The hilly state of Uttarakhand also known as land of rivers has seen increase in riverbed quarrying operations over past decade. With establishment of stone crushers industry, scale and intensity of riverbed minerals (RBM) excavation has further increased in past few years. So has become the impact on villagers and rivers.
However, the government lacks monitoring, transparency, accountability in checking the unscientific, unauthorized RBM as is evident from a review of Uttarakhand Mining and Geology Department (M&G) website and media reports. In fact the state government has neither conducted replenishment study nor formed District Mineral Foundation (DMF), suggesting that it is hand in gloves in organized loot of RBMs.
Relaxing rules, diluting norms
Like past years, the state took several decisions since early 2019 to facilitate the riverbed mining and stone crushers while overlooking on impact on rivers, people and environment. In Oct 2019, Uttarakhand allowed mining[i] within one km of either side of bridges on the river.
The Nainital High Court (HC) in October 2016 has ordered to ban mining in rivers 1 km upstream and downstream of bridges. Ashsih Sehgal had challenged the decision in Supreme Court (SC) which cancelled the HC order in July 2019. Following this government officially allowed resumption in mining activities in close proximity of bridges.
Similarly to start mining in Ganga river between Bhogpur and Raiwala stretch the government in January 2020 asked IIT Kanpur and Forest Research Institute (FRI) Dehradun to undertake a drone survey[ii] of the area to study and explore possibilities of RBM.
The decision was taken after a meeting with National Mission of Clean Ganga (NMCG) in which officials of several departments including Forest Development Corporation (FDC) and M&G Department had raised the issue. The ban was imposed by National Green Tribunal (NGT) on a report filed by Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) & NMCG while the state government was against such move.
For past several years the saints of Matri Sadan, Haridwar has been strongly objecting[iii] to excessive and mechanized mining in Ganga river. In 2019 first Swami Atambodhanand sat for 128 days fast and then in end of 2019, upto early 2020 lady saint Padmavati observed fast unto death demanding free flowing river and halt in mining operation.
The government in Feb 2020, authorized district magistrates[iv] to permit commercial mining on private land. Earlier, the patta holder had to seek the permission from state govt for mining of RBM including gravels, boulders and sand which are majorly used in construction works.
In a cabinet meeting the Chief Minister (CM) approved 10 such proposals out of 13 discussed. Protesting against the decisions, activities termed it a move to facilitate mining mafias. In the same meeting, govt approved changes in boundaries of eco-sensitive zone around Corbett Tiger Reserve.
In the same month, Uttarakhand cabinet approved an amendment[v] in Uttarakhand Minor Mineral Concession Rules 2001 according to which now riverbed material (RBM) can be mined up to a depth of three metres which was limited to only 1.5 m earlier. The govt termed the decision as mere implementation of Sustainable Sand Mining Guidelines, 2016 issued by Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF).
Criticizing the decision as detrimental to the ecology of rivers, the environmentalists decided to legally challenge it. They said that the excessive mining would increase flood disasters in adjoining villages.
In Jan 2020 the govt was reportedly bringing new stone crusher policy[vi]. The move is projected as measure to control illegal mining but it seems this is another attempt to legalize unsustainable quarrying practices. The crusher industry is divided into four categories stone crushers, screening plants, mobile crusher plants and hot or ready mix plants according to their functioning and production capacities. The mobile crusher units are allowed[vii] to facilitate construction of Char Dham Highway project and Rishikesh-Srinagar Railway line work.
The license fees has been doubled and plants are directed to locate themselves 3 km in plains and 250 metres away in mountain area from river. The report also mentions about compliance to environmental rules such as development of green zones, maintaining air and noise pollution levels which are seldom adhered to. Further it allows transfer of old non-functioning plant to new contractors.
In Oct 2019, with an aim to double the revenue, the govt planned to amend[viii] the mining rules. The amendment included giving permits for crusher units only to those business person who has a valid mining lease. It is proposed to cancel the licence if found that mining has been done in less than 80 per cent of proposed mining.
