Lift your head from the sand

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

imageThe outrage over the suspension of an official, Durga Shakti Nagpal, for simply doing her job—check illegal sand mining in the rivers of Uttar Pradesh—has highlighted a crucial issue. It is now evident that illegal mining of sand from rivers and beaches is rampant and the underbelly of this industry (I’m calling it industry for want of a better word) is powerful and connected. Worse still, all this is happening in violation of the orders of the apex court of the country. Before this brouhaha dies down we need to discuss and resolve the way to control this business, which is operated at small scales in scattered locations and managed by local goons and thugs. It is not an industry that makes for easy regulation.

But regulation is a must. Sand removal has always been done to de-silt rivers and channelise the flow. But never in this rapacious manner—the river is literally wiped clean from the bottom. As a result, the crucial recharge zone—think of it as a sponge that holds water and slowly seeps it out into the surrounding for use—is destroyed. The river is hollowed out, its ecology disturbed and fish habitats damaged. Removal of sand, therefore, needs to be assessed for environmental damage, restricted and carefully regulated.

But sand has slipped through the cracks in the regulatory system for many years. All till construction industry boomed and extraction shot up. Sand, gravel and stone are the raw material that drive this sector, which is registering a 10 per cent growth annually. We do not realise that the concrete house we build is two parts of sand, four parts of stone and gravel and only one part of cement. Not surprisingly, there are no estimates of the amount of this natural material required. Everyone plans for cement but forgets it is only a binder. The river pays the cost.

Sand is classified as a minor mineral, which means state governments are allowed to set rules and auction this resource. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) rules do not categorise minerals as minor or major; they just stipulate that environmental clearance is needed only for mining leases over 5 hectares. So sand mining was thriving unchecked.

In February 2012, while listening to the case of auction of leases in rivers across Haryana, the Supreme Court set the matter right. It asked state governments to amend rules to regulate mining of minor minerals and to ensure environmental management. Till this was done, it directed, all minor minerals would require environmental clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). By May 2012, MoEF had washed its hands of the responsibility by devolving it to the state environment impact assessment authorities (SEIA).

Two issues further complicated this decision. One, back in 2000 the Ministry of Mines had classified “ordinary earth” as minor mineral. This meant all earth needed for road construction and brick kilns would come under the ambit of this decision. Two, EIA rules stipulate that if any activity is within 10 km of a notified sanctuary or national park then the environmental clearance will be given by the Central government. The states passed the buck back to MoEF in many cases.

Nobody made the effort to put in place a system for clearance of the scattered, small leases. So either mining continues as before—only this time with the stamp of clearance from SEIA—or it moves to the illegal dark side. A few months ago, all members of the Maharashtra SEIA resigned in protest against the lack of controls over sand mining and pressure on them to clear leases at all costs.

What needs to be done? First, illegal mining must be stopped. It is for this reason that the Nagpal case is so critical.

Second, rules for legal and regulated mining of such minerals should be treated as critical. Plan the mining areas as clusters. Give clearance to certain minimum plot sizes and, most importantly, do cumulative and regional-level environmental impact assessments to estimate the hydro-geology of the stretch and the amount of sand that can be extracted from it sustainably. These extraction zones should be geo-referenced and carefully monitored. But again, all this will remain on paper if enforcement is not strengthened and officials are not allowed to do their work.

Thirdly, we need alternatives for sand and other natural aggregates in construction. If concrete is the second most consumed material after water—as is said—and Indians still use much less than global average, then we will only need more. If our rivers are already crying for help, think of what will happen when more houses, flyovers, roads and malls are built. Now when I see a building, I think of a river. We need new solutions.

But the standard laid down by the Bureau of Indian Standards, used compulsorily in all construction, stipulates that concrete can be made only with “naturally accessed material”. This rules out the use of recycled material such as copper slag and construction waste, which is widely used in other parts of the world for aggregates.

This will have to change. Otherwise there will be no rivers but sand, only sand.

Order of the National Green Tribunal on illegal mining dated 14/08/2013

Constitution of a Committee to enquire into the adverse environmental impact of the alleged illegal sand mining in Gautam Budh Nagar, Uttar Pradesh

Site visit to ascertain the factual position of illegal sand mining in Gautam Budh Nagar, Uttar Pradesh

Order of the National Green Tribunal on mining activity on the banks of rivers dated 05/08/2013

Application of the National Green Tribunal Bar Association illegal sand mining in the Yamuna riverbed, August 2013

Supreme Court order dated 27/02/2012 on quarrying in the river beds of Yamuna, Tangri, Markanda, Ghaggar, Krishnavati River basin, Dohan River basins

Report of the expert group (set up by MoEF) on environmental aspects of quarrying of minor minerals

