The construction industry is booming in India. It accounts for about 8 per cent of the country’s annual GDP. By some optimistic estimates it is expected to clock more than 10 per cent compounded annual growth rate, which could make it the world’s third largest construction industry by 2025.

The government promises to invest in infrastructure up to an extent of 10 per cent of GDP under the 12th Five Year Plan. Economists have their doubts about such a level of investment materialising as the world tries to transit out of a recessionary phase. And there are others who worry about the destruction of rivers and agricultural land as this sector consumes millions of tonnes of what the government calls minor minerals. These include sand and earth to make concrete and bricks – primary raw materials for the industry.

The signs of a resource crunch are evident. Illegal sand mining is a scourge in States across the country. The latest battle in Gautum Budh Nagar, Uttar Pradesh, where Sub Divisional Magistrate (SDM) Durga Shakti Nagpal was suspended from service, has served to highlight the plight of rivers ravaged.

Fortunately, Ms. Nagpal‘s fight against the sand smugglers caught media attention. Some observers say her posting near Delhi helped up the ante. There are other officers, and many activists, who have fought battles (often losing ones) against the politician-miner-administration nexus that feeds the needs of the construction sector.

Those honest individual officers who have tried to control illegal mining are not alone in their inability to rein in such operations. Several High Courts have failed to regulate the mining, movement and sale of the commodity that is available legally only in limited quantities and for which there is now an insatiable demand.

The SDM of Nalagarh in Himachal Pradesh, coincidentally a batchmate of Ms. Nagpal, recently reported a narrow escape as he tried to stop smugglers from fleeing with truck-loads of sand from his jurisdictional area.

In Tamil Nadu, a 2005 batch IAS officer, Ashish Kumar, posted as District Collector of Tuticorin, was transfered this week: he had ordered raids on sand mine leases in his area. The tale of another IAS officer, U. Sagayam, who stood up against sand-smugglers in Kanchipuram when he was posted there, is fresh in memory.

“For every officer whose name gets highlighted for taking on the mafia,” a senior official of the Ministry of Environment says, “there must be more than a dozen that try to fight but get transferred out or give up after a while because it’s just impossible to take on what is a well-oiled industry.”

He cites examples of places in Uttar Pradesh where forest department and other officers having been shunted out for trying to protect river-beds, some of them inside wildlife parks and sanctuaries - where mining is completely illegal.

The Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment reports the case of another civil servant, Girish Sharma, who got into trouble with other State authorities for taking on mining criminals in Sehore, the home district of Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Mr. Sharma had taken government directives against illegal sand mining seriously and identified large-scale illegalities. He went beyond the motions of confiscating a few vehicles to fit the needs of a ‘drive’ against them. He presented a report to the State government that uncovered a major nexus, and that led to a debate in the State Assembly. Mr. Sharma then had to seek a stay from a court of law after the State government tried to transfer him out.

CSE found a similar situation in Ropar district of Punjab, a State where sand was declared an essential commodity. But that did not stop rampant mining, CSE reported.

According to CSE, the largest number of field reports of illegal mining comes from Punjab, Kerala, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Haryana. These are just the States that are recording a high level of construction activity. Its list of heavily mined rivers runs into more than a couple of dozens.

The Union government maintains no cumulative data on sand-mining, and the rivers that are hit. Indian Bureau of Mines data on sand mining, officials admit, represent a grave under-estimation.

The battle against sand mining continues to be one fought by a few brave civil servants and a somewhat larger number of activists. In an emerging economy, the minor mineral has turned into a scarce resource for the voracious construction industry, and a source of bounty for criminal gangs.

The stern civil servant or the tenacious activist fights a losing battle trying to stop the supply from matching the rising demand.

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