The Bloody World of India’s Illegal Sand Mining: At least 193 killed since Jan 2019

Between January 2019 and November 2020, more than eight people a month have lost their lives in the country due to illegal sand mining. Despite stringent laws, the sand mafia continues to grow, killing both people and the ecology.

Shivani Gupta
| Updated: November 23rd, 2020

Sand Mining in River Yamuna, Kanalsi village, Haryana. Photo: Surendar Solanki

On November 8, when Sonu Kumar Chaudhary, a young police constable from Agra, Uttar Pradesh, was chasing a sand-laden tractor-trolley on his motorcycle, he was run over by the vehicle, allegedly engaged by the local mafia for transporting illegally-mined sand.

The very same day, 26-year-old G Moses, a television journalist in Tamil Nadu, probing illegal sand mining, was hacked to death.

Chaudhary and Moses are just two of the many victims of the sand mafia — an unholy nexus of contractors, politicians, trade union leaders, panchayat (local officials) and revenue officials, and corrupt policemen. 

As per the latest data compiled by South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), a network working on issues related to rivers, between January 2019 and November 2020, 193 people have died due to illegal river sand mining incidents/accidents in India. This comes to more than eight people dying due to illegal sand mining. In 2018, only 28 deaths due to illegal sand mining were reported. 

Death toll in India due to illegal sand mining since January 2019. Source: SANDRP

“We have scanned news reports from various states to compile this data on deaths due to illegal sand mining in the country. But 193 deaths since last January is a conservative estimate as not all such deaths get reported,” Bhim Singh Rawat, associate coordinator of SANDRP told Gaon Connection.

“Majority of deaths related to illegal sand mining are of children who fall in illegal sand mining pits and die. Second reason for such deaths is rash driving by trucks transporting the mined sand,” he added.

The government data also points towards illegal sand mining in the country. The Union environment ministry submitted a report before the Rajya Sabha this year that there were 4.16 lakh cases of illegal mining recorded between 2013 and 2017. Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka accounted for the most number of cases.

Images of government officials, journalists, activists attacked by illegal sand miners in India in 2019-20. Source: SANDRP

Meanwhile, the Guidelines of Sand Mining 2020 by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change also note, “ … in the recent past, it has been observed that there was a large number of illegal mining cases in the country and in some cases, many of the officers lost their lives while executing their duties for curbing illegal mining incidences … ”

Illegal sand mining — extraction of sand from riverbeds, lakes and reservoirs and agricultural fields — is taking a toll on both the environment and human lives. This sand is often used in manufacturing and construction activities.

Be it local officials, activists or journalists, anyone trying to expose illegal mining activities is manhandled, threatened or even murdered. Sometimes their families are kept under unlawful detention.

Illegal sand mining on either direction of rivers — upstream and in-stream — is one of the causes for environmental degradation. It is also a threat to biodiversity. “Over the years, India’s rivers and riparian ecology have been badly affected by the alarming rate of unrestricted sand mining,” said Lara Jesani, advocate, Bombay High Court and National Green Tribunal (NGT) in a recent webinar ‘Is Sand Mining Killing Our Rivers’ organised by India Rivers Forum on  November 17. “Sand mining damages the ecosystem of rivers and the safety of bridges, weakens riverbeds, destroys natural habitats of organisms living on riverbeds, affects fish breeding and migration, and increases saline water in the rivers,” she added. 

Disturbing images taken on May 27, 2020 display brazen riverbed mining in Yamuna river in Dehradun, Uttarakhand. Photo: SANDRP

Pan-India problem, global concern

Sand mining is a pan-India problem. It is prevalent in the Garo Hills in Meghalaya, the Sutlej in Punjab, Yamuna in Delhi, the Ganga in Haridwar, Urmil and Betwa in Bundelkhand, Kosi in Bihar, the Chambal and Narmada in Madhya Pradesh, Ojat in Gujarat, the Subarnarekha in Odisha, Musi in Telangana, Netravati and Phalguni rivers in Karnataka, Godavari and Krishna in Andhra Pradesh, and Cauvery in Tamil Nadu. 

“I don’t see any river which is free from sand mining. The plight of interstate rivers is the worst —  they are mined on both borders,” said Rawat.

As per the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the global demand for sand and gravel stands between 40 billion and 50 billion tonnes annually, and its scarcity is an emerging global crisis. The demand for sand is only expected to rise. And high demand and limited supply is leading to sand wars and killings.

Trucks being loaded with sand mined in Yamuna river in Yamuna Nagar, Haryana, taken in Oct. 2019. Photo: Bhim Singh Rawat/SANDRP.

According to the Sand Mining Framework, 2018 , there is a shortage of sand in the country. It estimated that the demand for sand in India is around 700 million tonnes (in 2017) and it is increasing at the rate of six-seven per cent annually.

“Sand will always be in demand. If you don’t work constantly on sand mining, it won’t stop. It is civil society that has to step up because only that has the potential to bring some change,” said Durga Shakti Nagpal, an Indian Administrative Officer, at the recent webinar on Is Sand Mining killing our rivers? Nagpal is a former sub-divisional magistrate of Gautam Buddha Nagar, Uttar Pradesh. She has seized 100 trucks and JCBs involved in mining, and registered 90 First Information Reports, and recovered royalty worth Rs 80 crore.

