Yamuna River in Yamuna Nagar district of Haryana is facing severe threat from mechanized and unsustainable stone and sand mining happening at large scale in sheer violation of existing mining rules and guidelines and the responsible authorities are deliberately overlooking the gravity of the issue.
During a field visit to the mining sites, we found scores of heavy trucks plying on riverbed ferrying precious sand. Poclain and JCB machines in large numbers were seen busy digging dip pits in the riverbed. The active course of the river was blocked and even changed. In fact river was nowhere in sight as its entire course was converted in deep stagnant water pools caused by non-stop mechanized mining. Machines were digging the sand and piling it on floodplain and nearby farm lands.
As per the rules, mining activities under no circumstances can change natural flow path of river though blocking, creation of bunds, channelization etc. Riverbed minerals cannot be extracted beyond three meters or groundwater level whichever is applicable. Mining operations are strictly restricted during nights. Surprisingly the district administration is silent on all these violations and mining companies are of course least bothered to adhere to the norms.
Deficit Monsoon in Catchment, River Starts Shrinking in October
The 2019 monsoon rainfall has been significantly below normal in the basin area of Yamuna. The basin states[i] of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, and Delhi have registered -18%, 10%, 42% and 35% of normal rainfall during the 2019 4-month south west monsoon.
IMD cumulative rainfall maps of Uttarakhand, Himachal, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and River Basin June- Sept. 2019 show huge rain deficit in Yamuna basin.
Normally the river faces three to four flood spells during monsoon time recharging the aquifers and replenishing the fields with enriched soil. The flood also to large extent replenish boulders, gravels, sand, silt and sediments reserve in the river. However the situation this year the river has seen just one flood spell and have started trickling in month of October itself, which many locals find unusual.
Villagers recount and share that use of boat is common practice to cross the river upto December-January months. But they lament the situation this year and curse non-stop mining activities for damaging the river. “Yamuna has already turned seasonal as it merely flows between March and June outside monsoon months. Now this mining has made things worse for the river”, says a villager from the area.
Aquatic Biodiversity Worst Affected by Reckless Mining
The situation is even worse for the river bio-diversity. Already sparse river bank vegetation is gone. Aquatic life of fish, crabs, and snails etc. is severely affected. Local and migratory bird population visiting the riverside have declined sharply which is never taken into account and cared for during mining activities.
Active river channel is diverted, blocked at miners’ will. River water has become muddy due to high silt and sediment loads in which aquatic animals find it difficult to survive. Riverbed has started resembling like an airport runaway as scores of trucks and tractors are plying over it compressing the porous riverbed beyond recognition. The screeching sound of machines wards away the birds and wild animals.
Riverbed resembles like runway, river course if diverted, obstructed and channelized at miners will.
Worried over scale of destruction a local teacher mentioned that with low flow in the river and unabated mining works, the groundwater table in adjoining areas is declining fast. “Sand plays essential role in filtering, cleaning the river water and recharging the aquifers. With large scale removal of sand and ongoing mining works, the groundwater table, river vegetation and riparian birds all are affected”, he adds.
Selling Precious Sand, Dirt Cheap
According to official sources mining of riverbed material has been allotted at 23 locations along 70 km of river stretch in the district of which 12 are stone excavation sites where it is processed in crusher and screening plants and 11 are sand mining sites.
Mining areas vary from 20 to over 100 hectares. On an average around 150 to 200 trucks are loaded with sand from a single mining site. The capacity of a single truck is 600 to 700 square feet. Sand is sold in 3 different categories thick, mixed and dry and the prices vary from Rs 8 to 11 per square foot.
In general, miners gets about Rs 5000/- per truck of sand load in wholesale, which is then sold double the price to retailers and the same truck load of sand costs around 20 to 25, 000/- to consumers at the end of the chain. People employed by the mining companies also informed that the truck drivers are paid Rs 1 commission for per square foot of sand load.
About 2000 trucks of sand is being sold from these mining sites which is totally unsustainable. As per sources the sand is transported to far flung areas of Haryana and even to states of Rajasthan, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi. Mining activities in all these states are facing some judicial restrictions. It seems, Yamuna river is under extreme pressure to meet the sand demands from these states. The riverbed has been massively dug up in all Haryana districts including Yamuna Nagar, Karnal, Panipat, Sonipat over past couple of years.
People in the profession inform that mining companies pay a sum of Rs. 40 to 50 million as price for a mining site locally known as Ghat. For 11 sand mining sites, the state government would annually earn about Rs 650 million in revenue, whereas the mining companies would earn around 2 billion. Obviously the government is selling the finite natural, common property resource at a dirt cheap price.
