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A line drawn in sand
Sand mining impacts the river’s ecosystem. Can court orders salvage the environment?
To put the brakes on illegal sand extraction, the Supreme Court, on February 27, made environmental clearance mandatory for all mining sites. Minor mineral mines will now have to undergo the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process under the Environment Protection Act of 1986, the court said. Till then, EIA was conducted only for mining major minerals like bauxite, coal and iron ore and for minor minerals mined in more than 5 hectare (ha).
The order came after the Central Empowered Committee, appointed by the Supreme Court, found large-scale illegal mining in five districts of Rajasthan, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Even the mines with legal status had not applied for an environmental clearance.
“In many cases, the sand excavated (legal and illegal) is not subjected to any kind of environmental impact assessment,” says N B Narasimha Prasad, executive director of the Centre for Water Resources Development and Management at Kozhikode. This is when riverbed mining has an impact on the ecosystem throughout the stretch of the river, right from the generation of sand to its deposition at sea coasts, he says.
In June and August last year, the Haryana government issued auction notices permitting quarrying, mining and removal of sand from in-stream and upstream of the rivers Yamuna, Tangri, Markanda, Ghaggar, Krishnavati and Dohan without an EIA. Most of these sites measured less than five ha, but were contiguous. Reacting to this, the court noted: “Extraction of alluvial material within or near a riverbed impacts the river’s physical characteristics like stability, flood risk, environmental degradation, loss of habitat and biodiversity. It is not an answer to say that extraction is in blocks of less than five hectares and separated by a kilometre because its collective impact may be significant.”
Studies conducted in Kerala and Karnataka show the effect of mining on floodplains of small river ecosystems is alarming. In 2009, the Centre for Earth Science Studies at Thiruvananthapuram, conducted research on southwest India’s three river basins—Chalakudy, Periyar and Muvattupuzha. It found negative impact of sand mining on land stability, soil structure, river bed, surface water, in-stream flora and fauna, sand bars, fishing and agriculture in the region. A total of 8.76 million tonnes per year of in-stream sand and 2.76 million tonnes per year of floodplain sand was removed from the midland and lowland reaches of these rivers, the study found. This was to meet the needs of the fast developing urban-cum-industrial centre, Ernakulam, and its satellite towns.
More than 60 per cent of the wells in the floodplains are drying up. This is because excessive sand mining is lowering the riverbed. “The fluvial landforms like sand bars within the river channel are modified or even totally erased from midlands. Pits of various dimensions have formed in riverbeds due to indiscriminate sand and gravel mining,” the study states.
The rate of failure of irrigation wells in areas where sand was mined was 46 per cent in 2005, says a study conducted along the Uttara Pinakini river in Gauribidanur, Karnataka. Compared to this, in non-mining areas the rate was 29 per cent. The study was conducted by the department of agricultural economics, University of Agriculture Sciences, Bengaluru. On an average, only 2.1 million litres of water could be drawn from wells in mining areas compared to 3.3 million litres from wells in non-mining areas.
Sand in the riparian areas serves as a spongy layer and helps recharge groundwater through percolation of water from different layers of sand. “When sand mining becomes intense, vertical and lateral movement of water is checked affecting groundwater recharge,” the study explains.
The past few decades of indiscriminate mining have led to destruction of riparian vegetation which acts as resting and nesting ground of many migratory birds. The in-stream fish wealth of rivers is also decreasing, says the research by the Centre for Earth Science Studies.
Three decades ago, mining began along the Kali river in Karwar, a township in Karnataka’s Uttara Kanada district. The Kali flows into the Arabian Sea forming an estuary. Mining there has forced the fisher community to migrate on a large scale because fish catch has reduced by about 90 per cent, claims Uday Shankar Pose, president of Fisheries Cooperative Society, Karwar. The problem was compounded about a decade ago when mechanical excavation of sand began.
Manual excavation is the only scientific way of excavating sand from rivers, says V N Nayak, professor at the department of studies in marine biology, Karnataka University. Only accumulated sand should be excavated from estuaries, he says.
Despite a ban on mechanised sand mining by the Karnataka High Court in 2011, about 250 boats carry sand from the Kali to parts of Karnataka every day. The carrying capacity of one boat is equal to that of three trucks, says Pose. Movement of heavy boats and excavation machinery causes massive water, sound and air pollution driving fish away, says Mukesh Harikant, fisherman at Karwar. They also cut the fishing nets. “The monthly expenditure on net repair is about Rs 1 lakh. It has become impossible for us to continue our traditional business,” he says.
Goa witnessed a construction boom around five years ago because of which prices suddenly shot up and many influential people started getting attracted to the illegal business, says B S Pai, advocate based in Karwar fighting against sand mining. “They stationed JCB machines on river banks to excavate, load and unload sand. This led to massive erosion of the river banks affecting agriculture. Small islands within the river also got destroyed,” he adds.
High courts of many states have tried to salvage the sand mining sector, but have met with little success. With growing realty and infrastructure sectors, a middle path is required that does not ruin the riparian ecology.
State governments, which have so far abetted illegal mining, voluntarily or involuntarily, need to become accountable. But foremost, this common mineral should no longer be treated as plain vanilla but be given the same stature as other prized minerals like iron and bauxite.