Enter Sandmen

Sand ahoy Labourers transport sand in boats after excavating it from the Yamuna in Allahabad
Sand ahoy Labourers transport sand in boats after excavating it from the Yamuna in Allahabad Photo: AP

UNTIL FIVE years ago, Abdul Razzak and his band of sand miners had it easy. After morning prayers, the men armed with spades would excavate sand from the Jhelum river in north Kashmir’s picturesque Shilwat village. Then, special boats known as bahach would lug the entire cache to the riverbank. By sunset, the sand dunes would end up in trucks and ultimately at the new housing colonies sprouting all over the Valley.

Today, Razzak & Co consider themselves lucky if they excavate a truckload of sand from the middle of the river.

“Where has all the sand gone? We tried searching for it near the places we had mined last year. What we found instead were mud, plastic bags and remains of clay pots,” says Razzak, 42, who has been in the sand mining business for 25 years. “There was a time when we would excavate five truckloads of sand every day. Today, it’s difficult to fill up even one truck.”

Just 2 km ahead, in Prang and Banyariare villages, rampant mining (both legal and illegal) has increased the turbidity of water, depleted fish stocks, and made both the riverbanks and water table recede. Four years ago, one could buy a truckload of sand for Rs 1,200. Now, it costs Rs 4,300.

This scene is playing out across India. In a country that is witnessing huge growth in infrastructure, sand is being mined from seashores, inland dunes and riverbeds to feed the construction industry’s hunger. Powered by mammoth spending on houses, malls, highways, etc, the investment in infrastructure has increased from 5.7 percent of the GDP in 2007 to nearly 8 percent by 2012. Planning Commission figures suggest that the investment in infrastructure during the 12th Five-year Plan (2012-17) would need to be around Rs 41 lakh crore.

If we grow at the same pace, we will be creating three more Indias in the next 25 years. All this means we will soon run out of legally-mined sand and whatever left will have to be acquired by illegal means.

“It’s time we started getting worried,” warns Construction Industry Development Council (CIDC) Director-General PR Swarup. “Twenty years down the line, things will look nasty. The amount of sand we are using pushes me to think that some alternatives to river sand must be utilised.”

Established by the Planning Commission in 1996, the CIDC advises the Centre on policy formulation. According to its figures, the construction industry creates assets worth Rs 4.18 lakh crore every year and grows by 7 percent. In the next 20 years, the same growth rate will see India creating assets worth Rs 16 lakh crore per year.

“We will be quadrupling our infrastructure. Where will we get the sand from? Builders have to use alternatives,” says Swarup, who suggests that the builders should use M-sand (manufactured sand obtained by crushing stones and rocks).

TEHELKA HAS chronicled illegal sand mining stories from Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, etc, but the big picture emerges only when you connect the dots.

Every year, India consumes 500 million tonnes of legally mined sand. But industry insiders say the figure could be four times more if illegally mined sand is included.

“The sand mafia has brazenly dug out tonnes of sand from the Narmada,” says social activist Dev Ram Kanera of Khaperkheda village in Madhya Pradesh. “We know what’s happening in Ganga, Indus, Krishna and other basins. They devastate one place and move to the next one.”

Kanera, 60, who is one of the Narmada Bachao Andolan’s oldest members, knows the clout of the sand mafia. On 5 December 2011, he had stopped illegal sand mining in Pichhodi village. Two days later, residents of Piplud village in Badwani district approached him for help to stop illegal sand mining in their area. “While I was on my way on a motorcycle, I was attacked by some unknown people. I fell down and fractured my right leg,” he says.

Kanera is lucky. Fuelled by illegally acquired river sand, India’s construction boom has taken lives of people too.

On 21 March 2012, Sathish Kumar, 21, was trying to stop some men from ferrying illegally mined sand from the Nambiyar river in Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district, when a sand-laden truck mowed him down, killing him instantly. Villagers had alleged that the truck belonged to an AIADMK functionary and the driver was his brother. In a similar incident, on 12 July 2012, constable Mahavir Singh, 46, was killed when a truck crushed him in Faridabad, Haryana. The truck was carrying sand illegally mined from the Yamuna.

And who can forget Swami Nigamananda, who died on 13 June 2011 after a 114- day fast to protest sand mining in Uttarakhand? He had fasted against illegal sand mining in the Ganga in 1998 too when the seer, along with members of Matri Sadan Ashram, sat on a satyagraha during the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar. They were demanding a ban on stone crushing and sand mining activities in the mela area. At the time, five ghats were affected by mining. Under pressure, the district authorities ordered a ban. Illegal mining stopped in three ghats, but continued in two others.

