Why India Needs a Blood Sand Awakening
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because people are dying over sand.
By Rishika Pardikar
“I was attacked by the son of a local politician … and then on bed rest for a month. My car was completely damaged.” So begins the story of Sumaira Abdulali’s first encounter with the sand mining mafia, an aggressive group involved in illegal sand mining activities, in Maharashtra’s Raigad district.
Abdulali, an environmental activist and founder of the Awaaz Foundation, started following sand mining activities in Maharashtra’s Kihim Beach in 2002 by “naively,” she says, lodging complaints with the local administrative officer in charge of the district. “In those days, no one really knew that sand mining was an issue. No one even knew that there was a sand mafia … that there was a nexus between politicians and sand miners.”
She was attacked for the first time in 2004. Two years later, she filed the country’s first public interest litigation regarding sand mining in the Bombay High Court. In 2010, the court passed a stay order on all sand mining activities — both river and beach sand — in the entire state of Maharashtra. Just days later, Abdulali was attacked again in the same Raigad district when she was collecting ground information about sand mining activities in the Bankot creek formed by the Savitri River. “We were nearly killed because the [sand mining mafia] tried to engineer a car accident to throw us off a bridge,” she explains.
This is just one example of the kind of impunity with which the sand mafia operates in India. In fact, according to a November report by the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) …
At least 193 people have been killed in river sand mining–related incidents since January 2019.
In addition to mining accidents, the death toll comprises “scores of villagers, young kids, reporters, activists and government officials” who are being attacked “for objecting to and for taking action,” the report states.
These numbers though are “gross underestimates” because they are based on “media reports we could access,” says Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator for SANDRP. Sand mining deaths are not officially recorded in India.
Another reason why the death toll could be a low estimate, Thakkar explains, is because attacks associated with sand mining are sometimes only reported in local news channels and in regional languages.
In addition to violence on human life, rampant sand mining adversely impacts biodiversity and local livelihood. It also drives a wedge between members of communities. “The saddest part is that some people from the community are involved in sand mining,” Abdulali says, in order to earn a modest living. So there’s often tension between those involved in sand mining and those who oppose it because of the violence and environmental impacts.
Sand dredging is vital for construction because it’s an essential ingredient in concrete. Most of the sand mined in India is river sand because coastal sand is not ideal for construction. Despite such heavy reliance on river sand, the impact of dredging on river ecology has not been studied.
A February 2020 paper notes that “the lack of scientific and systematic studies of [riverine] sand mining” in countries like India “prevents accurate quantification of mined volumes or the type, extent, and magnitude of any impacts.”
There are no official estimates on the extent to which sand is mined illegally, but Thakkar believes it’s the majority of sand mined in India. Illegality spans a wide range of activities: mining without licenses, excavation of more sand than permitted and mining in restricted areas.
Consider the amount of revenue the state of Tamil Nadu receives via sand mining, an industry estimated to generate nearly $3 billion a year. In 2014-2015, the state only received Rs 216.82 crore (roughly $30 million) and Rs 133.37 crore (or $18.25 million) the year before.
“In contemporary Tamil Nadu, profits from the criminal extraction of sand are directly and indirectly injected into the electoral process and are employed to fund vote buying — a tactic of electoral fraud widespread in this part of India,” writes J. Jeyaranjan, director of the Institute of Development Alternatives (IDA), Chennai. “Criminals fund political parties, shaping vote outcomes through vote buying as well as through the allocation of preferential policies and state resources after the elections.”
M. Rajshekhar, an environmental journalist who has reported on stone crushing in Punjab and mining in Tamil Nadu, explains that India’s political parties raise funds by privatizing the commons under their control, be it mineral resources like coal and iron ore in states like Jharkhand and Odisha, hydropower projects in Arunachal Pradesh, or minor minerals like sand and stone in Punjab and Tamil Nadu.
Given that sand is one of the key sources of revenue for political parties, parties seek to “defend their political financing,” Rajshekhar says, noting that sand miners are “blasé about killing journalists and revenue officials because they know they have impunity.”
And the situation is only set to worsen given that demand for sand in the country is increasing at the rate of 6 percent to 7 percent annually, according to the Ministry of Mines.
Early in 2020, India’s environment ministry released enforcement guidelines for the regulation of sand mining and restriction of illegal mining. But the guidelines leave room for interpretation and abuse. “There’s no road map for implementation [of the guidelines],” Thakkar says. Similar sand mining guidelines were issued in 2015, and these too were not implemented, he adds.
The other area that lacks focused implementation is in follow-through of clearances given by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) for sand mining proposals. “How are they [ministry] ensuring that conditions stipulated while giving clearances are being complied with?” Thakkar asked.
The biggest reason why guidelines are likely to fail is the fact that sand mining is linked to electoral funding.
“It’s performative democracy. The state wants to show it is taking measures to curb illegal sand mining without actually reining it in,” Rajshekhar says. “If there are [sand mining] guidelines but sand mining is continuing, what does it show?” he asked. The answer can only be a lack of political will.
“In every attack … we hear about a political link,” Abdulali adds.
- Rishika Pardikar, OZY Author Contact Rishika Pardikar