The Rise of the Global Sand Mafia

Image: Varun Ramesh/ 7MB
In India and across the world, you can get killed for standing in the way of the illegal sand mafia.

At the stroke of the midnight hour, while the world sleeps, India’s sand mafia awakens. Driving trucks, tractors and SUVs, they forage near the riverbeds to dig up the new gold. Sand, India’s most in-demand natural resource after water, is the key to a building boom that some call the Fourth Industrial Revolution. 35 million work for this booming building industry, with $126 billion of value each year. And they all need sand. It’s a lucrative, and illegal, business.

The best sand doesn’t come from the deserts but from riverbeds. These sensitive ecosystems are being ravaged across the country for profit. In the eyes of the government, it is illegal. Under 2006 Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) rules, all sand mining requires a government notification. But the sand mafia operates comfortably beyond the reach of the law – mining riverbeds at night with the security of its own thugs, vehicles and political heft.

Sand mining, though illegal, also takes place in broad daylight. Politicians are accused of harbouring profits from this mafia in exchange for turning a blind eye. Bureaucrats who dare to challenge the mafia are defeated by the system. Some, like D.K. Ravi, end up dead. Others, like Durga Shakti, find themselves suspended on flimsy grounds.

Some call it the largest scam in the country today. And thanks to this plethora of unchecked, mafia-backed mining, sand has become an unlikely candidate for conservation.

Slipping between our fingers

Loading illegally dredged sand near Mumbai (Image: Sumaira Abdulali/ Creative Commons)

In February, Swami Nigamanda Saraswati died in a hospital in Haridwar. He had been on fast for 115 days, protesting against the illegal sand mining that was killing his sacred river and Haridwar’s lifeline – the Ganges. His aides suspected poisoning but the CBI closed the case as one of malnutrition. The godman’s fast triggered waves of protest, prompting the government to declare a ban on sand mining in the region just days before he died.

But there was a reason the Swami continued his fast. The Uttarakhand government had banned mining before following similar protests, only to reconvene it once the noise had died down. And by the time Nigamanda died in hospital, the Ganga had already suffered irreparable damage.

Key layers of river soil had been extracted, reducing the integrity of the riverbed. The river started to carry silt down along its path, leading to blockages. In many places, the soil grew weak from erosion – and even the groundwater table started to see a severe decline.

Two years after the Swami’s death, the Uttarakhand High Court declared the rivers Yamuna and Ganges as ‘living entities’ and banned sand-mining in the region yet again; demanding a response from the government. As of May 2017, this response never came. By July 2017, the Supreme Court stayed the river’s ‘living’ status.

A collection of apathy and mismanagement persisted in the South India as well. In Tamil Nadu, 340 activists were arrested in October 2016, for protesting against the illegal sand-mining underway on the contested river Kaveri. In certain regions of Tamil Nadu, sand mining extracts up to 50,000 lorries worth of sand each day. Ironically, this is done to fill the surge in demand that comes from the neighbouring state of Kerala – where a total ban was enforced against mining along six rivers.

Sand-mining isn’t just India’s problem either. Globally, it’s become a menace to riverbeds and beaches across the world. Wherever there is construction, there is a need for sand. Economic powers like Dubai have exhausted their domestic resources and now turn to countries like Australia for sand imports. Currently, the global demand is highest in Asia; with China and India taking the lead. From the Mekong Delta to the streets of Italy, the demand for sand is spawning mafia and environmental degradation everywhere.

Mitigation

The Ministry of Water Resources has recommended against large-scale de-silting projects, however, citing the absence of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to sediment management and control. While heavy silt deposits in rivers are prime triggers of flooding, removing them can also affect their flow.

Since sand-mining is a 24/7 activity due to the immense demand, Kerala set up a round-the-clock cell to register complaints against illegal sand-mining in the state.

There is a very visible trend of activists, journalists, bureaucrats and citizens being intimidated by the sand mafia for exposing their activities. Sumeria Abdulali of the Awaaz Foundation has suggested the government sets up Environment Police who are independent of business interests in order to tackle the threat. Elsewhere, the state machinery occasionally moves to work as well. In the Mangalore region, heavily hit by sand-mining, the police have been seizing boats and dredging machines and destroying illegal sheds used to store sand along the river banks. The District Commissioner has suggested that trucks carrying sand be tagged with GPS trackers.

The overexploitation of sand is linked to the breakdown of law and order, and the absence of strong, independent and powerful environmental courts. When whistleblowers and bureaucrats alike are powerless against the sand mafia, who can dare challenge the world’s fastest growing ‘gold-miners’?

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