Over a span of six months Durga Shakti Nagpal, sub-divisional magistrate of Greater Noida’s Gautam Budh Nagar took swift action against the rampant illegal sand mining mafia in Noida. As per the Gautam Budh Nagar Police Force records she registered 66 FIRs, arrested 104 people and seized 81 vehicles engaged in illegal sand mining in her district. She faced criticism and threats, and was later suspended from her service on an unrelated charge in July 2013. The Uttar Pradesh government denied allegations that she was suspended following action in controlling the sand mafia. Three days after Nagpal’s suspension, Pale Ram Chauhan, a social activist, was allegedly shot dead by sand mafia in Noida. The illegal sand mining mafia in the Solan district attacked a bureaucrat, Yunus Khan, Sub Divisional Magistrate in Himachal Pradesh, while trying to impound a vehicle with illegally mined sand in August that same year. In yet another case, in 2012, in a horrific incident in Banmur industrial town, Chambal district of Madhya Pradesh, a young IPS officer of the 2009 batch, Narendra Kumar, was brutally crushed to death in the presence of fellow police officers, under a stone-laden tractor trolley belonging to the illegal mining mafia. Such is the power of the sand mafia, that anybody who raises a voice against the illegal activity is faced with dire consequences.
Sand mining is the process of removal of sand from the shores of rivers, streams, lakes, inland dunes, ocean bed by making a borrow pit. River basins have long been exploited as sources of fine aggregates for building constructions. Depending on the geologic and geomorphic setting, river sand mining can impose serious environmental consequences in the long run (Table 1). Sand and gravel mining creates large pits and fissures in the earth’s surface. At times sand mining can extend so deep that it affects the ground water, springs, underground wells and the water table. Sand mining is a direct cause of erosion and also impacts the local wildlife. Removal of physical barriers through sand mining leads to flooding of local areas and also changes the course of the river in many instances.
According to M Naveen Saviour’s 2012 paper ‘Environmental impact of soil and sand mining: A Review’, published in the International Journal of Science, Environment and Technology, weak governance and rampant corruption are facilitating illegal mining leading to the depletion of water resources. The socio-economic significance of mining operations are often overlooked, and poor handling of resources, soil and sand mining activity is negatively impacting the environment.
Following a complaint on large scale illegal and impermissible mining activity on the bank of Yamuna, Ganga, Chambal, Gomati and Revati river, the National Green Tribunal, a special court set up to dispose off cases relating to environmental protection, held in August 2013 that the Ministry of Environment and Forest’s (MoEF) nod is a must for sand mining activity. The order stated that ‘Any person, company, authority who wishes to carry out any mining activity or removal of sand, from river beds anywhere in the country, have to obtain environmental clearance from the MoEF/ State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA). All the deputy commissioners, superintendent of police and mining authorities of all the respective states are directed to ensure compliance of these directions”. The Order further notes that, “the removal of minerals from the river beds is causing serious threat to the flow of the river, forests upon river bank and most seriously to the environment of these areas. It also adds that a majority of persons carrying out the mining activity of removing mineral from the riverbed had no license to extract sand and they had not obtained necessary clearance from MoEF/SEIAA at any stage.
The Supreme Court of India in the case of Deepak Kumar vs. State of Haryana clearly stated that sand mining on either side of the river, upstream and in-stream is one of the causes for environmental degradation and a threat to biodiversity. Various state governments, especially Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Goa, have been trying to address the issue and have put a temporary ban on sand mining. However, it only pressurises the adjoining regions where the implementation of laws was weak; and thus illegal operations continue to thrive. But, does a mere ban help the situation? Would not the construction industry face a set back and prices shoot up as the demand supply gap widened?
Pravin Pardeshi, Principal Secretary of Revenue and Forests, Maharashtra, in the news report ‘A ban on sand mining will not suffice’, February 2014, DNA Mumbai, opined that, “while it was impossible to control the growth of any sector abruptly, sand mining could be controlled in a way by using the sand trapped behind dams”. He further added that taxing the mining of natural sand and subsidising sand extracted from dam for construction can make people turn towards viable alternatives.
According to a European Commission DG ENV 2011 report ‘Taxes on natural resources reduce use of raw materials,’ published in the News Alert Issue 262, taxing on natural raw material such as gravel, sand and stones, as introduced in Denmark in 1990, was found be to effective in reducing the use of natural materials. In 1985, only 12 per cent of construction and demolition waste was recycled in Denmark, compared with 94 per cent in 2004. The Danish model of sorting construction and demolition waste at source is an effective strategy of increasing the supply of recycled material, according to the report.
Engineers and specialists have come out with their own ideas to minimise the use of river sand and use recent innovations such as M-Sand (manufactured sand), robot silica, stone crusher dust, treated and sieved silt removed from reservoirs as well as dams besides sand from other water bodies. The most preferred alternative to river sand is M-Sand procured through the processing of blue metal quarry dust.