Origins and reining in of sand mafias

Sand mining thrives because it is low investment, low risk, but promises high returns. A few roadblocks like Durga Shakti Nagpal notwithstanding

By Manoj Misra
Published: Monday 30 November -0001

Simply put, the sand mafias originated because the sand business is low investment, low risk and high returns, notwithstanding few roadblocks like Ms Durga Shakti Nagpal or the media taking up her cause as a cause celebre!

For they know well that with raw material (sand) in easy reach and end user (realty sector) little bothered wherefrom or legality of the ware, business as usual, no matter, shall prevail. Political patronage, pliant or still better colluding regulators and few muscled assistants shall be none too difficult to procure.

But is the scenario so straight forward? And is the muddled regulatory framework not to blame as well? Let us try and investigate.

It was only in September 2006, that the revised EIA notification enacted by the MoEF included ‘mining of minor minerals’ as an activity requiring prior environmental assessments and clearance. Before that such mining was regulated only as a revenue generating activity by the state departments of Mines, who had no mandate or concern if resulting from the mining activity, the river’s ecology or the local environment was on the line?  

The 2006 notification stipulated that any mining activity above 5 ha would require prior environmental clearance. The clearance was meant to be procured from the state EIA authority if the mining area ranged from 5 to 50 ha and from the central government if it equalled or exceeded 50 ha. Clearance from the central government was also required if the mining was proposed at any site that lay within 10 km of a notified protected, environmentally sensitive or critically polluted area or an international or inter-state border.  

The EIA notification was but silent and by implication suggested no prior environmental clearance for mining over an area less than 5 ha in extent. Lacuna that many state governments were quick to exploit by advertising mining leases, in extents, that fell short of five hectares.

MoEF realising the gravity of cumulative impact on environment of a number of small sized mining sites, set up an expert committee in 2009 to consider amongst other things, “the environmental aspects of mining of minor mineral (quarrying as well as river bed mining) for their integration into the mining process”.

The expert committee that included in addition to the officials from the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the representatives of Union ministry of Mines as well as  Water resources and number of state governments, submitted its final report in March 2010 and recommended a) minimum size of 5 ha of mine lease; b) preparation of comprehensive mine plans for contiguous stretches of mines; c) minimum mine lease period of 5 years so that eco-friendly scientific and sustainable mining practices could be adopted. Short term mining leases to meet contingencies could be given only to state agencies; d) adopt cluster approach in small sized mining leases and promote cluster environment management plans; e) preparation and approval of mine plans including the provision for reclamation and rehabilitation of mined out areas; f) preparation of corpus under the polluter pays principle for reclamation and rehabilitation of the mined out areas; g) depth of mining should not intersect the ground water table at any point of time.

Specifically for river bed mining the MoEF committee suggested a) specific river bed stretches should be identified for mining leases; b) depth of mining limited to 3 m or the water table which ever is less; e) a safety zone must be stipulated and no mining permitted there.

Additionally the Union Ministry of Mines, along with Indian Bureau of Mines and the state governments were charged with incorporation of the above in the MMDD Act, 1957, Mining Concession Rules, 1960 and the adoption of model guidelines, in the matter. Subsequently Model rules 2010 in the matter were published for inviting comments, by the Union Ministry of Mines on 16 May 2011. 

The above became a subject matter of a public interest litigation, PIL which was decided by the Supreme Court on 27 February 2012, with a direction that the state governments, the union territories, MoEF and the Ministry of Mines, would within 6 months, give effect to the recommendations made in the MoEF March 2010 report and the Model guidelines in the matter framed in 2010 by the Ministry of Mines, followed by a compliance report to the Court.

The SC in its order went on to direct that ‘we in the meanwhile order that leases of minor mineral including their renewal for an area of less than five hectares be granted by the States/Union Territories only after getting environmental clearance from the MoEF’.

An inadvertent but popular perception that flowed from the above order was that the SC had ‘banned’ mining in the river bed. The union and state governments rather demystify the SC order and take urgent steps in the matter as suggested by the SC, took their time to react and this led to the emergence of a powerful and well connected sand mafia, as feverish real estate activities in and around NCR (National Capital Region) and elsewhere, had to be fed, without a break.

The following observations of the SC in its order deserve reiteration.

“Sand mining, it may be noted, may have an adverse effect on bio-diversity as loss of habitat caused by sand mining will affect various species, flora and fauna and it may also destabilize the soil structure of river banks and often leaves isolated islands. We find that, taking note of those technical, scientific and environmental matters, MoEF, Government of India, issued various recommendations in March 2010 followed by the Model Rules, 2010 framed by the Ministry of Mines which have to be given effect to, inculcating the spirit of Article 48A, Article 51A(g) read with Article 21 of the Constitution”.

So, where do we go from here?


  1. Public at large must be informed that the Hon’ble SC has not banned but only directed in larger public interest for the institution of a well regulated and accountable system of mining of minor minerals, specifically sand mining from river beds.
  2. In the interim, let select state agencies, corporations etc be charged as per the provisions of law and the directions of the SC with carrying out mining of minor minerals to ensure continued supplies as well as to set a model code of conduct of mining including preparation of mining plans as well as reclamation and rehabilitation of mined out areas. 
  3. The still unregulated real estate sector that is one of the key drivers of sand mafias must itself be regulated on an urgent basis to encourage the emergence of well meaning, informed and prepared mining entrepreneurs rather the runaway mafias with all concomitant ills associated with ill gotten wealth and influences.

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