Plundered rivers, vanishing ecosystems: Sandmining in India’s west

River sand continues to be plundered for the construction industry (Source: P Jeganathan/Wikimedia Commons)
River sand continues to be plundered for the construction industry (Source: P Jeganathan/Wikimedia Commons)

Unsustainable sandmining practices continue to be rampant in India. This has not only threatened the river ecosystems, but also led to commodification of river sand, a product in high demand in the construction industry. The high profits involved have turned sand mining into a highly competitive business with the sand mafia dominating the scene. The politics of sandmining combined with high incidences of violence have made control of sand mining activities a growing challenge in recent years.

What is the state of sandmining in the western zone that has highly industrialised states such as Maharashtra and Gujarat along with other states such as Rajasthan, Goa and Madhya Pradesh? What are its implications for the ecology and economy of the region?

A series of zonal webinars were conducted as a part of the India Rivers Week 2020 and the West Regional Dialogue was held on November 12th as a part of this series, which was moderated by Shripad Dharmadhikary from Manthan Adhyayan Kendra and  Shailaja Deshpande from Jeevitnadi, Pune.

Western rivers, in peril!

Shailaja Deshpande highlighted that peninsular rivers faced a major threat due to sand mining as they had much less sediment load than the Himalayan rivers and that the impact on the river ecology could be irreversible if not controlled in time. She quoted the example of the disappearance of the Mahseer fish from the river Bheema at Alandi and Pandharpur due to the disappearance of the desert and sand lining the river that was quoted in ancient texts.

This was followed by the presentation on the West region zonal report by K J Joy from SOPPECOM.

The major rivers in the western region include the Narmada, Tapi, Krishna, Godavari, Mahi, Chambal, Sabarmati, Banas, Betwa, Ken, Mahadeyi, Zuari, Son, Wainganga. Many of these rivers are heavily regulated with dams, barrages and other diversion structures, which have not only disrupted the flows but also sediment transport from the rivers. Coupled with unchecked sand mining, many of these rivers have lost their original characteristics and habitats causing irreversible damage to their ecosystems.

The presentation highlighted the impacts of excessive sand mining on the crucial groundwater resources in the area, on lives and livelihoods of people staying near the riverbanks such as farmers, fisherfolk etc. Illegal mining is rampant in all the states in the west zone with the highest being in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. Cases of violence have been reported to be highest from Madhya Pradesh.

While there have been both organised and spontaneous struggles against river sand mining in various states in the west zone, few have been long term and with social movements around them. Most of them have been sporadic and isolated protests that have sparked when extreme events have happened because of sand mining. Some of the most notable struggles against sand mining have been that of Mukti Sangharsh Movement (MSM) in Sangli District and Panegaon in Ahmednagar district in Maharashtra.

The presentation highlighted the need to address gaps in data, have a relook at policy and legal frameworks and make attempts at democratic participation by involving Gram Panchayats and  Urban Local Bodies in the effort.

Regulating sandmining, a growing challenge

The next  presentation was by Tukaram Munde, IAS officer and well known for his work on clamping down of sandmining in Solapur, Maharashtra.

He shared his experiences on sandmining and highlighted that there were two issues, the demand supply issue and that of the need to convert the vicious cycle of sandmining to a virtuous cycle.

While governmental and environmental regulations existed, how to implement them on the ground level continued to be a challenge as market forces were very strong. The economic returns out of sandmining made it a profitable business thus leading to involvement of criminal elements such as the sand mafia.

Developing alternatives to sand such as alternative construction materials and participation of stakeholders at every level right from the government, policy makers, civil society, lawmakers, businessmen to create a right kind of environment to change the vicious cycle to a virtuous cycle was the need of the hour. Thus effective regulation, coupled with the right kind of participation and environmental awareness was needed to break this vicious cycle of sandmining that was increasingly threatening rivers and their ecology.

Plundered rivers, challenged ecosystems!

Tarun Nair, a conservation biologist from ATREE highlighted the impact of sandmining on freshwater ecosystems. Rivers transport sediment which is important for the  riverine ecosystem and the process involves a lot of potential energy that is dissipated due to presence of rocks, vegetation on the way, while the river flows. The  interruption of this sediment transfer can happen when there is no matter left to move along with the potential energy involved leading to erosion of river channels, beds and banks leading to hungry waters.

