Rivers · Sand Mining

IRW 2020 National Dialogue on River Sand Mining: It is possible to satisfy sand demand through legal mining, but will it be allowed?

The political economy of sand mining, with funds of major political parties coming from illegal sand mining was one of the focal points of the National Sand Mining Dialogue held on Nov 28, 2020 under India Rivers Week 2020[i]. It is this reality that may not allow the demand of sand to be satisfied through legal mining, even if it were possible. The other highlight of the Dialogue was the key note address given by Justice (Retd) Madan Lokur of Supreme Court of India. Well known environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta agreed that many of the orders of the higher courts and the National Green Tribunal (NGT) are not being implemented and revealed that unfortunately most of the judges do not want to entertain petitions that their orders are not getting implemented.

The well attended National IRW meeting[ii], including lively discussions was effectively moderated by Prof Amita Baviskar of Institute of Economic Growth (Delhi) and Manu Bhatnagar of INTACH and also convener of Organising Committee of IRW 2020. The National Dialogue was being held following the Regional Dialogues[iii] in North, South, West and East Zone held between Oct 31 and Nov 21, 2020, where cumulatively, a few hundred people participated. An Audio Visual on Sand Mining in Indian Rivers, prepared for IRF by Siddharth Agarwal of Veditum and Dr. Jagdish Krishnaswamy of ATREE was presented.

The full recording of the National Dialogue is available at[iv]:

KEY NOTE ADDRESS BY JUSTICE MADAN LOKUR In this key note address, Justice Lokur narrated his own experience in dealing with river sand mining case while in Andhra Pradesh High Court in April 2012. He observed that some of the sand mining was stopped as they needed environment clearance following the Feb 2012 Supreme Court order in Deepak Kumar Vs State of Haryana case. He said, “I was taken a back when I read the newspapers that two people were killed by the sand miners. When I made some enquiries to find out what is happening, that’s when I was told that there is some kind of mafia where everyone is involved in illegal sand mining. The police and other officials are trying to stop it, but these people are so desperate that they do not mind even killing people. That kind of shook me up and I realized the magnitude of the problem and the stakes that are involved.”

National Sand Mining Presentation In his presentation on National Sand mining in India, including the insights from the four regional sand mining dialogues, Himanshu Thakkar of SANDRP began with mentioning that there are several stanzas in Ramayana where the importance of sand in the river is underlined and celebrated.

He highlighted following key points among others:

