(Feature Image:In Sindhudurg, the pollution is already shrinking mangrove cover, taking away a source of shelter and food, shrinking hunting grounds and forcing marine species further outside their territories in search of fish, Sindhudurg coastline had the potential to become an International tourism destination. Pratik Chorge/HT PHOTO)
The beaches, creeks, rivers, mangroves in the state of Maharashtra all are bearing the brunt of unsustainable mining, amid several attempts by government, judiciary and civil societies to keep a tab on illegal sand mining activities. As the detailed compilation by SANDRP highlights that mining menace warrants immediate actions from government before the threats turns into a disaster.
In Jan. 2019, to streamline the auctioning process and avert illegal mining, Maharashtra government framed the auction policy[i] for sale of the Mines and Minerals. According to the notification issued by the revenue department, the sand and mineral auction will take place after seeking permission from the local body. It further stated that the district collector will carry out the technical and geological survey of this demarcated mining area by the field experts. The e-tender or e-auction will happen of these demarcated mining areas only. The period of this area mining will be five years maximum.
Same month the government planned amendment[ii] in Maharashtra Land Revenue (Extraction and Removal of Minor Minerals) Rules 1968 to control illegal sand mining practices. According to a senior revenue official, the penalties for various violations in sand extracting and removing were quite high. As a result the offenders were doing a settlement with the local revenue officers under the table.
As per the present notification, the state government charges a penalty of Rs 25,000 if the drill machines were found using for illegal sand mining. While for the tractor the penalty is Rs 1 lakh, for dumper/trolly penalty is Rs 2 lakh, troller charges are Rs 5 lakh and for the mechanised loader, the penalty is Rs 7.50 lakh. The officials stated that there would be at least 20 % cut in these charges.
In a crackdown on illegal sand mining, a special police team on Feb. 5 raided[iii] the Chikhaldongri Reti Bunder located in the midst of mangroves in Virar (west). The Arnala coastal police and revenue department were caught off guard when raid took place. Though the exact quantity of sand extracted illegally from the riverbed by destroying mangroves was being worked out, additional superintendent of police, Vijaykant Sagar, said so far around 400 brass (1 brass=100 square feet) were measured.
Illegal miners were known to excavate sand from Khanivade and Vaitarna creek in Virar. Sources said the miners had moved to Chikhaldongri in the past several months as vigil and raids at Khanivade and Vaitarna creek had increased. A huge stretch of mangroves at Chikhaldongri had been destroyed.
Sand mining at Mahim Causeway was once again raising concern[iv] among residents and environmentalists, who said that the illegal activity put lives at risk and was also harmful to the ecosystem. The space along the creek, which was empty some time back, was now dotted with pakka houses, constructed with sand mined from the causeway.
On March 4, the Palghar police raided the creek-side village[v] near Virar and seized at least 24 electronic detonators that were being used to carry out explosions. The police said that the accused persons were illegally dredging sand by use of explosions, leading to panic in the neighbourhood.
The border area between district Gondia in Maharashtra and Balaghat in Madhya Pradesh was emerging as hub for sand mafia[vi]. Huge quantity of sand was mined illegally in Madhya Pradesh and then smuggling it to Maharashtra for sale.
Interestingly, Madhya Pradesh Government recovered Rs 362.50 as royalty per brass and on the other hand, Maharashtra Government’s Gondia District Mining Department recovered Rs 2000 per brass. With huge difference between the rates of royalty, mafia was mining sand in bordering villages and towns of Madhya Pradesh and then selling the stolen sand at the borders of Maharashtra.
Due to lack of auction of sand ghats in the district, almost all the sand trawlers was trafficked by the mafia. To prevent this, the District Collector had taken various measures. However, the picture showed that there was no effect on the sand smuggling.
Brazen, illegal sand mining with the use of high-powered suction pumps[vii] was found going on inside the wetland, near the Kharghar-Mansarovar rail bridge in Kharghar node. Local city activists had reported about this to the senior district officials who assured speedy action against the offenders. The entire mangrove stretch between Kharghar and Mansarovar was in constant danger from land sharks and those who indulge in illegal sand mining. Often, a large patch of mangroves were deliberately destroyed so that suction pumps could be set up to take out the sand from this coastal region.
