Indiscriminate illegal mining of river sand and stones has ravaged both the fertile hills and the plains, leaving destruction and disease in its wake. This is a story from some of India’s northern states
In Kolawalpur Village of Banda District in Uttar Pradesh, many farmers complain bitterly that river sand mining has destroyed their farms and standing crops. The rainy season brings increased danger of floods, and in summer, there’s a greater chance of the river drying up due to the excessive extraction of sand using heavy machines.
In Mahawa and Bhirala Villages of Rajasthan’s Sikar District, the pastures and farmlands have been devastated by the mining of stones, often using dynamite. Water sources are drying up. Quarry workers and even other villagers have fallen prey to health problems caused by the stone dust, including silicosis.
These are just two examples of how indiscriminate mining of sand and stone have caused havoc in tens of thousands of villages in India in recent years. Much of this is illegal – either the mining carried out is in excess of the permitted limits, or, the mining is done without permission of any sort. Environmental and labour laws are both flouted.
Since the activity is largely illegal, it attracts criminals and gangsters who earn millions in a short time and secure the collusion of politicians and police personnel. When sincere police officers attempt to stop such activity, they are not spared, as happened recently – Surendra Singh, a senior police officer, was mowed down by a stone-laden dumper, sending shock waves far and wide.
This was by no means the first attack on a police official by the mining mafia. Attacks on social activists are even more frequent. In Sikar, for example, the villagers told me about Pradeep Sharma, an activist from a respected family of freedom fighters, who opposed the mining mafia and was murdered by them. The leading activist there, Kailash Meena, broke down while recounting the tragic details of his friend’s death and injuries suffered by his colleagues. He himself has received many threats and has been attacked too.
Several environmental activists have warned that excessive sand mining can cause grave harm to rivers and their tributaries, at a time when water scarcity is already a big problem across vast areas. The miners bring in heavy machinery right up to the riverbed. A temporary bund is created and sand much in excess of the safe limit is extracted. All this harms fish and other aquatic life too. During the rainy season, the banks cannot absorb the excess water adequately, leading to floods on one hand, and vastly reduced or no water flow during the dry season. In north-west India, many hills which stop the spread of desertification have been ravaged and flattened by excessive mining.
Several groups have been trying to prevent such destruction. In a rare success story, women in Kolawalpur stood in the river to say prayers for protecting the river. This sight so moved many people that they joined hands for a big protest demonstration. Finally, the local administration had to accept some of their demands to reduce mining-related harm. However, in most cases, activists protesting against excessive and illegal mining have faced repression and victimisation.
Many workers employed in mining work are exposed to severe health hazards and accident risks. Till fairly recently, awareness regarding silicosis was very low. Following a Supreme Court judgement, social activists in some parts of India, particularly in Rajasthan, have been able to get compensation payments for some workers or their family members. On the whole, however, conditions of workers including women workers remain precarious.
Over the years, several environmental groups and labour organisations have tried to raise their voice against mining mafias. Several legal actions have also been initiated and some favourable judgments and directives have been issued by the courts. Unfortunately, despite this, the problems relating to illegal and excessive mining of construction materials have become more serious.
The behind-the-scenes involvement of powerful politicians has facilitated mining mafias to go on with their activities more or less unhindered. The rural groups struggling in remote villages to protect their people from the ravages of indiscriminate mining often work in isolation from each other and hence cannot become a strong enough voice to change policy and/or improve implementation significantly.
Nevertheless, their continuing efforts over the years have helped to increase public consciousness regarding the harm caused to life and the environment by such mining activity, and the threats issued by the mining mafia. The time has come for more unity and better coordination of these scattered activists, so that palpable results can be achieved.