  • As per Sand Mining Framework from Ministry of Mines (2018) we could be using about 850 MT sand in 2020 with 6-7% annual growth rate. Could be a conservative figure. Even if we assume sand price of Rs 1500 per T, 850 MT of sand would translate to Rs 127 500 Cr turn over from sale of sand. The states may be earning a revenue of around Rs 1000 Cr. Rest is profit for the sand miners except the expenditure on labour and transportation and of course corruption. Incidentally, government is the biggest user of sand, in fact a majority user.
  • Since a large proportion of this sand is illegally mined (how much is illegally mined, is not known, since how much is legally mined is also not known), it implies that a significant proportion of the sand used by the government is illegally mined. Can the Government ensure that it uses only the legally mined sand? That may make a big difference in the illegal mining of sand.
  • There are many impacts of sand mining, the dialogues provided lot of learnings for everyone. For example, it revealed how in unsustainable mining of River sand, we are also destroying millions of cubic meters of water storage and also massive groundwater recharging capacity. The various impacts of river sand mining, including these, are not scientifically assessed at project level, river level, state level or at national level. The government has made no attempt in that direction.
  • The government has come out with some regulations and guidelines for sand mining, like the MoEF guidelines of 2016 & 2020 and also the Ministry of Mines Framework of 2018. Most of these have come following push from judiciary and the National Green Tribunal. However, as MoEF Additional Director Dr RB Lal and others said at the dialogues, the guidelines remain unimplemented. Guidelines contain no road map for implementation and India’s top environment regulator, MoEF has no clue how to implement the guidelines. The provisions like District Survey, District Sand Plan, replenishment studies and independent district and state level regulation all remain on paper, without any credible implementation. What is the meaning of a guidelines that the regulator seems to have no interest in getting it implemented?
  • Similarly, while the various judicial orders are welcome, we heard at various dialogues that most of them remain unimplemented. Even the Supreme Court order in Deepak Kumar Vs State of Haryana and others of Feb 27, 2012 remains unimplemented in letter and spirit. We need to find ways to ensure that the judicial orders get implemented.
  • The Dialogues also showed that violence and deaths is an underlining theme of illegal sand mining. According to a SANDRP estimate, 193 people have died in sand mining related incidents in India between January 2019 and Nov 15, 2020. This estimate is not exhaustive as most such incidents get reported in local language media, and SANDRP does not have access to them. The deaths are in addition to the various other kind of violence that sand miners indulge in. The two IAS officers who participated in the dialogues, namely Durga Shakti Nagpal from Greater Noida (UP) and Tukaram Munde from Solapur (Maharashtra) narrated the life threatening situation they themselves were in while on duty at these locations in sand mining related work.
  • The underlining theme of the violence in sand mining is impunity. This possibly stems from the fact that they perpetrators are able to get away with such violence. Another possible reason is the apparent nexus between the miners, the officials and politicians.
  • This paints a murky picture, though it is not without its bright spots. The dialogues also threw up the fact that alternatives to use of river sand and reduction in use of river sand is possible, but the alternatives are not getting sufficient attention or traction. One possible reason is that the cost of sand is too low, and does not include all the different costs of the impacts that are paid by others. The other reason is the political economy of sand mining in India.
  • Among the many questions that remain unanswered, one important one is: Is it possible to satisfy India’s legitimate sand demand through legal mining? The answer is yes, but key corollary is: will it be allowed to become a reality?
  • The MoEF official at the dialogue mentioned four pillars of river sand mining in India: State Mining department, District Magistrate, Union Ministry of Mining and MoEF. It obviously does not think that local communities have to be key pillar in sand mining governance. The complete absence of any role for the local communities (who know the most about illegal sand mining and who suffers the most due to it) was the recurring theme of the dialogues with almost universal agreement that they need to have key role in sand mining governance. But the government seems to have no faith in people, and have faith only in technology, funding, bureaucracy and guidelines.

The full presentation titled “The Sand Economy of India” can be downloaded from here.


Shashi Shekhar: Can Judiciary step in to protect our River Ecosystems? The first speaker in the eminent panel was Shri Shashi Shekhar, former secretary, Union Ministry of Water Resources. He congratulated IRF for taking up a subject that is least deliberated. He said, “The water and sand in the river are two most abused elements of the riverine ecosystem. Both elements are integrated in numerous ways. Sand mining leads to reduced water storage and recharge from the riverbeds and floodplains. This is direct impact on our water lifeline, the groundwater. The reckless, illegal and unscientific way in which we are doing the mining is bound to have huge impacts on our own future. The excessive sand mining need to stop for river survival, which has direct bearing on human survival. This is also important from the need for long term water security.”

Shri Shashi Shekhar further emphasised, “We need to push the use of flyash as an alternative building material. The different levels of stacks in the towers at the thermal power projects have different size of the fly ash particles and depending on the need of the size of sand replacement, we need to develop it. There was an attempt to identify construction hotspots and provide fly ash at such hot spots when I was in MoEF, this needs to be revived. The Supreme Court of India in the past has made significant contributions in a number of environment issues. Can we suggest that the Supreme Court also take up the cause of the river ecosystem conservation/ preservation/ survival in totality and may be constitute a body like Central Empowered Committee?”