Similarly the govt had considered removing[x] of Radio Frequency Identification Chips (RFIDs) intruded on vehicles engaged in Gola river mining in Haldwani by FDC (Forest Development Corporation) following HC orders on the basis of large scale unauthorized mining in the river.
Some vehicle operators were learnt to deliberately destroying the chips which was registering the vehicle details during entry and exit in mining zone.
More Rivers Opened For Mining, Crusher Industry
In past few years, government has allowed mining and stone crushers at at Badkot, Naugon, Nainbagh, Lakhwar, Hathiyari in the Yamuna Valley where the riverbed is fragile. These crushers are being allowed to provide construction material to Natwar Hydro Electric Power (HEP) and Char Dham Highway Project works.
Villagers have been raising the issue of damages to farm crops and grazing lands apart from noise and air pollution affecting the pristine environment. The issue is neither covered by media nor addressed by the administration.
The stone crusher at Lakhwar is found running for full one year in 2018-19 despite expiry of operation[xi] period. These stone crushers are also seen discharging untreated water in river in violation of stipulated norms.
But the state govt agencies deliberately failed to act as it is providing raw material to under-construction Vyasi HEP. On the contrary the administration takes actions against locals for raising the issue.
Further the foothill stretch of river running between Dakpathar Barrage and Poanta Sahib Bridge has been facing mechanized mining operations, both government sponsored and illegal. In May 2019, such rampant mining operation being carried out particularly in nights, has undermined[xii] the safety of Dakpathar barrage[xiii] at Vikas Nagar.
Despite some actions, the mining operations are reported to be mostly going unabated during nights even during the lockdown. In March 2020, illegal mining[xiv] is seen taking place at Singhpur village at the border of Himachal Pradesh. The area under the forest dept had been auctioned but mining was not allowed due to non-completion of certain procedures. However, mining operators had started digging riverbed.
Similarly there have been incidents of illegal mining and stone crusher units violating environmental norms in Khoh river in Kotdwar[xv], Alaknanda river in Srinagar, Pindar river[xvi] in Rudraprayag, Asan river in Dehradun, Kosi and Dabka rivers in Ramnagar, Gola river in Haldwani, Saryu river in Bageshwar and Sharda river in Champawat.
Reports also show that mining is carried in excess, crusher units storing more RBM than permitted. Administration failure and harassment of villagers[xvii], locals for complaining against illegal mining activities also seems becoming a routine affair.
In the past few years, targeting more revenue[xviii] the govt has allowed quarrying activities in more rivers even inside and in buffer zones of National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries including Nandhaur wildlife sanctuary, Rajaji National Park, Jim Corbett National Park without considering impacts on wildlife and rivers.
In 2018, it planned to open 20 more sites[xix] in Gola river in Nainital district for quarrying activities. The district already had 23 mining sites making it biggest quarrying district in Uttarakhand. It also started e tendering process for 10 of its quarrying lots, 4 in Udham Singh Nagar and 6 in Pauri district.
The mining lobby has also been demanding separate policy for mining in Ganga river in Haridwar. According to sources, almost 70 percent of mined material[xx] is supplied to neighbouring states, mainly Uttar Pradesh. Most of the RBM from Rawason river in Haridwar and Kosi river in Udham Singh Nagar reaches stone crusher units across the border in UP.
The Gola and Nandhaur river which are in ecologically diverse region of Chorgaliya are among the mining hotspots in the state reportedly fetching upto Rs. 200 crores and Rs. 50 crores on annual basis.
The large scale illegal mining in Gola river has changed the river course[xxi] and impacted water supply to Haldwani town. The mining is being done upto 2-3 metres lowering the water table in the area. Due to excessive mining river has run short of RBM, despite this FDC was surveying more areas for RBM demarcation.
Govt allows mining amid Lockdown, Depts, public fear contamination
On April 20, 2020, providing relaxation to mining industry the state govt permitted RBM mining. In Gola river case, the administration finds it risky[xxii] stating that labours will not be able to follow the rule of social distancing in mining operations. On April 23, 2020, the miners have also raised similar concerns[xxiii] reportedly in writing to officials of FDC.
Further, in Sharda river mining case, the workers of FDC have protested against permission[xxiv] of mining fearing impossibility of social distancing and high chances of spread in Covid 19 infection among labours.
