The Supreme Court on Wednesday was surprised to learn that rampant illegal sand mining was in progress in Rajasthan, despite the ban on such activities years ago. Taking a strong view on the matter, the top court directed the state government and an array of high-ranking officials in administration and police to take immediate steps in the matter. A bench headed by Chief Justice S.A. Bobde and comprising Justices B.R. Gavai and Surya Kant sought a report from the state government within four weeks on action taken.
Facts of the case
Seeking an action taken report from the state government within four weeks, the bench headed by Chief Justice SA Bobde said illegal sand mining is likely to “damage the environment irreparably”. The bench, which also comprised Justices BR Gavai and Surya Kant, also directed the Supreme Court appointed Central Empowered Committee to look into the issue of illegal sand mining and submit a report suggesting measures to deal with it. The bench said that the Central Empowered Committee would also consider the problem faced by sand traders, transporters and other stakeholders and it will have the authority to summon any person including government officials with the purpose of holding the probe. The bench said that the Central Empowered Committee will submit its report within six weeks. The Supreme Court was hearing a batch of petitions relating to sand mining in Rajasthan. The top court in 2017 had ordered stopping of illegal sand mining in Rajasthan. The order was passed during the hearing of appeals against a 2019 Rajasthan High Court judgment, which had turned down a plea by holders of Letter of Intent (LoI) challenging conditions mandated by the Rajasthan government for obtaining mining leases.
A CAG report tabled in Rajasthan Assembly in February last year revealed that the Supreme Court orders on mining are violated. CAG observed that illegal mining activities were rampant in the state and there were inadequacies in preventing illegal mining. “There was lack of deterrence due to delay in issue of notices raising demand and recovery of the penal amount from illegal miners. Also, there was slackness in implementing policy measures to curb illegal mining,” the report reads.
Comptroller and Auditor General report
According to the report, a scrutiny of the records of nine superintending mining engineers (SME) or mining engineers (ME) in five districts – Alwar, Jaipur, Sikar, Rajsamand and Udaipur – revealed that these offices registered 4,072 cases of illegal mining, transportation and storage of minerals during 2011-12 to 2016-17. “Around 98.87 lakh metric tonnes of minerals were found to have been illegally excavated (during 2011-12 to 2016-17). 204.50 crore,” the CAG report on the economic sector for the financial year ended March 31, 2017 said. Mining mafias are also using the best technologies to dig out sand from river beds. Recently, in February, in a crackdown against illegal river sand mining in Dungarpur’s Som River, police seized 12 high-tech boats fitted with dredging implements. Rights groups complain that successive governments have failed to solve the problem of illegal mining that takes place across river belts and mountainous regions in the state. Kailash Meena, a social worker fighting against illegal sand and gravel mining in state said that despite repeated orders from the Supreme Court and High Court all governments have failed to curb illegal ‘bajri’ mining in the state. The action taken by various enforcement agencies is just perfunctory, he alleged. The Apex Court on February 4 had slammed the Rajasthan administration for illegal mining in the Aravali area and said that the entire government machinery in the state was rotten. The Supreme Court said, “The entire government machinery is rotten in Rajasthan, and the officials are hand in glove with those who are indulging in illegal mining in Aravali area of the state.” Police said they were taken aback to find improvised boats in the middle of the river. “The boats had 250mm pipe to dredge fine sand from the river. After draining water from it, the sand is shifted to another boat with another pipe. Each of these other boats had the capacity to load 10 tonnes of sand,” said Dungapur’s Superintendent of Police Shankar Dutt Sharma, who supervised the operation. The High-Tech boats were so heavy that police called a team of State Disaster Relief Force (SDRF) from Udaipur to bring them to the riverbank.
According to official data of mines department between year 2014 and 2017, 2514 cases of illegal mining were registered across the state by the mining department. The top five states with maximum number of cases were Bhilwara (261), Nagaur (180), Sikar (167), Jaipur (167) and Jhunjhunu (156). The police department also registered 7,905 cases of illegal transport of river sand. Maximum number of cases were registered in Alwar (2421), Bikaner (1388) and Dhaulpur (811) under different sections of the Indian Penal Code, the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act and Rajasthan Mining Rules. Director of mines and geology department Jitendra Kumar Upadhyay said that the top court is of the view that mining across river beds should be banned completely, which is making the department helpless.