“How the government handled the issue can be understood from the sequence of events,” says Hemant Dhyani of Ganga Avhaan, an NGOworking to save the river. “It issued an order, and then the company approached the Uttarakhand High Court as an aggrieved party. The court asked for the government’s opinion, but it did not respond. The company got a stay on the government order, and then they continued to play this game for a long time.”

Besides being used locally, this sand also finds its way to Uttar Pradesh. According to a report by the Ministry of Housing and Poverty Alleviation last September on urban housing shortage for the 12th Plan, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Bihar, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu are the states that are home to 70 percent of India’s housing shortage.

India’s housing shortage stands at 18.78 million. This offers a huge investment opportunity for construction firms. And river sand is becoming a hot commodity for mining, which is regulated by law in many places, but is still often done illegally.

Water resources expert Himanshu Thakkar of the NGO South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People says that a lack of community-centered management of rivers is at the root of illegal sand mining. This makes it difficult for the authorities to crack the whip on the sand mafia. “Our perennial rivers are 45,041 km long. There is no credible figure on other water bodies. Monitoring them is impossible without the community’s help,” he says.

On the rampant use of river sand in construction, he says, “There is no mechanism to measure how much sand mining is sustainable and how much is replenished. Sand along the riverbed is a medium through which water is retained and percolates down. It’s a natural aquifer and recharge medium. Unsustainable sand mining lowers the water table too. Villages are already facing the consequences.”

In fact, the consequences of haphazard sand mining are evident in Punjab’s Ropar district. Here, until recently, earthmovers and other machines dug up the Sutlej, which saw the river changing its course and the embankments receding.

In Roopnagar village, Madi Singh excavates sand and ferries home the day’s cache on a horse cart from the Sutlej riverbed. Singh, 45, used to work for illegal sand mining contractors until the Punjab and Haryana High Court, following a Supreme Court order, made environment clearance mandatory for sand mining in quarries measuring less than five hectares.

The SC order (27 February 2012) had come on a Special Leave Petition on the auctioning of extraction of minor mineral boulder, gravel and sand quarries in Panchkula. The order by Justice KS Radhakrishnan and Justice Chandramauli K Prasad reads: “Over the years, India’s rivers and riparian ecology have been badly affected by the alarming rate of unrestricted sand mining, which damages the ecosystem of rivers, weakening of riverbeds, destruction of natural habitats of organisms living on the riverbeds, affects fish breeding and migration, spells disaster for the conservation of many bird species, etc.”

However, the order has brought only temporary relief. On 25 January, when TEHELKA visited the site, policemen in Chamkaur Sahib had impounded seven trucks carrying sand excavated illegally during the night near Attari village.

“A few months ago, a truckload of sand cost Rs 6,500. Now, it costs Rs 30,000. Those mining and ferrying sand to construction sites are minting gold,” says Singh.

BUT THE Supreme Court order has also pushed the construction industry into a crisis across the country. Many major projects have been halted and lakhs of workers in the industry have been hit hard.

There are no official employment numbers for India’s sand-mining industry. But since some 250 auxiliary industries such as brick, soil, cement, steel and other building material are dependent on the construction industry, the Builders Association of India (BAI) believes that 40 million people are associated with the trade, which is the second largest contributor to the country’s GDP after agriculture.

“That’s why we are worried. The ban has come without prescribing any alternative,” says BAI CEO Raju John. BAI has nearly 1 lakh government and private builders associated with it and has been using river sand for building roads and malls. John says builders can use M-sand, “but it isn’t effective in covering and plastering”.

John expresses surprise at Swarup’s suggestion of using M-sand saying, “In government contracts, there is a clause that builders should use only river sand in public projects. But in private properties they want us to use M-sand only.”

M-sand is made from stones, involving rock blasting and ferrying the stones to crushers. Although it is thought to be an alternative to river sand, it’s expensive.

“River sand is most suitable for building bridges and structures requiring concrete. Concrete requires a blend of coarse and fine aggregates. Crushed stone provides for the coarse aggregates whereas the properties required for fine aggregates are found in river sand,” says Vinod Kumar Menon, president of Mumbai-based IRB Infrastructure Developers. “Physical as well as chemical properties of crushed rock differ from river sand. However, a combination of both can give a good blend.”

And since it involves stone quarrying, experts like Himanshu Kulkarni, a geohydrologist of Pune-based Advanced Centre for Water Resources Development and Management, feels there is no robust alternative being thrown up. “On one hand, the ban on sand mining is being justified because it alters ecology. But stone quarrying too might lead to intense pressure on the Indian landscape,” he says.

While cities expand, sand miners like Abdul Razzak, who has been digging the Jhelum for years, see a bleak future. “Forget 20-30 years, people will start fighting for sand in five years’ time,” he warns.

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