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Sand mafia free-run abetted Mahad tragedy, say greens

Pointing out to her correspondence on the issue with authorities down the years, she underlines how such sand dredging is particularly problematic in coastal rivers like the Savitri, which flows through an eco-fragile zone.

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Sand mining being undertaken near the road bridge at Mahad in May 2016
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While welcoming chief minister Devendra Fadnavis' directive to conduct structural audit of all old bridges in the wake of the Mahad bridge collapse, environment rights activists are wondering why the government hasn't acted against the illegal sand mining mafia active both upstream and downstream of the Savitri river.

Green activist Sumaira Abdulali, who has been fighting illegal sand mining in the riverine belts across the state told dna, "The rampant sand dredging creates cavities on the river bed, far in excess of the depths measured while planning bridges. This large volume of water accelerated by gravity only means that the bridge foundations are weakened. When the river is in spate, this only heightens the danger."

Pointing out to her correspondence on the issue with authorities down the years, she underlines how such sand dredging is particularly problematic in coastal rivers like the Savitri, which flows through an eco-fragile zone.

"The banks are lined with mangroves. Yet the state has given licences to dredge sand there. As if this weren't enough, even terms of the licences are routinely violated, including amount of sand dredged, timings of dredging operations, and number of dredgers permitted to operate in a given area," she lamented adding, "Such violation of the Bombay high court's stringent orders on sand mining cannot happen without officials' complicity."

Abdulali, who runs Awaaz Foundation and is also associated with the Bombay Natural History Society, should know what she's talking about. In March 2010, while returning after photographing 14 dredgers in action at Bankot Creek, she and a media posse 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.

(Sand mining next to road bridge at Mahad in May 2016​. Image courtesy: Sumaira Abdulali​)

Ramesh Gawde of the Dadli village, close to the site of the bridge collapse, told dna how this summer, as water levels dipped exposing the river bed in places, brazen sand miners were mining right at the bottom of the bridge in the end of May. "We tried to question them but were chased off by two constables in uniform. They even threatened us of arrest for obstructing government work,"

Abdulali too has clicked pictures of sand mining in the vicinity of the ill-fated road bridge on May 16 which establish this.

When dna called SP Suvej Haq he sought to put the onus on the district administration and simply said, "The collectorate will issue all statements related to the bridge." He refused to comment on whether his team was aware of or had taken any action against sand mining in the area. Raigad district collector Sheetal Ugale too said she was unaware of any sand mining in the vicinity of the bridge. "I can only tell you that the revenue department keeps raiding the sand miners whenever we hear of illegal mining so that the state doesn't suffer revenue loss."

Most alarmingly Sumaira Abdulali also shared pictures of sand mining (mid-May) directly at the base of the arterial Vaitarna railway bridge which connects all of Northern India to Mumbai by the Western Railway. "It's not like authorities don't know. With abutments to the Vaitarna bridge's pillars slacking off due to dredging, trains are stopped from going faster than 20 km/hr while crossing it to prevent further stress to the structure."


(Sand mining next to railway bridge​ in May 2016​. Image courtesy: Sumaira Abdulali)

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