monsoon, go on round-the-year,” says an activist.

It’s the same story in UP where the mafia has been wreaking havoc. No region — be it Vindhyachal, Bundelkhand, Purvanchal or the Ganga-Yamuna plains — has been left untouched. None of the rivers— Ganga, Yamuna, Ken, Betwa, Rapti and Gomti — has remained unspoiled.

The law is being made an ass of. Under the Environment Protection Act (EPA), officials can hand out punishments of Rs1 lakh in fines and a five-year jail term. Convictions are almost unheard of, and honest officials are invariably sidelined, humiliated, or even eliminated.

Vivek Pandit of NGO Shramjeevi Sanghatana reasons that this is because the onus of proving the charge is on the system, and not on the defaulter to prove his/her innocence.

Pandit, who has seen the government’s inability to stop the sand mafia despite the imminent danger of a key railway bridge collapse at Vaitarna (which supplies Mumbai’s drinking water), explains, “The dredging is weakening the bridge's foundation. The Bombay HC had directed that sand mining there be stopped in 2010; but after the first few days of vigil, things went back to normal.”

Realty blues

Abdulali calls for on-spot penalties. “By the time a pollution control board gives its report and any action is planned, the defaulter would have gone to court pleading for a stay, and carries on with his mining.”

But it’s easier said than done, since we are talking big money here.

This can be gauged from a single seizure made under the drive launched by Nagpal in Noida. On May 15, mining inspector Ashish Kumar seized 46,538 cubic metres of illegally mined sand. This seizure alone was worth almost Rs77 lakh. Kumar, like Nagpal, was shunted out.

The money for the sand mafia comes indirectly from India’s burgeoning real estate sector, and the demand for sand (to make concrete) is fuelled by the construction industry. With sand mining either being banned or restricted in most parts of the country, sand is in short supply. And when demand far outstrips supply, illegalities and corruption find their way in.

Realty experts like Maharashtra Chamber of Housing Industry president Vimal Shah know that the construction boom in Mumbai needs at least 15,000-18,000 trucks of sand per day, while the number  available is only 600-800. “Those complaining about real estate prices going through the roof should see how costs of material like sand keep rising,” Shah points out. “If the government keeps making things difficult, the sector will suffer.”
 
You're life is at stake, too
Concerns of the real estate sector may be genuine, but what also cannot be turned a blind eye to is the reason why courts have either banned or restricted sand mining — the environmental costs that the country will eventually have to pay for in the long run.

Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People points out the risks of unsustainable sand mining. For one, a river may change its course (as has happened with the Mandakini, Alaknanda and Hindon rivers in Uttarakhand). Second, sand acts as an aquifer on a riverbed, and is key to groundwater recharge in the area. Third, sand and boulders together provide a habitat for biodiversity in rivers. And last, the erosion rate of a river increases. Once the geomorphology of a river changes, anything downstream of that river — from cities and roads to bridges and livelihoods — all face a mortal threat.

If unsustainable sand mining continues unchecked, those predictions could well come true. And that is what Nigamanand, who died two years ago while on a hunger strike protesting illegal quarrying and rampant sand mining in Uttarakhand, had wanted to convey. But his death shifted the focus only on corruption, and not on ecological devastation.

The effects of unsustainable sand mining is possibly a disaster waiting to happen.

Damage is irreversible says Sumaira Abdulali
The way our beaches, creeks and rivers are being mined for sand for use as aggregate in concrete is shocking. This destructive illegal practice leads to erosion along the shoreline. It wrecks the intertidal area and creates the imminent danger of saline water ingress into fresh water.

We assume sand will replenish itself, but the amount being mined is humongous compared with the silting that happens.

Such mining can be damaging to beach biodiversity, and other coastal ecosystems like wetlands and mangroves. Take the case of Kihim Beach off Alibaug, Shore levels have reduced, forcing residents to build walls to protect themselves from the sea.

We need to wake up to this danger since a major impact of beach sand mining is the loss of protection from storm surges associated with tropical cyclones and tsunamis.

India is the custodian at the UN Convention on Biodiversity for two years. Yet, instead of confronting its problems, it did not even mention sand mining last year.

(Sumaira Abdulali is an environmental activist. She spoke to Yogesh Pawar)

West goes off sand  
Developed countries are moving away from sand, so much so that the need for sand mining has decreased considerably.

Many countries are using crushed industrial waste, called aggregate, in construction.

In Britain, metal slack is now used to lay roads. Sand is not used at all.

Montesserat, a tiny country in the Caribbean Sea, has eliminated coastal sand mining, since the practice posed a threat to the island. In the late 1990s, the country embarked on community-driven initiatives to promote alternatives in construction.

In most developed countries, sand mining is kept under check, both through regulations as well as implementation. Sand mining is somewhat a problem in four US states, but there, sand is mined for frac sand (silica).

Impact of unsustainable sand mining
Undercutting and collapse of river banks, loss of adjacent land and/or structures, upstream erosion as a result of an increase in channel slope and changes in flow velocity, as well as downstream erosion due to increased carrying capacity of the stream, downstream changes in patterns of deposition, and changes in riverbed and habitat type.

Threats to water security resulting from the loss of groundwater storage due to lowering of the water table. Example: The water table in all the wells in the Pampa river valley in Kerala has fallen significantly — by an average of 3-4m, and up to 6m in some areas.

Decreased protection from beachfront erosion, especially during ocean disasters.

Mining and dredging activities, poorly-planned stockpiling and uncontrolled dumping of overburden, and chemical/fuel spills cause reduced water quality for downstream users, increased cost for downstream water treatment plants and poisoning of aquatic life.

Alternatives
Construction engineers and scientists, especially in the West, are still grappling with the issue of avoiding sand to make concrete. Stone powder and fly ash have been propped up as alternatives, but the new mixes are not cost-effective and are less durable.

The most viable alternative is ‘manufactured sand’. It is produced in a stone crushing plant by implementing, what are called, vertical shaft impactors and washing plants. M-sand is produced from stones which is used for aggregates, and the quality is consistent and even better than river sand. The practice is yet to catch on in India, though Maharashtra, Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have okayed the use of M-sand. Moreover, M-sand is relatively cheaper too.

The Mafia’s political face
Political patronage helps the business to grow. Jailed former minister of the BSP, Babu Singh Kushwaha, ran a mining syndicate in Banda (Bundelkhand), and was made mining minister in the Mayawati government. His partnership with late liquor baron Ponty Chadha spawned an illegal mining business of thousands of crores. Even after the change of government, a large chunk of the mining industry in UP is in the hands of the Chadha Group. BSP MLC Mohammad Iqbal, one of the biggest mining contractors in UP, continues to hold sway in the business in west UP despite the change in government.

Mining leases in Saharanpur were allotted without auctions, and to companies found guilty of illegal mining in the SC-ordered probe. Almost all the leases are owned by the brother, son and associates of Iqbal.

The suspension of GB Nagar sub-divisional magistrate Durga Nagpal is not an isolated case. Earlier, Baghpat divisional magistrate Harsh Tankha was shunted out for taking on the sand mining mafia.


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