India Rivers Week · Rivers · Sand Mining

South Zone Sand Mining Dialogue: The grain of sand is habitat for many lives

One of the central themes of the lively presentations and discussion at the South India Sand Mining Dialogue was that the grain of sand is a habitat for so many lives, as so brilliantly put forward by Munmun Dhalaria, one of the panelists. Another key highlight was that Yogeshwaran, the lawyer painfully noted that sand mining laws are neither environment friendly nor people friendly and can be environment friendly only if they are people friendly.

Dr Jagdish Krishnaswamy of ATREE made a comprehensive presentation on South Zone sand mining issues where he not only put question mark on M sand or imported sand as alternatives to sand mining since these either create new problems or transfer the problems elsewhere. Well known scientist Prof Brij Gopal also highlighted some of the severe impacts of sand manufacture from recycling construction waste in NOIDA. Dr Krishnaswamy also highlighted the huge potential of using the sand in the sediment getting trapped in reservoirs behind the dams, either in situ or through draw down flushing of the reservoirs where feasible.

The virtual Dialogue was held on Nov 7, 2020 (4-6 pm) as part of the India Rivers Week 2020[i] theme “Is Sand Mining Killing Our River. The South Zone Dialogue was efficiently and yet passionately moderated by Independent Nature Educator Dipti Humraskar & S.Vishwanath, a Bhagirath Prayas Samman Awardee[ii], of the Biome Environmental Trust and an adjunct faculty in the Azim Premji University. This was second Dialogue in the series, the North Zone Dialogue was held earlier on Oct 31, 2020[iii]. The South Zone includes the states and Union Territories of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Pondicherry. While Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh were well represented in the dialogue, the rest of the states were covered to some extent in the South Zone report.

The full 2 hour event can be watched at this link: FB live of the SZ Dialogue[iv]:

The full video of South Zone Dialogue[v] is also available at:

South Zone Report The South Zone River Sand Mining Report, prepared by Dr Jagdish Krishnaswamy of ATREE (Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment) had a number of notable features[vi], including:

  • Showing how peninsular rivers are much different and have much lower sediment load and hence lower sand mining potential compared to Himalayan Rivers. This is further adversely affected by the dams trapping large proportion of the sediment brought by the rivers.
  • It also provided examples of how accumulated sediment in dams is flushed out in other countries that not only helps restore the reservoir storage capacity, but also provides additional sand in the downstream areas.
  • The report provided highlights of the various recent research papers on the subject of sand mining in South India. For example one of the study by Hemalatha AC et al published in 2005 showed how irrigation wells in sand mining areas along the Uttara Pinakini in Gauribidanur area in Karnataka suffered negative externality in terms of lower yields and failures, thus the sand mined in this area should be imposed additional tax of around 13% to compensate the suffering farmers.
  • Giving example of District Survey Report of Nammakal district of Tamil Nadu it showed, how the reports are doctored to establish big sand mining potential in all the rivers.
Screen shot from the SZ report presentation by Dr Krishnaswamy

The full presentation given by Dr Krishnaswamy at the Dialogue can be downloaded here.

PANEL DISCUSSION The eminent panel of South Zone had six members. Munmun Dhalaria is a documentary filmmaker and National Geographic Storytelling Explorer focusing on the human-wildlife interface. She narrated her amazing experience of travelling down the 300 km stretch of Cauvery River on a raft in Karnataka from its place of origin at Bhagamandalam to Karnataka-TN border. She showed a brilliant 5 minutes clip of her 12 minute documentary film “The story of sand in the Cauvery: UNearthED”[vii]:

The film shows how indiscriminate sand mining since the 1990s has led to dwindling numbers of Otters from the banks of the Cauvery river, which otherwise used to be found on sand dunes in large numbers. This has in turn led to the avoidable conflict between fisherfolks and Otters. The film also brilliantly shows how sand on the banks, beds and islands of the rivers also stores large quantity of water, about 20% of its volume and that water than becomes available in drier seasons. The Billions of Cubic Meters of sand that has been extracted over the years has also thus destroyed natural water storage capacity of billions of cubic meters. The bed level of the Cauvery river has dropped by over 2 mts at a number of places due to sand mining. The film also highlights how contrcution waste and mining debris can provide substitute for sand to a large extent. Munmun was passionate when she said that the best option for sand is to leave it where it belongs: the River.

Screen shot from the Film: UNearthED

Munmun also gave the example of Sujatha, a coffee planter in Coorg in Karnataka who lets the stream just be. Her plantation is also a wildlife habitat. Sujatha described how within a period of just about 20 years we have destroyed so much life.