The lockdown has also affected mining labours[xxvi] severely. FDC officials say the sector employs almost one lakh daily wagers in mineral extraction from 10 different rivers during the 8 months Oct-May.
The maximum number of workers (around 30,000) is deployed at Gola river, followed by Nandhaur river (with 10,000 workers), and at Dabka, Kosi, and Sharda river stretches (each with 5,000 workers). In Garhwal region, at least 25,000 people are employed in mining activities. About half of the workforce managed to return to their native villages. But the remaining 50,000 workers are stranded around the sites. FDC has fetched revenue of around Rs 231 crore against its total target of Rs 379 crore for the financial year (FY) of 2019-20. The corporation has paid Rs 148 crore for royalty and stamp duty.
In March 2020, the HC has prohibited use of heavy machines[xxvii] for mining in the Sarayu river in Bageshwar district. The petition has argued that the state govt, through an advertisement, had asked for public bidding for mining in the river,approving use of machines where mining is being done manually for years. It added that the use of big machines will not only affect the local economy but also lead to environmental degradation. The HC has given three weeks to the state govt to respond. The case will be heard next when the govt files its affidavit.
The petition also stated[xxviii] that open bidding was invited on March 9 with last date of March 19 but the site was auctioned very next day on March 20. The local people had submitted their petition to district administration on March 13 but no action was taken hence they were forced to move court. They stated that the auction was against state’s Rivers Training Policy 2020.
In July 2019, the HC had directed FDC to inform the court about the steps taken to check illegal extraction of river-bed material from the Kosi river a Kumaon river that originates in Almora and flows through Ramnagar.
In March, 2018, NGT has reinforced its ban on mining along the banks of Ganga in Haridwar while expressing “anguish” that despite the tribunal’s orders the MoEF&CC gave environmental clearances to the FDC to continue mining in the region. The NGT said that mining licenses have to be restrained until a study by the FRI on mined areas of rivers is completed.
The Nainital HC in June 2018 had directed the state government to ensure that there was no mining within 10 km[xxix] from boundaries of national wildlife parks, without nod of the National Wildlife Board. According to the petitioner, the areas adjoining Rajaji national park that have been leased out for mining fall within 10 km range.
Also, in Aug 2018, the court had directed the govt to not issue licenses for establishing stone crushers/ screening plants without assessing the carrying capacity of Kosi and Dabka rivers.
In Dec 2018, NGT had put a stop on quarrying[xxx] on the Nandhaur river citing its proximity to the Nandhaur Wildlife Sanctuary in Nainital district, barely a month after the process of extracting sand and gravel for construction purposes had begun for the current season.
The FDC had allowed the quarrying following the state govt’s repeated attempts at seeking necessary clearances from the MoEF&CC after the 10-year lease for quarrying had ended in 2016. The govt had in April 2018 allowed 580 vehicles to quarry on a first-come-first-served basis. There are about 2,900 vehicles in Nainital registered to carry out quarrying activities.
Similarly, in March 2017, HC had directed the state govt to take a strict stand on illegal mining and put a stop on such activities in Kosi and Dabka riverbeds with immediate effect.
Changing River Profiles
Some reports are indicating that the river morphology in state is changing significantly. The rivers are filled with increased loads of silt, debris, boulders which locals feel would change river course and cause flooding in adjoining areas. Hence there is rise in demand for removing the debris loads from residents and administration. The Bhagirathi river[xxxi] in Uttarkashi and Ladhiya in Champawat are two rivers reported in media.
The main reasons behind the phenomena could be growing impact of anthropocentric activities in the catchment of these rivers specially the construction of Char Dham Highway Projects in which road cutting debris are being indiscriminately and directly dumped into adjoining rivers, steams. Apart from this, the increasing landslides events, glacial melting and cloud burst events are further increasing debris loads in the rivers.
As a remedial move the govt is allowing river channeling and training works with use of machines which could in fact, increase the flood disasters. In Ladhiya river, the govt has allowed river training[xxxii] work through tendering of 88 000 ton of RBM removal earning revenue of Rs. 26 lakh. There are similar demands for Ganga river in Haridwar and other rivers.