A look at the mining department website reveals that officially upto September 2019 around 1.29 lakh metric tons of sand has been mined[ii] since Dec 2016 from 11 sand mining units (namely Pobari, Gumthala, Gumthala, Birtapu, Mandoli Ghaggar, Mandoli Ghaggar, Jathlana, Kanalsi, Nagli Block, MT Karhra, Nagla Rangran) spreading on about 500 ha of riverbed land in Yamuna Nagar district.
Similarly upto September 2019 about 1.96 lakh metric tons of Boulder, Gravels, Sand (BGS) has been produced[iii] from 12 mining units covering an area of 821.84 hectares lying in hood Kalan, Bhood Majra, Devdhar, Kohliwala, YNR Unit -2, Bailgarh, Malikpur Khadar, Jaidhri Pipli Majra, Galouri, Begumpur, Dhanaura villages in the district since June 2016. The mining activities has picked up pace since September 2017. Overall around 1300 hectares of riverbed land and surrounding areas is affected by mechanized mining. However these are the official figures and villagers claim that on ground companies involved are illegally excavating much more minerals from much more areas.
Officially government has also allotted 125 units of stone crushers[iv] in the district. Most of the mining plans were granted environmental clearances in 2015. These mining activities are permitted for a period ranging from 7 to 10 years and this is just the beginning. The details of mining companies and amount riverbed material they are permitted from the area can be seen here[v] and here[vi].
Another undated and unsigned document titled DISTRICT SURVEY REPORT FOR SUSTAINABLE SAND MINING DISTT. YAMUNA NAGAR[vii] accessed through online search share more troubling details. It identifies about 120 sq km area including of 30 sq km from rivers and tributaries/rivulets and about 90 sq km area outside riverbed as having mineral deposits further dividing the mineral rich area into 35 Mining Units/Blocks.
As per the document details at page 17 a total area 1825.01 hectare in the district has potential mineral capacity of 900.26 lakh metric tons. This includes 482.16 lakh metric tons of BGS material and sand covering 1385.58 hectare of riverbed area and 418.1 lakh metric tons of BGS and sand material from 439.43 hectares area outside the riverbed. While at page 24 the same document changes these figures and instead mentions 654.52 lakh metric ton BGS and 245.74 lakh metric ton sand as total potential.
Seeing the river as a rich source mineral only it finds that in the decade of 1999-2009 on an average 25.26 lakh metric tons of BGS and sand minerals were annually extracted from the River Yamuna. In the year 2016-17 the district earned an amount of about Rs 24.74 crore as revenue/ royalty by selling 13.68 lakh metric ton of riverbed minerals.
This survey with several errors and incomplete information recommends mining of 540 lakh metric ton of minerals along 70 km riverbed length in the district comprising an area of 2.40 lakh sq m claiming that it’s just the 60 per cent of the total mineral deposit capacity.
The document further estimates that annually 482.16 lakh metric tons of riverbed minerals including 236.42 BGS material and 245.74 lakh metric tons sand deposition take place in river Yamuna.
By the time the report is being filed the Mining Department has resumed mining leases at 15 more locations[viii] in Karnal (2 sites with 941 & 1199 hectares area), Panipat (1 site of 780.8 hectares) and Sonipat[ix] (11 sites of 481.81 hectares) and Palwal (1site of 221.47 hectares) districts.
Unemployment, Farming Losses Luring Villagers in Mining Business
Haryana state is on the top in unemployment rate in the country. Farmers of the state are also facing recurring financial losses and increasing debts. Under these circumstances, jobless youth and farmers find it better to lease out their fields close to river for mining. Villagers also see the stone crushers, screening plants and mining activities as a source of employment.
Mining companies are reportedly offering about Rs. 40,000/- per acre for storage of riverbed material. Similarly price of sand excavation from fields in and around river is Rs. 1 to 1.5 lacs per acre on annual basis.
“I am educated but unemployed youth. I have leased out my fields to mining and also working for the company. If I practice farming, I am not able to earn even rupees 20 thousands in a year. At least now useless sand is getting me some money”, said a youth from the district.
Reckless mining being promoted in the name of protection against floods
Protection against flood is being given as common argument by all involved in the defense of such a large scale mining. It is true that, monsoonal floods in Yamuna river causes bank erosion and invasion of farm lands. In reality, huge area on either side of the river is large sandy tract and forms the integral part of river floodplain. The entire area including riverbed is under cultivation. Hence, disruption to farm lands due to floods in the area is inevitable. However, it is fact that unscientific mining entails more destabilization of the river banks apart from weakening of embankments and other flood protection infrastructure thus making the affected area more vulnerable to flooding and resultant damage.