Sumaira Abdulali: SAVE OUR SAND Sumaira Abdulali well known activist of Avaz Foundation fighting against illegal sand mining and who has faced attacks on more than one occasions was the next panel member. In her presentation titled “This sand is our sand”, Sumaira said, “Until and unless we start owning the river sand as our sand, we are not going to get the kind of policies and their implementation that we need. I would like to talk about the beauty of the sand and also the animals who use the sand as habitat. Its only human beings that do not leave behind beautiful footprints on the sand. Sand is the interface between land and water. When you take away sand, you also take away the land which someone is losing. We do not seem to realize that our entire built civilization is literally made of sand. When I raised the issue of sand mining initially in 2004, the district collector told me not to worry, the rivers and sea bring more sand everyday! Sand is considered synonymous with plentifulness.” She revealed that India and China in last ten years have used more sand than the entire world in whole of 20th century.

Sumaira also described her experiences, “On the other extreme, when I tried to stop illegal sand mining, I was attacked twice. Both times politicians were involved in the attack. When I went to the court in 2006 against illegal sand mining, it was one of the first such petitions and we got useful orders. One of the possible alternatives is use of plastic waste, industrial waste and construction waste. Sand mining is a major contributor to climate change. We possibly need environmental police to tackle sand mafia. In 2012 when I along with BNHS represented the issue of sand mining before the UN’s Convention on Biodiversity in India, we were told that UN has no document on this issue! The UN finally took up the issue of sand mining in 2018 and came out with a report on it in 2019. They have wonderful ideas, but no inputs from the ground unfortunately. The MoEF’s 2020 guidelines offer the same failed governance model. The deliberations of IRW 2020 are helping us get inputs from the ground and from affected areas. Let us all fight to Save our sand.”

The presentation made by Sumaira is available here.

M Rajshekhar: The political economy of collusion and corruption in illegal sand mining Eminent investigative journalist M Rajshekhar[v] highlighted the deep political economy of sand mining in Tamil Nadu, hinting at why it is so difficult to stop illegal sand mining. Rajshekhar brilliantly narrated, “We need to understand the notion of impunity in sand mining that keeps coming up repeatedly. I will try to give some numbers from Tamil Nadu about impunity in sand mining. If we look at the wide spectrum of stages of evolution of sand mining mafias in different states in India, we would realize that possibly the hyper organised TN mafias are in most advanced stage.”

Showing 360 degree brief video of a sand mining quarry in Thenpennaiar River in Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu that he visited in 2016, he said, “This is one of the three quarries just on this river in this district, Standing on the banks of the river there, I could not understand where the quarry starts and where it ends. The number of trucks involved in sand mining business in TN at that time ranged between 50 000 and 1 lakh. If we assume lower number in that range and assume they are all doing one trip a day, carrying 6 T each time, working 200 days a year, assuming price of sand at 4000 per ton, the annual turn over comes to Rs 24000 Crores in TN alone. [A conservative number, more realistic one would be Rs 45000 Cr.] The state was getting the royalty of only Rs 133-200 Cr. Impunity builds from here. Where did the rest of the money go? A part of the money went into what is called pork barrel politics of cash for votes. Tamil Nadu then had 5 Cr voters and if we assume half of them were to vote for the then ruling party AIADMK, and each of them was getting figure of higher end of the spectrum at Rs 1000, the distributed amount would be Rs Rs 2500 Cr. Being paid out once every five years. In these five years, the sand extracted was worth Rs 120 000 Cr. One of the big truths of Indian politics, as told to me by the then planning commission member Abhijit Sen is that the political parties support their party cadre through construction sector, sand mining is part of that edifice. Part of this money is divided between village level micro politicians all the way to party high command as books[vi] like “The Wild East: Criminal political economies in South Asia” that Barbara Harriss-White edited show.”

Rajshekhar also described the evolution of sand mining mafia in Tamil Nadu: “It helps to centralise funding to have an effective grip over party apparatus rather than let the local leaders to have access to their own source of finances. That is what lead AIADMK high command to take over sand mining in entire state. So that the high command would make the local politicians dependent on the high command. So in TN, Jayalalitha authorised O Arumugaswamy to have monopoly over sand mining in whole state… A lot of the money collected from sand mining was retained by the political party structure. That is why you do not see political parties showing interesting in reining in the sand mafia. The assorted cost of this capture extend beyond foregone revenues, beyond foregone ecology. It also means the democracy is not going to function well in states like Tamil Nadu as Dalit parties cannot pay their voters like the mainstream ones. The media reporting on sand mining has always been heavily circumscribed.”

