Ceaseless sand mining of the Narmada puts the river at risk

As illegal sand mining hollows out the Narmada basin, activists are arrested for protesting the theft.

ByIshan Kukreti
Ceaseless sand mining of the Narmada puts the river at risk
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In the late afternoon of January 5, 2017, Rahul Yadav and Pawan Yadav were on their way to the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) office in Barwani, Madhya Pradesh (MP) on their bike. The Barwani district touches the borders of Gujarat and is approximately180 kilometres from the Sardar Sarovar dam.

Both NBA workers were returning after photocopying some documents. They were crossing Vrindavan colony in Barwani city when a truck almost hit them. They lost control of the motorcycle and crashed. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

The two activists, used to the presence of the sand mafia in the region, turned around and followed the truck. “We got up immediately and chased the truck,” Rahul said.

They overtook the truck and stopped it. According to the First Information Report (FIR) Pawan later filed, the truck was carrying black sand. Illegal sand mining is rampant in the Narmada basin, despite court orders prohibiting it. Local activists have been trying to stop sand theft, drawing the ire of the local sand mafia.

Local activists have been trying to save the river. The impact of mining on the river is obvious. “The mining is changing the river. The floods of 2012-13 which flooded villages around Burwani, despite low rainfall are proof of it,” Rahul says.

Yet the authorities are not bothered. When Newslaundry called Narmada Valley Development Authority (NVDA), chairman Rakesh Sahani said the responsibility of preventing illegal sand mining did not lie with NVDA.  

The Deputy Secretary of Mineral Resources Department, MP, Tarun Rathi, hung up and switched off his phone without answering Newslaundry’s questions.   

“Sand mining destroys a river’s ability to recharge associate aquifers. This breaks the associate aquifers on the river bank,” Manoj Mishra of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan said. These associated aquifers act as water storage banks that provide clean water during periods of water stress. “It is like disembowelling the entire system,” he added.

According to activist Medha Patkar, the treatment of the catchment area of Sardar Sarovar Dam is a precondition of the clearance given to the project in 1987. What this means is that, to prevent soil erosion that can lead to siltation and sedimentation in the dam’s reservoir, there needs to be afforestation of the area. “Instead of treating the catchment area, the mining department is leasing out the area for mining,” Patkar said. This is on top of the illegal sand mining already taking in the Narmada valley.

“The lands which are acquired for the Sardar Sarovar Project cannot be leased out by the MP mining department. After the acquisition, the land does not even belong to MP. It belongs to Gujarat, which has paid for the rehabilitation process,” Patidar added.

Since the mining is mechanised, more sand is extracted and in shorter durations of time, which is what makes this hazardous to the local environment. “In many villages when the river dries up, people can dig a foot deep hole on the river bank and get water. Sand mining finishes this,” Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People said.

Sand mining also changes the river morphology, making structures in and around the river vulnerable to damage. “The chances of river changing its course increases thereby making uncontrolled floods more likely,” Mishra said.

Thakkar pointed out to the collapse of a bridge in Mahad, Maharashtra that killed 28 people. “Unsustainable mining changes river flow patter and flood pattern. Erosion increases in downstream areas. This impacts the structures built on the river bed or river bank,” he said.

Mining is a fairly lucrative activity. In Barwani, legally-mined sand, often used in construction, can fetch up to Rs 700 a truckload of sand mined illegally, goes for Rs 2000-3000. With the ever-increasing demands of the construction industry and how difficult it is to navigate the bureaucratic red tape to mine sand legally, illegal sand mining is a lucrative business.

The truck that Rahul and Pawan had encountered belonged to the local sand mafia baron Kailash Bhaware, who has allegedly been hollowing out the Narmada. Minutes after Rahul and Pawan hailed the truck to stop, Bhaware arrived at the scene. The FIR states what happened next, according to Rahul and Pawan:

“Tractor owner Kailash S/o Sardar Bhaware, resident Nawalpura, Barwani reached there. Around the same time, Mohan, S/o Shobharam resident, Dhabavavadi reached there and grabbing my (Pawan Yadav’s) throat, beat me up and cursed at us. ‘Who are you madarchod, behenchod to stop the tractor? What right do you have?’ He threatened to kill us if we tried to stop the tractor in the future…”.

Following the FIR, NBA volunteers, along with locals, staged a protest against the unchecked illegal mining activities in the area, in front of the district collector’s office on January 6. The authorities did not respond.

However, two days later when the NBA volunteers tried to question the district’s collector at a rally about the MP government’s upcoming Namami Devi Narmade campaign, there was an unexpected turn of events. The activists asked the district collector whether the issue of illegal sand mining would be addressed by this programme. According to the MP government’s website, Namami Devi Narmade is “a campaign conceived and coordinated by the Government of Madhya Pradesh as a people’s movement to protect the environment”. It kicks off on February 12 with a rally by MP Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan.

Rahul and Pawan, who were leading the volunteers, were arrested at this pre-rally to main rally of Namami Devi Narmade .

It turns out that a counter FIR had been filed by Mohan Bhilala, who was named in Pawan’s FIR as the one trying to run them over. Not just that, it had been filed against them on the same day.

“The driver and the owner were tribal. They used the SC/ST Act to frame us,” Rahul said after he was released on bail on January 11. Both the workers were charged under five sections of the Indian Penal Code, including the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.  

“They’ve been charged under IPC Sections 294 (obscene acts or words in public), 341(wrongful restraint), 323 (voluntarily causing hurt), 506(criminal intimidation), 34 (acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention) and the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act,” said Gajendra Singh, assistant inspector at Barwani.

According to Singh, both parties were on bail and the final call on who is in the wrong will be decided by the court. The case will be heard on January 21 in the Barwani civil court.

The local activists have been trying to prevent sand mining activity in the area. But without local administration’s support, it is risky and difficult to get results. “If we find trucks carrying sand, we take it to the police station. But the police lets them go,” he said.

Singh had his own explanation. “The number of the vehicle is noted, then whatever the fine or punishment as has been decided, is meted out. We don’t arrest them,” he said.

The law says otherwise.

“The police is supposed to impound the vehicle and fine it. The fine is calculated based on the market value of the vehicle and the quantity of the sand found in it,” a local advocate, Umesh Patidar said.

The 2012 Supreme Court judgement in Deepak Kumar Vs the State of Haryana makes it clear that no mining of sand or minerals can take place without the clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF).

“The miners have no clearance from the Ministry,” Patkar told Newslaundry.

Through all of this, Rewa, flows silently across central India, dividing the north from the south.

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