As per April 28 report, the crime branch’s Vasai unit busted a sand dredging racket[viii] and seized illegally mined sand and equipment worth Rs. 18 lakh from Khaniwade Retibundar following complaints of illegal sand dredging activity. The officials found that the accused had sucked out 155 brass sand worth around Rs. 7.75 lakh from the spot with the help of five suction pumps. The crime branch also seized suction pumps worth around Rs. 10 lakh and illegally mined sand from the spot.
In May, the state government’s decision to grant Environment Clearance (EC) and permit district collectors to auction sand ghats with public hearing was challenged[ix] for being in contempt of National Green Tribunal (NGT) orders. Akot-based wildlife lawyer Manish Jeswani had approached NGT for specific directions against the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) for violating its orders of Sept 13, 2018, and Dec 11, 2018. These orders had made it mandatory for states to hold public hearing and undertake EIA while granting EC for river bed mining. In February 2019, SEIAA Maharashtra accorded EC without public hearing or EIA, empowering district collectors to auction sand ghats despite knowing the tribunal orders.
On May 10, illegal sand mining was seen taking place in Vena dam bed[x] in Nagpur district. The Water resources department (WRD) had given permission to some local farmers to excavate silt from the dried up reservoir. However, some villagers were taking away sand as well. WRD officials were unaware of this fact.
Illegal sand mining was rampant in the district. Some influential politicians backed the sand mafia as a result of which police and revenue officials were turning a blind eye towards illegal mining. The revenue officials had also charged Nandanvan police of shielding sand smugglers. They had tried to run over the officials but cops did not book the culprits under stringent sections. While WRD were unaware of the matter, environmentalists having visited the location confirmed[xi] that illegal sand mining was happening at the site under the pretext of desiltation.
The Nagpur bench of Bombay HC on May 2 took suo motu cognisance of the rising menace of the sand mafia[xii], including attacks on the cops and directed additional government pleader Anand Deshpande to inform the court about the steps taken by government to protect its officers deployed to curb sand mining cases, including police personnel. He was told to reply before the end of the summer vacations.
Same month, seeing the widespread damage by illegal sand mining activities across the state, the Awaaz Foundation initiated “Save Our Sand[xiii] (SOS)” a public awareness campaign. The drive focussed on the critical issue of sand mining and urged people to demand implementation of rules to protect sand.
In June, the Aurangabad divisional commissionerate deployed UAV[xiv] to verify complaints of illegal extraction of sand from the Godavari river at Nanded. While in 2016, the Nagpur administration had used a drone for surveillance of sand ghats, an official from the Nanded collectorate said this was the first instance where a drone was used to crack down on illegal mining. He added that this use of drones was now likely to be replicated across Maharashtra. Nanded had around 35 authorised sand mining spots, largely on the banks of the Godavari and the market value of sand was Rs 4,175 per brass.
Another official said the Marathwada region had around 200 sand ghats, where mining was allowed but more sand than the permitted quantity was extracted and illegal mining was also taking place on river banks and water bodies.
According to the state government’s 2018 sand mining policy, illegal extraction was penalised with the stocks being seized and e-auctioned and the money being deposited in the state treasury. For over-extraction, miners were penalised with five times the market value of the extra quantity. The report further mentions that Maharashtra was earning around Rs 1,200 crore annually from sand auction.
After Godavari, Aurangabad district administration planned to employ drones[xv] to check illegal sand mining in Pune and Solapur districts. As per administration, it had impounded vehicles and collected Rs 2.81 crore in fines from people involved in illegal sand mining in both districts between April to June.
The Supreme Court (SC) on July 24 agreed to examine[xvi] a petition seeking a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into illegal sand mining, causing severe environmental degradation in the country. A bench led by Justice SA Bobde issued notices to the Centre and five states where the illegal sand mining is reportedly rampant: Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra.
The bench was initially reluctant to entertain the matter and asked the petitioner’s counsel Prashant Bhushan to approach a high court. It later agreed to look into the issue after Bhushan pressed that illegal sand mining was causing environmental degradation in a number of states.
The petition sought eight directions[xvii] vide its prayers. The plea said “no EC would be accorded to any sand mining project without a proper Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), Environmental Management Plan (EMP) and Public Consultation, and appraisal as per the EIA Notification 2006. “Prashant Bhushan and Pranav Sachdeva, appearing on behalf of the petitioners, said mining was going on in states without EC as required by law. The petitioner sought directions to the Centre to implement and enforce Sustainable Sand Mining Management Guidelines, 2016, Minor Minerals Conservations and Development Rules, 2010, and the mining plan to be approved under the MMDR Act, 1957.