Sandmining has a number of direct and indirect negative impacts on the river system and includes channel incision, one of the most common indirect impacts on the river morphology besides ecosystem damage, loss of habitat due to increase in turbidity, increase in temperature of the river waters leading to species loss among a number of invertebrates inhabiting the river. It can also lead to death and loss of fish species due to loss of spawning grounds, destruction of feeding and migration routes of fish and rise in invasive species. Sandmining has also been found to have a negative impact on gharials, turtles and the nesting sites of birds.

Killer fields, vanishing livelihoods

Yamuna Sunni, a critical geographer and an educationist associated with TISS, Mumbai and Ekalavya from Madhya Pradesh highlighted the impact of sandmining on lives and livelihoods around the Narmada.

While dams have had a negative impact on the river Narmada, mechanised sandmining too has had a deleterious effect on the river and its ecosystem. Illegal mining is rampant and violence due to the involvement of sand mafia has worsened the situation.

Rampant sandmining, which is also done during the monsoon ban period, has had a negative impact on the flora and fauna of the region. While this has been leading to loss of livelihoods for the fisherfolk and sand farmers who regularly grow cucumbers and water melons in the region, mining has also changed the landscape by drying up of the rivulets and streams in the area.

Sandmining, in the lakes as well!

Khetaram Dangi, a local farmer and an activist from Meval Kshetra Paryavaran Evam Manav Vikas Lokmanch from Bhambora village from Udaipur district of Rajasthan narrated his experiences on the ongoing collective action that the villagers organised against sandmining of the Jaisamund lake that was leading to a damage to the lake ecosystem and pushing locals to the brink of poverty.

Legal challenges

Lara Jesani, an advocate from Bombay High Court and NGT, highlighted the challenges and lacunae in the existing legal framework around sandmining. Historically, illegal and indiscriminate sandmining had become the norm as there was no regulation in place to control mining of minor minerals. Licenses and permissions were granted by the local/state authorities under the mines and minerals Act and state control led to increasing violence against not only locals but even police officers, district collectors. No impact assessments were done as well.

It was in February 2012 that the Supreme Court made environmental clearances compulsory for mining leases (including their renewal) that involved minor minerals for areas less than 5 hectares. Following this order, the MoEF issued an order to the states to get Environmental Clearance (EC) from the State Environmental Impact Assessment Authority and included projects under 5 hectares under this category. The NGT too passed an order in August 2013 restraining sand and riverbed mining in any part of the country without an EC.

Following a number of processes the final amendment came in January 2016 when the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2006 was amended to streamline the process of environmental clearance for mining of minor minerals. EC was made compulsory for minor minerals even under 5 hectares. A district EIA authority and  district expert appraisal committee was constituted to provide EC. Preparation of District Survey Report on erosion areas where sandmining was prohibited was also proposed.

However, ambiguities still exist. The draft EIA 202o on mining of minor minerals too has problems such as post facto clearances and exceptions to the requirement of ECs.

Better implementation and enforcement of laws are needed along with a strong legal framework empowering local bodies and Gram Sabhas, better reporting and monitoring mechanisms, better awareness on environmental impacts, focus on alternatives to sand use and most importantly, protection of defenders.

Alternative solutions

The last presentation was by Mr Vilas Gore, a construction engineer  with expertise in using renewable products in place of sand. Mr Gore highlighted the different alternative technologies that can be used for optimising sand consumption and eliminating the use of sand in construction.
Alternative technologies to optimise sand consumption included:

  • Engineered bamboo to construct walls, slabs, roofs in residential and public buildings
  • Flyash/Gypsum blocks as a substitute for concrete blocks
  • Manufactured sand
  • Processed construction and demolition waste can be used instead of sand
  • Waste plastic can replace sand in concrete/mortar
  • Aggregates made from end of life tyres

Technologies to replace sand included examples such as replacing concrete roads by bamboo reinforced road base with ashphalt surfacing.

The discussion ended on a note that engineering or technological solutions alone will not be enough to deal with the problem of sandmining. The dominant paradigm that infinite sand resources exist and can be exploited to cater to the needs of a selected few needs to be challenged and supported through constructive policy, legal dialogue, active participation of all the stakeholders involved, building environmental awareness and education and exploring and implementing alternative solutions.

The report and the webinars can be accessed here