In recent past the reckless mining operations have made areas around the river prone to flood damage. The historic Tajewala Barrage was washed away in 2010. People in the know blamed the non-stop mining work close to the barrage foundation. In 2016, the Hathini Kund Barrage also faced similar threats owing to unsustainable mining[x] activities. Recently, in April 2019, an embankment in the district was found facing breach threats[xi] due to ongoing mining work.
Surprisingly in the face of clear evidence, mining department, companies and people gaining monetary profits are supporting mining work falsely pretending that deepening riverbed would provide protection against flood fury. Seeing the profits involved, all concerned are conveniently brushing aside the statuary rules, river eco-system & the environmental issues.
“Mining saved us from flood threat this year. Our crops were safe. The more mining is done, the better it would be”, stated another youth involved in mining work.
But neither are all making money nor are all happy with the rampant mining activities. In fact, only mining department, companies and few people are earning profits while large section of society is on the receiving end of adverse impacts.
A local reporter closely monitoring the development refutes the claim that excessive mining provide safety against floods. He finds the argument lacking scientific base and suggests independent studies of the issues over last three years before arriving at such a conclusion.
Farmers in the area also lament mining affecting their crops. Due to mobility of heavy vehicles transporting the sand, the entire country side is filled with thick dust clouds which is taking a toll on the health of villagers also. Notably, air quality in Yamuna Nagar is very poor which is further aggravating by the round the clock mining, crushing and sand transportation work.
Stagnant River, Falling Groundwater Nobody’s Concern
Yamuna is the only perennial river in Haryana. The rest of the rivers namely Somb, Ghaggar, Markanda, Tangri etc. have turned seasonal over a period of time. The basin area of Yamuna has received significantly low rainfall[xii] during monsoon season 2019 leading to untimely and unusually shrinking of flow in the river.
The river keeps replenishing groundwater in adjoining areas and supports farming activities and meets drinking and industrial water needs of a large part of Haryana state. Delhi also depends on the river for most of its drinking water supply. However, the concerned departments seem least bothered about declining water level in the river and adjoining areas.
“Sand is integral part of river eco-system, it keeps the water table stable and caters to base flow in the river during lean season. But no one is acknowledging that brazen mining of riverbed for sand and gravels is in real sense invitation to water crisis also”, adds the reporter.
River Owns No Land
It is even more surprising that the river has no land of its own and lacks legal protection. During discussion with farmers it came out that entire floodplain, riverbed land even the active course of river is owned by farmers. As the river retreats post monsoon, farmers from Haryana and Uttar Pradesh stake their claims on the riverbed and most of it is brought under cultivation. This land is titled as Shamlaat and it becomes center of legal disputes, even physical fights among farmers of two states.
The mining companies also pay compensation to farmers for excavating sand from riverbed. As per rules removal sand layer deposited by floods on farmlands faces less restrictions and mining companies are taking advantage of the loopholes. The mining department acknowledges this. Actually, there is an attempt to create illusion that sand is being removed from the farmlands and not from riverbed.
River people cultural connections; Livelihood sources destroyed
The large scale mining has disconnected centuries old river based cultural and socio-economic connections between river and riverine communities. The sandy riverbed known as Khadar provides livelihood options to scores of marginal farmers who have been traditionally cultivating floodplain vegetables as cash crop. The riverbed farming practice is locally known as Plej. But the rampant mining operations have affected the Plej cultivation in the riverbed.
Similarly the boatmen community used to ferry people across the river during flood and for many following months as a source of income. The boat halting points called Ghats have also been taken over by mechanized mining leaving boatmen community in lurch. Due to lack of boating facilities, villagers are forced to travel extra miles to access bridges to across the river. Fisher-people have also lost livelihood with the drying up of the river.
Local people fear from visiting riverside for bathing on occasion of cultural events which was usual practice earlier. Even the crematorium land by the river of many villages has been lost to mining activities.
People succumbing, Government silent
The lives of the villagers have become hellish on account of rampant illegal and unsustainable mining. On river banks and road sides, they find their lives in great danger. On the one hand people are dying by slipping into deep pits created by illegal mining operations, on the other, number of road accidents have increased due to continuous plying of heavy trucks though rural roads. As per villagers the administration has become a mute onlooker on their plight and at occasions have proactively come out in defense of illegal mining works.
On July 7 2019, 2 kids got drowned to death in a 25-30 fit deep sand mine pit in Kanalsi village. Even after four months the administration has neither initiated any punitive action against the miner nor has it provided any compensation to the victims. The officials are even trying to paint it as natural incident to protect the involved. Villagers accuse district administration of deliberate negligence.
