Illegal river bed mining continues unabated in north India

Law enforcement is missing on the ground causing immense environmental damage to the river ecosystem (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Law enforcement is missing on the ground causing immense environmental damage to the river ecosystem (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

In October this year, locals and river activists campaigned against illegal sand mining in Yamunanagar, Haryana. The authorities were compelled to take notice and the errant firms that had deployed heavy machinery to embank the river and divert its natural flow to extract sand were booked for violation.

Nailing illegal sand mining has been rare and river conservationists feel that the environmentally hazardous activity continues with impunity. To discuss some of these issues a series of zonal webinars are being conducted as a part of the India Rivers Week 2020. The ‘North India sand mining dialogue’ was held on October 31, 2020, and began with a presentation of the zonal report by SANDRP on sand mining by Bhim Singh Rawat, SANDRP.

This was followed by a panel discussion representing different perspectives on governance, law, media, ecology, civil society/ community and industry. Providing an account of the rivers of North India affected by sand mining Rawat highlighted the murky situation of illegal sand mining, corruption, rampant nexus between politicians-officials-sand miners, and numerous cases of violence and death.

The NGT and the Supreme Court have come up with stringent strictures against sand mining, yet law enforcement is missing on the ground causing immense environmental damage to the river ecosystem. Rawat presented many visuals of illegal extraction and plundering of riverbeds from the north Indian states during the presentation.

Courtesy: Slide from Bhim Singh Rawat/ SANDRP’s PowerPoint presentation indicating that the
proliferation of infrastructure projects including real estate, buildings, hydro-power projects has led to increased pressure on rivers to supply the growing demand for minor minerals. 

Durga Shakti Nagpal, an IAS officer narrated her experience of taking the sand mining mafia head-on during her first posting as sub-divisional magistrate,  Greater Noida in Uttar Pradesh in 2013. The Yamuna flowed through the sub-division and brought in rich silt and sand from the Himalayas. There were a large number of ongoing construction projects in the area, and sand was in high demand and its price would soar from time to time.

The farmers came and complained to her about the illegal excavation of sand using tractors and JCBs from their farms during the night. This was leading to a decline in their land productivity. They also shared the ecological impacts like changing river course, which led to greater flooding in the area.

“I conducted unannounced raids and in just two weeks seized over hundred trucks and JCBs and registered around 90 FIRs and recovered royalty worth almost Rs 80 crores. I faced physical threats and my team was attacked,” says Nagpal recounting the midnight escapades while chasing sand-laden trucks as also the immense support she received from the local community. She faced political victimisation but stood her ground. A biopic is being prepared about her life.

Nagpal stressed the role of civil society in the field of sand mining governance. “The local community needs to play the role of monitoring and providing feedback to the government agency,” she says.

Another panelist Kiran Pal Rana, a farmer from Yamunanagar affected by sand mining discussed how rampant sand mining on Yamuna banks had forced even the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to take notice. The green tribunal issued directions to the Haryana government and formed a joint committee under the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) following complaints from Rana that authorities were turning a blind eye to illegal mechanised in-stream riverbed mining in Gumthala’s north and south blocks in Yamunanagar and near Nangla Rai village of Kairana block in Uttar Pradesh’s Shamli.

The mining mafia continued to carry out the illegal mining activities during the lockdown, in violation of guidelines issued under the Environment (Protection) Act as well as the sustainable sand mining guidelines issued by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

“The illegal mining activities have changed the course of the river as the miners have created embankments to stop the flow besides building illegal bridges on the river,” adds Rana.

“Sand mining in most rivers in north India is unregulated and rampant, and because of low flow and pollution puts an added strain on the ecosystem. Guidelines on sustainable mining and monitoring of sites are ignored. Concerted efforts and conservation planning are required involving all stakeholders for river conservation,” says Dr Syed A Hussain, retired scientist from the Wildlife Institute of India.

“With growing demand sand mining does not seem to be a minor mineral extraction affair any more. Strict enforcement of existing guidelines may reduce the impact of mining but monitoring mechanism on the ground needs reinforcement. It is high time to identify large sand mining sites along the rivers on the basis scientific study based on the rate of aggregation and degradation rate as done by IIT, Kanpur for the Ganga at the Haridwar stretch,” says Hussain.

He stresses that ecological sensitive and biodiversity hotspots in all rivers need to be identified and mining needs to be avoided. Creating village level institutions involving relevant stakeholders will develop stake of the local communities in conserving river ecosystems.

Another panelist Parul Gupta, a lawyer pointed to the loopholes in policy and laws; she said that implementation is a secondary hurdle in sand mining governance.

“The letter and spirit of the Supreme Court’s Deepak Kumar judgment of 2012 stand violated by the Ministry of Environment and Forests. The Supreme Court asked for the need for environment clearance for all mining leases including for those less than 5 ha. This meant that the environment impact assessment and public hearing were mandatory for getting environment clearance. This when challenged in the National Green Tribunal was not handled well and therefore, there is a need to challenge it in the Supreme Court,” says Gupta.

The last panelist Athar Parvaiz, a journalist from Jammu & Kashmir had widely written on sand mining.

“Traditional sand mining in Kashmir has changed drastically in the last year or so. Serious challenges lie ahead for not only traditional sand miners but all those who are dependent on the rivers. The government’s decision to go for online auctions and bidding has opened the state’s rivers to miners from outside,” he said.

“The extent of the mining lease has also been expanded further. We now have around 250 sand mining blocks from Kashmir and 300 from Jammu. We are faced with non-availability of any authentic replenishment data and sketchy district survey reports. Instead, the geology and mining department made the reports for the districts. The department is interested in generating maximum revenue,” says Parvaiz.

He also pointed to the bizarre government order of July 30 which calls for “fast-tracking of environmental clearance”.

The discussion pointed to the need for effective sand mining governance and law enforcement to address the plundering of the rich river ecosystem and lessen the impact of communities.