On April 29, 2020 Kotiyana, Kulsari Bagad villagers in Tharali objected[i] to mechanized mining work in Pindar river without even demarcation of the mining area. The work is allowed in disguise of river training work.
G&M Department, FDC websites useless
It is surprising that the G&M department website[xxxiii] has not been updated for past many years. There is no information about total mining leases, stone crushers units, RBMs being mined annually and collection of revenue.
Similarly the website has no information about district survey reports and replenishment study while mining activities are being undertaken in all the districts. The previous records available on the website shows, in 2001-02 the state govt was earning Rs.16.09 Crore revenue from RBMs which increased to Rs.112.39 Cr in 2011-12. No documents are available after 2012.
The search of the website has also revealed that in Oct 2017, the govt formed guidelines and rules[xxxiv] regarding formation of District Minerals Foundation (DMF) for all the districts. Then on April 19[xxxv], 27[xxxvi], 2018 and on June 25, 2018[xxxvii], the director M&G has written thrice to all the districts magistrates apprising it about formation of DMF and details of activities and expenses undertaken under district minerals fund. However not a single district seems to have replied to the letters.
The FDC website[xxxviii] suggests that most of the RBM mining activities are being undertaken through the dept. However it shares very little information on mining activities and has no basic information about mandatory surveys and studies.
Summary The single agenda of state govt seems revenue generation through RBMs without looking at or addressing the adverse impacts on rivers, people and environment. It has been proactively taking many steps only to relax mining, crusher industry activities while weakening decentralized governance and violating norms. In the last few years, it has deliberately allowed large scale illegal, unsustainable mining at a throw away price of RBMs to facilitate constructions of road, hydro projects.
Reports claim various figures regarding annual revenue generation through RBM excavation which varies from Rs. 300 to 800 crores. Around 70 percent of RBMs mined are supplied out of the state. The Gola, Nandaur, Ganga, Kosi, Dabka, Yamuna, Khoh, Asan, Alaknanda, Pindar, Saryu, Sharda rivers are already subjected to unsustainable, illegal mining practices. There is attempt to allow more mining spots and deeper mining in these rivers. The mining lobby has become influential. It has been successful in illegally mining RBMs and pressuring govt to open more mining areas.
The govt is seen facilitating mining activities in river stretches falling inside protected forest without consent of the wildlife board. The state govt seems totally indifferent to MoEF guidelines and knowingly ignoring number of HC, NGT orders which warn the govt over rampant mechanized mining works. In fact, it has become habit of the state govt to reach apex court seeking stays against such orders.
Govt appears so desperate to begin RBMs that it has allowed relaxation to mining works amid lockdown without thoroughly assessing the situation and now the FDC, miners, public representation are themselves stepping back citing infection spread as norm of social distance is impractical in mining.
Around one lakh workers earning livelihood from the trade have been given no benefits from DMF during Covid 19 crisis. The M&G dept has virtually become a rubber stamp. It has no information regarding district survey reports. The FDC also has no information about replenishment study. Like DMF there seems no functioning State Environment Impact Assessment Authority and District Environment Impact Assessment Authority and the govt is happily keeping a mum on the issue. Both these agencies are also facing severe staff crunch impacting illegal mining control work.
Due to climate change and large scale construction activities in the catchment of rivers, the load of RBMs seems increasing dangerously but the govt and mining lobby sees it as an opportunity to mine rivers more without any credible impact assessment or addressing the root causes.
Bhim Singh Rawat (email@example.com)
It is also worth to mention that one of the key reasons behind Uttarakhand government seeking permission for diversion of 778 hectares area of the Rajaji National Park (RNP) allegedly on temporary basis for Kumbh 2021event is, to keep Haridwar Kumbh area open for mining activities in Ganga which if declared a Kumbh Kshetra – as the saints have been demanding – would rein in riverbed mining activities there. https://india.mongabay.com/2020/05/uttarakhand-eyes-a-part-of-rajaji-tiger-reserve-for-kumbh/ (07 May 2020)