“We have got no justice because we are Balmiki (lower caste) and socially & economically weak. They have buried the issue. We have lost our kids but we don’t want others’ kids to die the same way, For this, the illegal mining has to be stopped”, say parents of deceased kids with moist eyes.
And these are not the only causalities. Over past two years, at least 2 more villagers have succumbed to different incidents involving illegal mining activities. Around May 2018, Dharmendra, a 26 years old youth of Kanasli village fell into deep sand mine pit and died. Similarly, a child was crushed to death by a sand laden truck in Rampur Khadar village. While a couple & an infant of Shahjadpur village narrowly escaped collision with sand transporting vehicle.
Villagers facing atrocities from mining companies
Apart from the fatal incidents, villagers are also bearing the brunt of violent repression from mining companies. In May 2018, Sabbapur villagers were brutally attacked by mining company workers, drivers when they objected to passing of heavy sand trucks through the village road. Villagers blame that administration was hand in gloves with the miners and paid no heed to villager pleas.
“The reckless mining operations have engulfed countryside with dust clouds. Deafening sound of machines and vehicles resembles a war scenario in previously peaceful area. Our homes, crops are under thick dust sheet. We are breathing in and eating dust particles. Roads are broken and filled with pits. Going to riverbanks and on roads has become a risk to life. It seems we are destined to live in miserable condition”, lamented an elderly person of Kanalsi.
Hindi reports describing oppression of village communities by administration and mining companies.
Actually seeing the administrative lethargy the villagers have taken it as their misfortune. Farmers of Kanalsi village also said that the administration lodged complaints against the villagers when they objected to dismantling of a make shift bridge on Somb river, which was built for access to farming land across the river. There are several such instances showing that the mining department and district administration are intimidating the villagers and supporting illegal mining.
Departments busy in blame game
When Shailendra Arora, Regional Officer and Kamaljeet Singh, Environment Assistant, of District Pollution Control Board (PCB) were contacted over phone regarding the impact of unsustainable mining, they simply replied to contact the Mining Department saying that they only act upon complaints. While Rajiv Kumar, Officer, District Mining Department responded that monitoring and control of illegal mining is under PCB officials. Similarly, when Mukul Kumar, District Collector, was briefed on lack of rainfall in basin area and decreasing flow in the river being aggravated be mining activities, he responded with lack of updates on the issue and asked to contact the mining department. He also could not respond on environmental clearances, replenishment studies necessary for mining projects at district level.
Plying of countless heavy trucks through village roads have been causing air, noise pollution, traffic jams and road accidents.
No replenishment study done, no heed being paid to MoEF’s guidelines
Contacting the Mining Department for the second time proved useless as the officer seemed to be openly supporting the unsustainable mining activities. “Mining reduces flood damages. Companies are already bearing losses as they are not able to procure sand for three months during floods. The areas approved for mining also gets flooded causing trouble for companies”, commented Rajiv Kumar.
When he was asked about any replenishment study, environmental approvals and actions against violation of rules, he could not provide any credible details. As per him the department was understaffed, lacking technical expert including proper office, furniture and other resources.
As per the rules, large scale mining projects are supposed to do replenishment study, environmental impact assessments prior to approval of the mining site, however the district administration lacked clarity on the issue.
Rules also prescribe installation of CCTVs, Bar Code and GPS system, demarcation of mining areas with poles. But all these are limited to the rulebook.
No clarity on district mineral foundation and utilization of funds
As per the Mining of Minor Mineral Act 1957, 9 B, governments have to form DMF in mining affected districts. One third of revenue generated through mining work is deposited in the DMF which is utilized to do environmental restoration work.
Though there is Haryana District Mineral Foundation (DMF) Trust Rules, 2016[xiii] in place but there is no information about functioning of the DMF in Yamuna Nagar district.
In Haryana, 10 per cent of mining revenue has to be put in DMF for addressing environmental issues in mining affected areas. The fund can also be utilized in providing public health facilities to locals in the mining areas. But the locals are totally unaware of the DMF formation and utilization of funds. There is no government website sharing the details of money spent and activities undertaken under the provision. Given the opaque scenario, corruption and irregularities in the utilization of the fund cannot be ruled out.
Yamuna is the largest and important tributary nurturing the National River Ganga. The river is already under existential threat on account of ever increasing pollution load and decreasing flow. Under the prevailing condition, the non-stop, unsustainable, mechanized and illegal mining of riverbed is further driving the river to extinction apart from causing immeasurable sufferings to the local villagers.
Will the judiciary particularly National Green Tribunal take urgent action on the issue? Given the scale of unsustainable ongoing riverbed mining, silence of Upper Yamuna River Board, NGT Committee and basin states on ecological disaster in the making, is disturbing.
Bhim Singh Rawat (firstname.lastname@example.org)