Ritwick Dutta: Why are the courts not ready to take up execution or contempt petitions? The well known, experienced and passionate environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta was the final speaker in the panel discussion. He said: “While we should applaud the some of the relatively more environment friendly steps of Maharashtra govt in last one year, it should be noted that it became the first state to allow public hearings for sand banks on zoom. How do you expect the affected people to participate in such public hearings with any degree of comfort or comprehension? The courts are these days looking at even the environment impacts and mining as policy issues. While SC in Deepak Kumar judgment said you cannot escape the environment clearance and impact assessment, we also need to see who are on the Central, State & District Environment Impact Assessment Authorities and Environment Appraisal Committees? Most of these are not really experts. Even the notification appointing the committee uses the word non-officials in place of Expert, but this is clearly in violation of the EIA notification.” He goes on to described the seriously compromised appointments in the Expert Appraisal Committee on River Valley Projects in July 2020 are, the details of this can be found here[vii].

Describing the difficulties in judicial process, Dutta said, “Getting a good judgment is difficult, getting its implementation is more difficult, but going back to the court and making them accept that there is contempt of your order is the most difficult part. Because with due respects, the judges do not want to hear that their orders have been flouted. Particularly when it is coming from the public at large. Such petitions before NGT never gets listed or covered. Bulk of the people accused in environment cases get scot free, if you look at the history of the cases. We need to review our governance rather than just asking that approvals be taken without looking at the quality of governance or decision making.”

In Conclusion The panel discussion and key note address were followed by some lively question and answer session, moderated by Manu Bhatnagar of INTACH. In the discussions Justice Lokur also participated, besides the panel members and National Report presenter.

As Dr Amita Baviskar said, when an experienced lawyer like Dutta tells us that the entire regulatory process and the judiciary seems to facilitate illegal sand mining rather than protect the environment we know that we are really dealing with a serious challenge. She also thanked Justice Lokur that when it comes to Public Trust issues like sand mining, and what is held as public trust is not held by state alone, but involves vigilance and unceasing action from everyone including communities, journalists, civil society, activists, lawyers and judiciary for resources that are so important and yet so neglected.

SANDRP (ht.sandrp@gmail.com) 


[i] https://indiariversforum.org/indiariversweek2020/

[ii] See Key highlights of the whole function: https://sandrp.in/2020/11/29/india-rivers-week-2020-key-highlights/

[iii] NORTH ZONE: https://sandrp.in/2020/11/06/north-india-sand-mining-dialogue-under-irw-2020-local-communities-need-to-have-key-role-in-governance/;

SOUTH  ZONE: https://sandrp.in/2020/11/08/south-zone-sand-mining-dialogue-the-grain-of-sand-is-habitat-for-many-lives/;

WEST ZONE: https://sandrp.in/2020/11/17/west-zone-river-sand-mining-dialogue-mining-riparian-health/;

EAST ZONE: https://sandrp.in/2020/11/23/east-zone-river-sand-mining-dialogue-why-does-the-moef-lack-faith-in-people/

[iv] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jnl8dHSx1kc&t=11s

[v] Some of his writing on related issues: 1. https://scroll.in/article/815138/tamil-nadus-political-parties-are-making-money-from-sand-worth-a-whopping-rs-20000-crore-a-year
2. https://scroll.in/article/815139/think-sand-mining-damages-the-ecology-it-ruins-politics-as-well
3. https://scroll.in/article/815140/why-sand-mining-in-tamil-nadu-is-unstoppable-even-though-its-destructive
4. and the blame game which helps to hide all this: https://scroll.in/article/816445/the-story-of-how-karnataka-and-tamil-nadu-mismanaged-their-water-and-then-blamed-each-other

[vi] https://www.uclpress.co.uk/products/109083

[vii] https://sandrp.in/2020/11/30/the-real-worries-about-moefs-expert-committee-on-river-valley-projects/

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