Area under Kalady bridge where accident took place notorious for illegal mining

Rivers across the State have become killing fields thanks to indiscriminate and unscientific sand mining over the years that have created deep pits in river beds, D. Padmalal, head, Environmental Sciences Division, National Centre for Earth Science Studies, has said. 

The drowning of four Malayattoor pilgrims in the Periyar at Kalady on Friday is being regarded as fallout of this persistent evil.

The area under the Sree Sankara Bridge at Kalady where the accident took place is notorious for illegal sand mining.

The mid and low land areas of rivers, which were originally sand storage zones, have turned into death traps. The mud-filled pits, about nine to ten metres deep, had resulted from selective extraction of construction grade sand using pole and net scooping, said Mr. Padmalal, who keeps a close watch over the changing channel bed configuration of Kerala’s rivers.

The common perception that the danger posed by such pits can be curbed by restricting access to them holds no basis.

Changing topography

“The fact is that these pits keep migrating along the profile of the rivers, especially during monsoon as the high flow regime leads to bed degradation downstream and headward erosion (head cutting) upstream levelling layers of sand. This brings about unpredictable changes in the sub surface water topography,” Mr. Padmalal said.

In short, people cannot be warned of a particular area of the river because of the ever changing underwater topography.

To make matters worse, these pits would often be filled significantly with silt and clay left after selective extraction of sand using porous scoopers by the miners. Hence, a person who steps into the pit would find it near impossible to retrieve the feet. 

Environmentalist S. Sitaraman said indiscriminate sand mining from the foot of the pillars of Kalady bridge had caused it to sink by four to five metres.

Mr. Sitaraman said while the court had banned mining within one kilometre radius of structures, the State government had further diluted it to 500 metres in its legislation. But even the watered down restriction is not being honoured. The direction that illegally mined sand confiscated should be deposited back in the river bed is also not being complied with. He said illegal sand mining had created 750-800 pits on the river bed of Periyar in the stretch between Aluva and Malayattoor.

When contacted Public Works Department (roads division) sources said the department hadn’t received any complaints on safety concerns about the bridge and had, therefore, not conducted any inspection yet.

Sunil Menon, a Kalady-based environmental activist, said illegal sand mining was all too common in Kalady and Kanjoor areas.

Mr. Menon said the Motor Vehicles Department (MVD) could play a more proactive role especially during the night. Old run-down vehicles were being used for such operations, which if confiscated by the police, would not cause much of a loss to the parties concerned, he said.

MVD officials denied allegations that dilapidated vehicles were used for transportation of illegally mined sand, stating that it was at best a rarity.

An official said the department’s jurisdiction was restricted when it comes to the transportation of sand.

“We predominantly look at whether the vehicle intercepted is overloaded or not since it damages the road and poses danger to the public as they cannot be brought to a halt like other vehicles. In such cases, we slap a fine while vehicles found to be transporting sand without proper documents are handed over to the police,” an official said.

Special squads

The revenue department has put in place special squads at the taluk level to keep illegal sand mining in check. However, department sources admitted to shortcomings in the existing mechanism while calling for improvements to keep criminals involved on a tight leash.

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