Children often fall victim to deep pits left behind after illegal sand mining on riverbeds too.

Deep mine pits all over Yamuna riverbed in Haripur, Uttarakhand. Photo: SANDRP

How sand mining kills rivers

Large-scale sand mining not only destabilises the banks and riverbeds but also affects the natural flow of rivers. This increases the risk of floods. A 2019 overview of sand mining in Kerala showed how illegal mining of rivers had played its part in aggravating the severe August 2018 floods. 

“When extraction is done rampantly without any norms or standards, a river starts changing its course, and, as a result, the floodplains go deeper and deeper and there are greater chances of floods,” said Nagpal.

Andhra Pradesh-based conservationist Satyanarayana Bolishetty agreed. “Sand is an important organ of the river. When it rains, water is retained in the sand. And the river draws this water when there is no rain. Sand helps in groundwater recharge,” he said. 

A recent study by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) shows mining is responsible for a 90 per cent drop in sediment levels in major Asian rivers, including the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Meghna, Mekong and Yangtze. This has resulted in shrinking of the delta regions of these rivers, leaving local people extremely vulnerable to floods, land loss, contaminated drinking water and crop damage.

Stripping rivers of their sand causes water tables to drop — a serious concern in India, where millions already face severe water shortage.

Legal sand mining can also be illegal. “In legal sand mining, you have to take the consent of the respective departments. But, while permission may be granted for digging three metres, it often gets extended to a ten-metre stretch,” Vikrant Tongad, environmentalist based in Greater Noida, and founder Social Action for Forest & Environment, a non-profit working for environmental issues, explained to Gaon Connection.

Illegal sand mining has grown exponentially in the country ever since the 1990s. Photo: Surendar Solanki

How effective are the existing laws?

Mines and Mineral (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957 of India regulates the mining activities in the country. Despite a set of guidelines to curb the practice, illegal and unsustainable sand mining has continued, spurring the Indian government to take another step toward enforcing rules.

As per the National Green Tribunal (NGT), permission (or environment clearance) for mining of sand and minerals in an area is granted by state governments. In some cases, the Centre issues the clearance. 

Most entities in mining have an environment clearance but they don’t comply with all the conditions they are asked to, Tongad said.

Large-scale sand mining affects the natural flow of rivers. Photo: Kiranpal Rana.

Every mining activity requires environment clearance under several laws. Under Sections 120B read with Section 34 of Indian Penal Code, 1860, extraction of sand without a legal permit is a punishable offence. This empowers the police to lodge an FIR under Indian Penal Code, 1860, and The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, to investigate it and file charge sheets to invoke the provisions of ‘Section 378 and 379 of IPC in every case of theft of public property’.

In addition, action under the Motor Vehicle Act, 1989, and relevant rules should cancel/suspend the driving license of the driver and permit of the vehicle. The environment ministry with its  ‘Enforcement & Monitoring Guidelines for Sand Mining 2020’  regulates sand mining and check illegal mining. This comes four years after the government’s ‘Sustainable Sand Management Guidelines 2016’, which was unsuccessful in putting an end to illegal sand mining in the country. The 2020 guidelines note that “...often there is a tendency to penalize only the drivers of the vehicles. The mafia of illegal mining and transport is much bigger and drivers are only one part of the system. It is necessary to identify all those involved in the offence.”

Sand Mining in River Yamuna, Kanalsi Village Stretch. Photo: Surendar Solanki.

There is no clarity in enforcement of law, said Tongad. “In the 2016 law, enforcement and implementation was a major problem. There is a lot of burden on the local machinery,” he observed.

“At some places, the mining department is looking into the issue, at others it is the police departments and RTO (regional transport office), pollution control boards and environment ministry, who are in charge. Multiple departments are involved,” Tongad added.

Yogeshwaran, a lawyer from Madras High Court, who has dealt with sand mining at the grassroots level in Tamil Nadu said in a recent webinar on ‘Is Sand Mining Killing Our Rivers’ by India Rivers Forum, “As long as we don’t address the problems with the laws, there is very little we can do. Only if the laws are people-friendly will they be environment friendly,” he added.

Yogeshwaran, who also practises in the National Green Tribunal, highlighted how people on the ground were alienated from the decision making bodies on sand mining in the rivers and water bodies in their area, despite being the most affected.

Funds underutilised

The Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Amendment Act, 2015, mandated the setting up of district mineral foundations (DMFs). The funds accrued under the DMF were to be used for the welfare of the people living in areas affected by illegal sand mining. This was done through the Pradhan Mantri Khanji Kshetra Kalyan Yojana set up by the Ministry of Mines.  

Of the 36 states and union territories in the country, data for DMF for 21 states is given in the official website of the Ministry of Mines. As of September 2020, a total of Rs 38,988.15 crore of the fund was allocated to the 21 states, of which only Rs 17,766.02 crore (45.5 per cent) was spent.

“The Centre has asked state governments to form DMFs to keep a check on mining activities in mining-affected districts. So far, states in the north have utilised only 15 per cent of DMF funds,” said Rawat.

“We don’t have any data from Punjab and Haryana, although there is a lot of mining activity going on in these areas,” he added, pointing out that the mining website had not been updated for the last few years. He alleged the mining and environment departments work only when there is a public outcry or when they are directed by courts. Otherwise, they remain silent.