The indiscriminate sand mining by mafias and contractors in and around rivers has huge environmental and development costs. There wasn’t much of a problem when manual small-scale mining was being done and mules were used to carry sand. But now, heavy machines are taken right up to the river-bed and these gigantic machines fill up truck after truck very quickly, so that hundreds of truckloads of sand may be taken from a river in a single day.
Such indiscriminate mining done with hardly any regard for the existing norms and rules can cause great harm to rivers, surface water-flow as well as water in the aquifers and wells of nearby villages. Excessive mining can create severe water shortage in villages. The flow of the river is depleted greatly in dry season and the river may even become entirely dry. Smaller rivers can even go dry for some stretches. This happens as the capacity to store rainwater is greatly reduced when rain-absorbing soil is removed on a massive scale.
At the same time, the threat of floods also increases greatly at the time of heavy rains for the same reason. The deep paths made by truck tyres right up to the river provide ready-made avenues for the excess water to travel quickly and in a concentrated form towards habitations.
Large-scale sand mining can lead to the river changing its path and rapidly eroding many agricultural fields and its banks.
On June 13 2011, Swami Nigmanand, a devout saint of Matrasadan ashram in Hardwar district, died after a prolonged fast demanding an end to mining and stone crushing in and around the Ganga. His sacrifice drew attention to the grave destruction in the area due to very large-scale mining and stone crushing work in glaring violation of existing norms.
In case of the Yamuna river, instances of excessive mining have been pointed out at several places, particularly in Uttar Pradesh. Before the recent controversy involving Durga Shakti Nagpal, another IAS officer posted in Gautam Buddh Nagar, Santosh Yadav, had also shown the courage to act against the mining mafia by slapping penalties and making some arrests. The warning voiced by him regarding the grave harm done to the river was later confirmed by other investigations. Unfortunately, however, other officials could not sustain the strong actions taken by him.
In the Bundelkhand region, there is widespread distress among villagers caused by the excessive mining in the tributaries of the Yamuna, which criss-cross the region. When I spoke to some people in villages along the bank of the river, they were very apprehensive of the damage being done to the ecology but were also terrified by the strong arm tactics of the miners and so, did not dare to confront them openly.
Clearly the ruthlessness of the mining mafia, which shares its plunder with politicians and officials, can be checked only if there is a determined initiative at the higher level. This is necessary to save several rivers and the environment, as well as sustainable livelihoods over a wide area.
The writer is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social initiatives and