On August 28, a truck driver was arrested[xviii] by Pune police for transporting sand illegally after a search of ten months. The accused was caught on October 2, 2018 when revenue department officials, while conducting checks at Shevalwadi phata, seized several trucks for transporting sand illegally. But Khaire and the other drivers managed to flee from the spot with the seized trucks.
In a related development, at least four trucks that were seized by revenue department officials for illegally transporting sand were stolen from the premises of a government office in Queens Garden on July 9 and 10.
In a significant development, state government planned a two year study to assess the population of otters[xix] and threats to their habitat from sand mining after the Indian government successfully convinced the United Nations (UN) to ban commercial trade in smooth-coated and Asian small-clawed otters on Aug. 26.
After the directives of the Nagpur bench of Bombay High Court (HC), the state government had framed new guidelines[xx] for sand mining, transportation and sale for the entire state. The state’s revenue and forest department issued a notification regarding the new guidelines on September 3. The government was to place the guidelines before the HC and implement them accordingly.
The HC directions came after some PILs were filed describing destruction to environment due to rampant illegal sand mining and huge revenue loss to the government. During the hearing on December 7, 2018, the HC had directed the government to frame new guidelines and submit them in the first week of May. Later, the HC had extended the deadline.
The government had also asked the district administration to explore the possibilities of excavating sand with mud from river beds and sand from dams. This could create a controversy as most of the dams are situated in the forest area and had approaches from small villages.
In October a Marathi short film Valu[xxi] (Sand in Marathi) was produced that dealt with the politics of sand and water. The 12-minute short film is a fictional tale mirroring the water crisis in the Paithan region. It narrates the story of a farmer who sets out to expose the ruthless sand mafia that’s destroying the river. When he discovers that his bore-well has dried up, the farmer approaches the district collector for help but his complaint falls on deaf ears. What happens when he decides to take matters in his own hands forms the rest of the story. It was to be screened at the 26th Austin Film Festival on October 25 & 30.
Barely 500 metres from the site of the ongoing work on the 4th and 5th railway tracks at Reti Bunder area near Mumbra station in Thane creek, an illegal sand dredging[xxii] was spotted during broad daylight by politicians and environmentalists. They warned the government that it would damage the ongoing railway work and harm the tracks.
The 12-km stretch of Thane creek, which is about 30 km north of Mumbai, has become a main source of sand for the construction industry in Mumbai, Thane and Navi Mumbai. In the past, the authorities had taken action against the illegal sand mining in the Thane and other creeks near Mumbai.
In a first[xxiii], Pune rural police filed cases under the stringent Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) against three men accused of illegally extracting sand from riverbeds on Nov. 12. The action came after the Nagpur bench of Bombay HC asked the state government in August whether the MCOCA could be invoked against the sand mafia to curb their activities.
As per Narayan Shirgaonkar, sub-divisional police officer, Baramati division, the gang was known to excavate the river basins during night. In many cases, because of nexus with local revenue authorities, they had manage to get away with it. He further said that the gang targeted and damaged the basins of Bhima, Sina, Nira and Mula rivers across Pune, Solapur and Ahmednagar districts.
In another significant development, the state government issued a resolution on Nov 13 making it mandatory[xxiv] for all government construction work undertaken by the Public Works Department to use at least 20 per cent artificial or manufactured (M) sand in the total sand mix.
As per an informative article by Sumaira Abdulali of Awaz Foundation, the Bombay HC in 2010 had directed the government to consider alternatives and the government of India and Maharashtra had incorporated some of these solutions into revised policies over the last nine years.
She also said that the 2016 guidelines for sustainable sand mining of Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) does not acknowledge existence of mafia, laying the burden of responsibility to implement sand extraction rules on inadequately trained and equipped district level officers who are vulnerable to threat and attack by the mafia.
As per Sumaira, the Government Resolution mandating use of M sand for PWD projects was welcome, although it contained no details[xxv] of mechanisms for implementation on the ground or for expansion to other government departments, private builders, etc.
In a violent attack, the driver of a dumper carrying illegally-dredged sand tried to run over a constable[xxvi] on Nov. 17 after an impromptu police raid on the sand mafia in Virar. The incident highlighted how illegal sand mining continues unabated in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, especially in its far corners, and how daring mafia members had become.