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  • I read the article very

    I read the article very closely. I understood the crucial problem in almost all emerging countries where I have worked in urban & environmental field. It is a very crucial environmental problems but to fight against this crime, all the laws are of nouse unless a systemic approach to this problem is established and adopted by the country's parliament.The first question is : Why this illegal sand picking? The answer lies here: The recent spree ( more than 500├╣ increase) in building activities in all towns & cities of all the emerging countries (Asia, Africa, Latin America, Middle East and Eastern European countries). To meet the demand in sand some countries (like China,Quatar, Singapore, Hong Kong,etc.) import river sand from other countries and the government concerne are aware of this fact. On the other hand, the enterprises who explored this chain do not pay any damn concerne on the effect of this activity (control, river training, etc.) Unless this thirst on building activities are checked in a national as well as regional way, this crime remains unpunished. Its simply the law of demand & supply. The same phenomenon can be observed in the matter of cereals growth and primary materials. Demanding countries plunder the supply countries. This comes under the jurisdiction of UN organisation, but it is a completely failed organisation and the play stick of these plundering nations!! Who is going to stop or even control the unjustified demand of world's urban development activities at the cost of our planet's assets and stability? Who is going to punish these criminals working in free market? Which government has the capacity to stop this criminality as it gives employments and money to its nation? How UN can stop this crimes when it structure system is based on member states' representatives (government officials following governmental dictation)agaist only observation status of NGOs who are much more aware of these crimes??? Dr. Hari Baral, Paris,

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Following is needed: (i)

    Following is needed:
    (i) Review of minor mineral classification, rules to grant leases and concessions inclusive of Environmental Clearance processes.

    (2) Strengthening of monitoring of mining/quarrying of minor minerals

    (3) Bringing mining/quarrying and assessment of minor minerals under the purview of State Govt. Geology/Mining Department.

    (4) Revenue collection to be done by the State Govt. Geology/Mining Department.

    (5) Single window system at State Govt. Geology/Mining Department for grant of lease for assessment/prospecting and mining/quarrying.

    (6) Preparation of a check list to be followed for grant of lease for assessment/prospecting and mining/quarrying of minor minerals.

    (7) The system of control of minor minerals by Forest and local bodies be done away with.

    (8) State Govt. Geology/Mining Department be headed by qualified Geology incumbent.

    (9) Strengthening/up gradation of State Govt. Geology/Mining Department in terms of manpower, equipments and infrastructure and should be seen as a major revenue earning organisation.

    (10) A Board of Management be constituted at the Centre preferably in the Department of Mines, Govt. of India to supervise/monitoring of working of State Govt. Geology/Mining Department throughout the country.

    (11) All minerals inclusive of minor minerals, atomic minerals, hydrocarbons, fossil fuels be declared as National Asset, necessary amendments need to be made in MMRD Act for it without altering the existing provisions related to rights of State Govt. on minerals and grant of lease etc. provisions.

    (12) All mining/quarrying activities irrespective of size of area and quantity need to be granted by State Govt. Geology/Mining Department within a stipulated time frame. Failure to grant permission/approval/ clearances within the time frame be deemed as grant of permission/clearance and all consequential liabilities in such cases would rest on State Govt. Geology/Mining Department.

    (13) All mining/quarrying activities irrespective of size of area and quantity need to be covered under the provisions of MoEF for necessary clearances within a stipulated time frame. Failure to grant permission/approval/ clearances within the time frame be deemed as grant of permission/clearance and all consequential liabilities in such cases would rest on MoEF.


    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • As I have said elsewhere, the

    As I have said elsewhere, the current and projected demand for sand is so staggering, that perhaps much more attention needs to be paid to its demand management. In the Himalayas for instance, greater use of timber, stone, slate and mud as was the norm in the 19th and most of the 20th centuries, can be revitalized through appropriate incentives. Government buildings which are the bulk of construction activity could lead by example. Such buildings would also be solar passive and 'greener'. In the plains there are several alternatives to totally cementing up 'real estate'. Have you noticed how PWDs keep knocking down stone kerbs and drains and then concreting / cementing them up? This is a favourite past time in big cities like Delhi. Similarly existing stone parapets are continuously being replaced by cement concrete ones. Sheer waste! Most walls (including outsides of government residential building blocks) are unnecessarily plastered with cement, and then not maintained resulting in depressing, ugly, grey or blackish urban ÔÇÿsceneryÔÇÖ. Huge sand guzzling boundary walls around every conceivable plot of land is the urban norm; whereas live fences would do equally well and be a lot more pleasing to the eye. Paths, walkways even inside parks and gardens are made of cement when flat stones would be an attractive alternative. Above all, good applied research in reducing use of sand-cement and bringing in alternative materials (there are many I am sure) as a matter of urgency is a call for all governments to take. I am certain there are a thousand other ways to cut down use of sand-cement, but who is listening?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Indians need housing which

    Indians need housing which needs sand.

    The Arabian gulf states have used desert sand for many years.

    India must use desert sand like Arabia.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Substituting river sands by

    Substituting river sands by desert sand is a good idea, its suitability and transportation costs vis-a-vis bulk requirements close to construction site (remember its a low cost high volume commodity).

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Almost as rampant is top soil

    Almost as rampant is top soil mining in western Uttar Pradesh. The farmers cry afterwards!!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Apart from environmental

    Apart from environmental damage, there is one more serious dimension to sand mining from rivers. Haphazard sand mining in river causes large cavities on river beds. When the river is full with water, people not aware of these cavities, jump for swimming, especially children and youth and gets trapped in these cavities. It is impossible to come out from these cavities and in this way, every year hundreds of innocent people die for no fault of their own. In fact, sand mining must be done in protected & defined enclosed area so that precautions can be exercised to prevent common man to enter and jump for swimming.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • We need River Borne Material

    We need River Borne Material (RBM) including of sand, we need regulated and well monitored mining/quarrying and it is not been done as usual, that's the crux of the problem as is common in all spheres of life in the country.
    It should be done forthwith through State Geology and Mining Departments which need to be strengthen as I have already stated in previous post; at present most of these DGMs are defunct or are in hibernation.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply