Uncontrolled sand mining led to Kerala floods. This is only waiting to happen again

Damayanti Datta
Damayanti DattaAug 27, 2018 | 17:05

Uncontrolled sand mining led to Kerala floods. This is only waiting to happen again

Neyyattinkara on the banks of the Neyyar in South Kerala is now a forbidding landscape of swirling waters. There should be a rickety old hut at the end of a wobbly bridge somewhere out there. The solitary resident of that island, grandmother Darly, has been the voice of protest against illegal dredging of sand from the river bed for long.

Does anyone know where she is?


Up north, Kannur is still reeling under flood fury, with landslides and mudflows destroying everything on their way. Where is Jazeera V, the 30-something mother of three who hit the national headlines in 2013 for her sit-ins against rampant sand extraction shrinking the Neerozhukkumchal beach, now?

Jeered at by the police, ignored by policy-makers, attacked by the sand mafia, the two women have acquired a new salience, as Kerala struggles to recover from the floods and experts point a finger at a little-known cause of the damage: sand mining.

Sand for river

“The sand and gravel are one of the most important construction materials. Ensuring their availability is vital for the development of the infrastructure in the country.” So says a 2016 report of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (“Sustainable Sand Mining Management Guidelines”).

With skyrocketing demand, thanks to rapid urbanisation, the world is fast running out of sand. (Photo: PTI)

Unfortunately, sand is also essential for a river. Sand regulates a river’s flow, floodplains store water, recharge ground water, filter pollutants, allows aquatic life to thrive. When sand is taken out, water tables sink, rivers dry up, change course, banks collapse, floodplains get pitted with ponds, silt chokes rivers, vegetation and habitats get destroyed, dust pollution kicks in.


Missing data and plans

India has no record of the status of sand sources in a district, says the Ministry of Environment report. No data, too, on the demand or consumption of sand in India (although going by the spiralling rise of cement use in the last 20 years — from 1.37 billion tonnes in 1994 to 4.8 billion tonnes in 2016, one can make a guess). There is no estimate of permissible volume that can be extracted from a river, upstream or downstream, or height of a riverbed below which mining cannot occur; no bar on harmful extraction methods, depth of mining or minimising harmful effects; no long-term monitoring programme or annual status reports; no mandate on reclamation of river banks and beds. And, more than anything, there is no effort to move towards sand substitutes: quarry dust, incinerator ash, desert sand, manufactured sand, waste from steel industry and thermal power plants etc.

Uncontrolled extraction

With skyrocketing demand, thanks to rapid urbanisation, the world is fast running out of sand. That makes its extraction extremely profitable. The real danger, however, is illegal mining, worked through the sand mafia, real estate gangs, fake land registration goons and operators who exploit sand and rock resources.


As Kerala struggles to recover from the floods, experts point at a little-known cause: sand mining. (Photo: Reuters)

They make a whopping profit of about Rs 1,611 crore every year (as much as the Rafale deal) according to an Australian documentary, Line in the Sand (2017), persecute anyone trying to investigate or report on their activities and are hands in gloves with politicians. Across states their numbers are rising (according to a Lok Sabha starred question in February 2017): up from 6,777 cases of illegal sand mining filed in 2013-14 to 11,350 in 2015-16 in Uttar Pradesh; 740 to 1,478 in Jharkhand; 6,613 to 13, 541 in Madhya Pradesh; 7,206 to 9,683 in Andhra Pradesh.

Maharashtra accounts for almost 40% of India’s illegal sand mining (Lok Sabha, 2017) and penalises them the least. According to estimates by the Circle of Blue, US-based non-profit information and research platform on water security, between 5,500 and 6,000 truckloads, each measuring of 200 cubic feet of sand are mined in Tamil Nadu every day (the number is 90,000 truckloads or more according to activists). The estimated market rate per truck-load is of $300-$600, if those do not contain rare minerals, such as Ilmenite and Thorium, that is.

Might of mafia

The Supreme Court in a 2012 judgement has issued clear directions that sand mining can’t be done without the Central government’s approval. The National Green Tribunal has reiterated the order, restricting sand mining on riverbeds. But nothing has really worked; instead, there have been a series of mysterious deaths of people who dared to take on the sand mafia: IPS officer Narendra Kumar Singh in 2012, activist Pale Ram Chauhan in 2013, IAS officer DK Ravi in 2015, journalist Sandeep Sharma, village sarpanch Raghuveer Singh Meena in 2018.

Numerous others have been threatened and attacked by the powerful mafia: in 2013, Durga Shakti Nagpal, IAS officer who had cracked down on sand mafia in Uttar Pradesh, was suspended. Activists of the Awaaz Foundation, which has led the anti-sand mining campaign in India since 2004, report that the sand mafia provide funding to political parties and a number of ministers across the country are involved in quarry businesses themselves, through proxy. Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi spilled the beans in August 2017 when he said, “The sand mafia fund political parties.”

Wake up call in Kerala

The warning signs have been there. Kerala has lost 50% of its forest cover between 1973 and 2016, thanks to roads and dams, commercial plantations and illegal sand mining. In 2012, a sand audit of 11 rivers reported that indiscriminate mining of sand had narrowed down the width of most rivers. The thick sand carpet of 15-20 feet on the Pampa riverbed had disappeared, reported the Pampa Parirakshana Samithi.

Intensive and indiscriminate mining from small deposits of sand has damaged river ecosystems — the recent floods prove it. (Photo: Reuters)

In 2015, the Kerala government banned sand mining on six rivers: Neyyar, Vamanapuram, Kallada, Kuttiyadi, Kabani and Chandragiri, but that did not quite stop illegal mining. In March 2017, the Minister for Public Works Department, G Sudhakaran, told journalists that about 100 bridges were in danger due to indiscriminate sand mining. Kerala fishermen protested government proposals of coastal sand mining in March 2017: riverbanks were caving in and seawater was entering rivers, they said.

Nipah before the flood

Not many link the biggest wake-up call, the Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala, with indiscriminate sand mining. Truth is, as one of the richest biodiversity hotspots in the world, Kerala is particularly vulnerable to infectious zoonotic diseases. Kerala has had at least one new infection every year since the 1970s: from Bird Flu to Swine Flu, SARS to MERS, Ebola to Zika and finally the Nipah outbreak this year.

All these diseases appear in areas that have gone through large-scale change in land use and human activity, leading to loss of forest cover. Infections spread fast here, because wildlife — carriers of some of the viruses — move closer to humans. In the case of Nipah, fruit bats had migrated in thousands to the edges of villages, cities and towns in search of food, and started living in close proximity to humans.

Land of small rivers

Kerala's economy has been changing for a while, with share of the secondary sector increasing exponentially in the Gross State Domestic Product. The biggest driver of this change is an unprecedented construction boom. And this has led to rising demands for sand. Yet the state’s rivers are small in size: less than 150km in length, with a catchment area of not more than 6200km and limited sand reserve. This has led to intensive and indiscriminate mining from small deposits of sand, damaging river ecosystems — as the recent floods prove.

But it’s not just Kerala. Almost each and every of India’s 400-plus rivers is in the grip of the sand mining mafia. There’s a devastation waiting to happen anywhere and everywhere. And the bad news is, time is seriously running out.

Last updated: August 27, 2018 | 17:05
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