In a seven-hour operation, a team of 15 forest officers from Shahpur division arrested three people[xxvii] for illegal sand mining inside a reserved forest, near Tansa Wildlife Sanctuary, in Thane district on Nov. 25. The team also seized three tractors and 2.5 brass sand (approximately 10,000 kg) during the operation. While the confiscated sand is worth ₹20,000, the tractors are worth ₹2.5 lakh.
A study by central government revealed that Maharashtra lagged in terms of implementing[xxviii] the sand mining policy despite being a frontrunner in construction activities. It further stated that Maharashtra “is the only state that does not have any figure for the total production of river sand”. It noted that the electronic monitoring of the sand extraction process using CCTVs “is followed in some districts”. The same study was earlier mentioned[xxix] in March 2018.
A joint team of revenue Department and rural police in Nagpur busted an illegal sand mining racket[xxx] after reaching the place in the guise of a marriage party and caught the accused unaware in Khapa area early on December 8 morning. The raid was so sudden that the miners fled leaving five tractors.
Anil Kumar Helkar, tehsildar of Paranda in Osmanabad district was seriously injured[xxxi] on December 14 in an attack carried out at a stone crushing unit that facilitated illegal sand mining. A team led by deputy superintendent of police (Bhoom) Vinod Tambe raided the spot after the incident and seized two tractors, one tipper truck and booked several people for attempt to murder under the IPC as well as for violations under the Mining Act.
Summary The news reports from Maharashtra show that the beaches, creeks, rivers, mangroves all are bearing the brunt of unsustainable mining, amid several attempts by government, judiciary and civil societies to keep a tab on illegal sand mining activities.
In the beginning of the year, the state government framed the auction policy to make the sand availability easier and amended Land Revenue Rules, 1968 to slash penalties by 20 per cent to stop corruption in the department. And towards the end of the year, it issued GT making use of 20 per cent M sand mandatory in PWD projects.
There were actions by police and revenue department to curb the menace including impounding of vehicles, machinery and imposing monetary fines. In June, the Aurangabad division started use of UAV drones to check illegal sand extraction in Godavari river. The initiative was to be replicated across the state. In Nov., Pune police applied MCOCA against sand mafia, first time in the state. The step was taken after judicial intervention. The Nagpur incident of Dec. is quite interesting in which the team raided the illegal mining activities in Khapa area under the disguise of a marriage party.
However, the reports also show that in growing trend the miners were using high powered suction pumps apart from dredgers. Illegal mining of sand from Vena dam bed under the pretext of desiltation also shows government has to be proactive.
The mindless mining was also seen posing threats to causeway and bridges in separate incidents. The border area of Gondia and Balaghat districts across Bagh river has particularly emerged hub of illegal sand mining business specifically due to significant changes in mining policies of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.
The year also saw about three violent attacks on government officials in March, November and December. In March incident while the revenue officials were accusing police for not taking action against criminals for attacking their staff, the police was seen backing off seeing the support of the politicians.
It was then, that the Bombay HC took suo moto cognisance of the matter asking government to brief the court about the steps taken to protect the government officials from violent attacks by mining mafias.
In May, the state government decision to allow mining permission by district collectors with public hearing was also challenged in the NGT. In July SC issued notices to five state governments including Maharashtra on a PIL seeking CBI inquiry into sand mining projects going on without EC. In September, the Bombay HC again asked the government to frame new sand mining guidelines.
The report based on central government study republished again states that Maharashtra government was lagging behind in implementation of sustainable sand mining guidelines and the state has not worked out amount of sand being extracted from rivers, creeks and beaches.
The SOS campaign by Awaz Foundation in May, government decision to conduct two years study on impact of sand mining on otters habitats in August and production of Valu short film showing impact of unsustainable sand mining on water resources and agricultural in October month are other highlights of the year pertaining to sand mining sector in the state.
Thus the year 2019 has been quite eventful in all spheres. However, the state government still needs to take strict steps and make serious efforts to protect the precious and finite natural resource. To begin with, at least it must make its geology and mining department website functional[xxxii] which lacks relevant information and is not user friendly. Hope 2020 will see improvement in sand mining governance in Maharashtra.
Bhim Singh Rawat (email@example.com)