The secret behind the illegal sand mining
Sand is an important component needed for construction. But there are only a few state approved areas from which licensed contractors can mine sand after receiving environmental clearances. Consequently, the process of acquiring it becomes expensive and time taking for builders. Even the amount of sand available for construction would be limited. Hence, numerous illegal sand mines guarded by dangerous mafias have cropped up in almost every state. Rampant or, as the government refers to it, “unscientific” mining for construction material has had an adverse impact on major rivers and their surrounding ecology. Indiscriminate extraction of sand from floodplains or river banks destroys the flora and fauna and decreases fertility of the land. Similarly, dredging river beds or instream mining kicks up loose sediment particles into the water body, thereby polluting it and damaging the health of aquatic life. Additionally, the course of the river is altered and so is its speed. Without enough sand in the river bed to act as a buffer, the river’s velocity increases leading to erosion of adjoining banks and downstream flooding. Infrastructure like bridges and embankments become vulnerable to damage due to such dredging. Local residents too suffer from contaminated water supply and decreased ground-water levels. There have been several attempts by State and Central Governments and the Judiciary to restrict illegal mining, most notably the Supreme Court’s order in 2012 that banned all sand mining, including that on land less than five hectares, without the approval of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). The National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2013 issued notices against violators of the SC order, following a petition filed by the NGT Bar Association. The Tribunal also directed existing mining lease holders to get environmental clearances from the MoEF, giving them three months’ time to do so. Despite such efforts, by state representatives as well as the public, sand miners have managed to protect their illicit operations and continue to feed the construction sector:
Extensive illegal mining is prevalent in the state of Andhra Pradesh, especially in districts such as Guntur, Krishna, Srikakulam and East Godavari. An estimated 2,000 trucks of sand are transported to Hyderabad every day. Now that the foundation stone has beenlaid for the new capital Amaravati, there will surely be a surge in sand extraction activities. The city is set to develop along the banks of the Krishna River, which has an abundance of sand deposits.
In Kerala, tributaries of major rivers such as the Pampa and the Manimala have become thin stretches due to years of unsustainable sand mining. The Bharathapuzha and the Periyar rivers, the largest in the state, have been acutely degraded, with the Bharathapuzha now almost dead. The districts and villages that depend upon these rivers are facing a severe water shortage. And it’s not just rivers, the hills that are being plundered as well. The Mookkunnimala hill near the capital Thiruvanathapuram is being stripped of its green cover for sand in spite of protests. The state government instituted a ban on sand mining in six rivers including the Neyyar and Chandragiri in 2015. However, bans have failed to stop miners in the past, as was evident in the case of Andhakaranazhi beach where locals continued to gather sand despite prohibitions.
The Yamuna river has been drained of its life through unceasing pollution. As if it is not enough that all manner of waste is dumped into it like a pit, precious sand and minerals are mindlessly extracted from its floodplains as well. Farmers also mine on their agricultural lands to make easy money. However, a state authorised study found that the productivity of such lands decreases for a few years after mining. The mined sand is mainly used for small local constructions in the state. The NGT had completely banned sand mining on the banks of the river in 2015 pending an investigation, though the state denied that any illegal mining took place. The government was again criticised by the Tribunal the following year for failing to curb unsanctioned mining in the area.
The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) once again came to the rescue of the river, which flows through the state, when Medha Patkar filed a complaint with the NGT against illegal mining in four districts near the Sardar Sarovar Dam project. The complaint also claimed that NBA volunteers were threatened by the sand mafia. The NGT followed up by appointing two commissioners to inspect, who found widespread violation of laws and environmental rules in the districts. Sand mining has degraded the Narmada River and its banks as well as affected agriculture and fishing in the region. The government has not been able to effectively control indiscriminate mining. In fact, the mafia has openly attacked and threatened police officials, journalists and locals for stepping in their way.
The Matri Sadan Ashram in Haridwar is famous for its fight against the sand mafia in the state. Following the death of Swami Nigamananda, who fasted for 115 days to protest against illegal mining on the Ganga River, under mysterious circumstances in 2011, mining activity reduced in the region. However, the decline was temporary and the activity picked up again in 2014. Other districts in the state are exploited in a similar manner. The Union MoEF in fact allowed sand mining in the Baur River in the Terai region, an environmentally sensitive area. The flash floods which ravaged the state in 2013, claiming the lives of more than 6,000 people, were primarily caused by excessive mining on floodplains. Despite the massive reality check, illegal sand mining is being carried out unabated in the state.
Edited by Pragash Boopal
Approved & Published – Sakshi Raje