Sand mining may be feeding the realty industry, but without regulation it could spell doom for our rivers

Can there be legal and sustainable sand extraction from river beds? ‘No’, if it remains business as usual, but ‘yes’ if river bed ecology and the local stakes and economies are combined.

Business as usual

Mining of minor minerals is a state subject. So the frontline department charged with mining permits and regulation is the state department of geology and mines. Way back in 1957, the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act was first brought into force and was followed closely by the Mining Concession Rules in 1960. Mining permits for removal of sand from the river beds were routinely handed out and no one had a reason to complain since the sand was by and large extracted manually and what got removed was more than replenished every monsoon by the river. After all those were the ‘good old days’, when the multipurpose mechanical prop called the JCB excavator making mining a child’s play was still to become mainstreamed in the Indian markets.

Come the Eighties and Nineties when JCBs became commonplace and the realty sector big and voracious user of river sand. Soon the river beds all over were being turned into deep and ugly craters. Innocuously sounding ‘removal’ metamorphosed into ‘mining’ and big and often bad money entered the arena. Mafia take over of the business happened as a natural progression, with political patronage, muscle power and pliant (if not exactly collusive) officialdom coming handy.

Come 2006. Environmental fall out of rampant and indiscriminate sand mining in river bed and flood plains evidenced by devastated habitats of aquatic and riparian wildlife like crocodiles, turtles and birds not to mention fish, crustaceans and insects as well as drastic fall in water table in adjoining towns and villages led the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests(MoEF) to include mining of minor minerals like ‘sand and gravel’ within the ambit of the revised Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification with a stipulation that an environmental clearance (EC) for a mining lease of extent ranging from 5 to 50 ha was the domain of the State EIA authority and anything more would require EC from the MoEF. Anything less than 5 ha was by default presumed too small an area to require an EC. A lacuna that soon proved fatal.

Number of States began to avoid the stipulation for an EC by limiting the lease sizes close to but not touching the 5 ha mark. It remained no one’s business or bother if the cumulative impact of many such sub 5 ha leases was proving no less devastating.

MoEF saw through the game and set up an expert committee in 2009 of officials from the Ministry of Environment, as well as Mines and a number of State governments to look into the environmental aspects of mining of minor minerals. The said committee in its report in 2010 recommended: a) minimum size of mining lease to be 5 ha; b) minimum lease period of 5 years for an eco-friendly, scientific and sustainable mining; c) cluster approach to mining of small sizes; d) mining depth to not exceed 3 m or the water table whichever is higher; e) safety or no mining zone within the river bed which should not be less than 10 per cent of the rivers width and a minimum distance from bridges and embankments, and f) provision of a mining plan that should include reclamation and rehabilitation of the mined out areas.

The above recommendations of the MoEF expert committee were endorsed by the Supreme Court (SC) through its order dated February 27, 2012 in a Public Interest Litigation. And most recently on August 5, 2013 the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has further reinforced the order of the Supreme Court.

So far so good! But the real problem arises when regulatory directions/orders/rules get misinterpreted or misinformed in that the SC or the NGT has ‘banned’ sand mining in river bed. For a ‘ban’ tends to embolden the mafias and reduce regulators into ‘cat chasing the mice’ situations from time to time. Things go from bad to worse, until a conscientious officer like a Durga Shakti Nagpal and pro-active media comes on to the scene and shakes the system out of its state of convenient stupor as well dares to take on the Mafioso. Rest as they say becomes history. But unfortunately sooner than later it is back to business as usual!

An alternate scenario

However, there is an alternate scenario. Way back in 2001, Kerala enacted the ‘Kerala Protection of River banks and Regulation of removal of Sand Act’. The notable aspect of this legislation was the statutory role given to the local kadavu (river bank) committees in the regulation of the removal of the sand from their kadavu under the overall control of a district level expert committee. The quantity and removal of the sand was made subject to the maintenance of the bio-physical environment of the river bank ensured through a statutorily mandated ‘river bank development plan’ and a ‘river management fund’.

The said ‘Kerala model’, notwithstanding its shortcomings if any, could be the way forward where the incorporation of stakes and participation of the local people would ensure legal and sustainable mining keeping intact the river’s ecology. The thumb rule of sustainability shall of course remain that you do not extract in a year more than what the river has brought in the previous monsoon.

(The writer is convener of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan)

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