Nisarg, a wildlife biologist who has worked on otters along Cauvery and other streams and rivers in the Western Ghats and the Deccan plateau, described the state of Otters even in the 110 km long Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka, just before the river enters Tamil Nadu. This is the only large protected area along the entire 800 km stretch of the Cauvery River. Nisarg said that Cauvery probably is the home to the best population of smooth coated Otters along the Cauvery. This Wildlife Sanctuary is the only place where there is no sand mining. He said Otters being a social animal, sand is very important for them. However, most of the sand that Bangalore and other nearby towns consume comes from Cauvery. Sand mining has displaced fishermen and otters from their fish sources. This has also led to increasing conflicts between the fishermen and otters. Fishermen see Otters taking away their fish and also damaging their nets in the process, which is big setback for the fishermen. Fishermen occupy the lowermost strata in the society and have no capacity to confront the sand mafia. The fish population in rivers is decreasing also due to drying rivers, dams, hydro projects, intensive agriculture and now also intensive sand mining. Otters will be a major casualty in this process if we cannot collectively act to stop unsustainable sand mining.

Prof. Brij Gopal, founder director of Centre for Inland Waters in South Asia & Retired freshwater ecologist questioned if sand was at all a mineral and if there can be uniform sand mining norms for all rivers. This is because the amount of sediments generated & transported by rivers varies greatly between the rivers; depending upon the geology, channel slope, flow regime and ‘stream power’, geomorphology, climate, riparian vegetation, floodplain, river pool sequence or any other feature and hence would vary for different rivers, locations and seasons. But the sand mining guidelines of MoEF or Ministry of Mines do not take note of these. Leases are given just based on area, not taking all this into account. He said this is clearly prescription for disasters.

Prof Brij Gopal also highlighted that it was the mining process and methods that is as important as the quantum of sand extracted. He made a large number of useful suggestions as can be seen from this slide below.

The presentation given by Prof Brij Gopal can be downloaded here.

Bolisetty Satyanarayana, an environment conservationist from Vijaywada (Andhra Pradesh) described the attacks and struggles he and his colleagues faced while fighting against illegal sand mining and encroachment of the Krishna River floodplain and riverbed for the new capital of Amravati. This author was also taken around by him while on a visit to Vijaywada and his courage and passion was clearly visible also in his presentation. It is based on his petition that the National Green Tribunal has slapped an interim penalty of Rs 100 crore on the Andhra Pradesh government for inaction to prevent illegal sand mining. His fight against illegal sand mining and destruction of rivers continues.

Panelist Satya, Rajendra Singh, Vikram Soni and others protesting against illegal sand mining from Krishna River

Yogeshwaran, an advocate practicing in Madras High Court and National Green Tribunal and having dealt with the sand mining from the grassroots level in Tamil Nadu, high lighted that how serious is the alienation of the people on ground from the decision making on sand mining in the rivers and water bodies in their area, when they are possibly the only ones to suffer adversely. And yet they have no clue who takes, what decisions, on what basis, when and so on. He described how village people would come with files of documents to him, and they cannot read or understand any of the papers since the documents are all in English.

Yogeshwaran also narrated the sequence of events in Tamil Nadu over the last two decades, showing how at each stage the courts were allowing the state government to continue their unsustainable and damaging sand mining, at the cost of the local people. Even when courts made some adverse orders, the state successfully circumvented them. The Tamil Nadu State Environment Impact Assessment Authority acts more like a project proponent rather than a regulator. He was at pains to highlight that lives and livelihoods of very large number of people are dependent on rivers where sand is being mined. But law is not helpful in holding the culprits accountable. Unless we change these laws, people can do very little. NGT is at the most imposing costs, but I do not think imposing costs deters violations. NGT’s time limit for appealing puts such a huge burden on the illiterate farmers.

Sibi Arasu, an independent journalist based in Bengaluru & a recipient of the Prem Bhatia Award for Environmental Journalism, 2018 has been reporting on sand mining in Tamil Nadu including struggle of people like S Mugilan who has faced violence from the vested interests. He started with recitation of a poem on Cauvery River how the river makes the state and the people flourishing and prosperous and than saying that is no longer the case. He said TN has a notorious legacy in sand mining. His narration also highlighted how sand mining is a major source of cash for the politicians at all levels in Tamil Nadu, describing them as infamous entrepreneurs and that lines between miners and politicians is now blurred. He said Palar used to be a perennial river, but now all the rain water just flows down like from a PVC pipe. He described Sandha Ravishankar’s crusade as the greatest media success story of a decade.

Sibi Arasu also highlighted violence in sand mining, regardless of who is in power, government apparatus is driver of illegal sand mining. The issue is not in spotlight as the Urban sand consumer base is expanding rapidly without any regulation or planning.

The death by a million cuts The dialogue was concluded by moderator Vishwanath in most apt way saying how rivers killed by sand miners is like a death by a million cuts, nicks and wounds. In her response, Munmun ended with a hopeful note that youth in diverse places like Goa to Chennai are becoming conscious and rising up in various ways. The architects can make a difference in the way construction happens.

Screenshot from the film UNearthED

The Urban Collective psyche needs to understand the implications of what we are consuming and we need to be consumers of the right things.

To join the West, East and National Dialogues to happen on Nov 12, Nov 21 and Nov 28 respectively, please register:


POST SCRIPT: Very useful on river sand mining in TN.
4. and the blame game which helps to hide all this:


[i] For more information about India Rivers Week 2020, see:





[vi] For full report, see:


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