The Struggle Over Riverbed Mining in India

Kanchi Kohli

This is a guest blog by Kanchi Kohli*

Humans have always had a special relationship with rivers. They provide fresh water for drinking, irrigation, washing and religious ceremonies. But rivers are not just water. Riverine landmasses – riverbed and riverbanks – have also been put to use by humans for centuries. Activities including agriculture, transportation, building homes, and everyday chores have all been part of the interaction between water, land and people. Riverbeds are where civilizations have been established and human beings have found the most lucrative livelihoods.

Riverbed mining downstream of the Karcham Wangtoo Dam on the Sutlej River.
Riverbed mining downstream of the Karcham Wangtoo Dam on the Sutlej River.
Photo by Samir Mehta/International Rivers.

One specific use of  rivers landmasses has increased manifold in India over the last few decades. Mining of sand, gravel, stones and boulders from riverbeds and riverbanks across the country has seen an unprecedented rise. Each day truckloads of sand and gravel are extracted for a variety of reasons. One of the most important factors driving up demand in recent years has been the growth of the real estate and construction industries. Sand is an important ingredient in concrete, which is the mainstay of the construction industry in India today. Without concrete, high rise apartments, big dams, renovation of city buildings, and multi-utility projects would not see light of the day.

Just as large dams affect entire riverine ecosystems and the people who depend on them, the unregulated and large-scale mining of sand, gravel and stones from riverbeds and riverbanks is not devoid of environmental and social impacts. Riverbed mining causes erosion and often leaves the river-plains much more vulnerable to flooding because it allows loose landmass to be washed downstream, especially during monsoons. This type of mining can also cause salinity intrusion into the rivers, damaging riverine ecosystems. According to the Geological Survey of India (GSI), riverbed mining causes several alterations to the physical characteristics of both a river and riverbed. These can severely impact the ecological equilibrium of a river and damage plants, animals and riparian habitats. The GSI has issued guidelines to address the massive damage that riverbed mining can cause, including lowering the groundwater table in a floodplain. To quote the document, “excessive pumping out of groundwater during sand mining, especially in abandoned channels, generally results in depletion of groundwater resources causing severe scarcity and affecting irrigation and potable water availability.”

As much as this story is about the impacts of sand mining, it seeks to illuminate the contours of the national controversy around riverine mining currently abuzz in India. In February 2012, the Supreme Court of India ruled that approval under the 2006 Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification is needed for all sand mining and gravel collection activities, even if the area being mined is less than 5 hectares (12.5 acres). It also made some critical observations related to environmental impacts of sand mining. Then in May of 2012, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) issued an order mandating compliance with the Supreme Court’s February 2012 judgment and directing that permissions be sought for all mining activities. These permissions must come from the respective State Environment Impact Assessment Authorities (SEIAA) constituted under the 2006 EIA notification.

Fast forward to August 5, 2013, when India's National Green Tribunal (NGT) passed a strong interim order that restrained removal of sand from riverbeds across the country until the procurement of requisite approvals by the MoEF and the concerned SEIAAs. Interestingly, the case before the NGT was filed not by an environmental group or affected persons, but by the National Green Tribunal Bar Association. It is not often that a Court’s Bar Association files such cases.

The issue of sand mining had been in the news just prior to the NGT order, after the dismissal of an Indian Administrative Service officer was linked to her efforts to crack down on the sand-mining mafia in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Humans have a long history of using river systems in this region for cultivation, religion and industry. Her dismissal demonstrates that rampant illegal sand mining was still happening, despite the February 2012 Supreme Court judgment.

Mining for sand and gravel downstream of the Karcham Wangtoo Dam on the Sutlej River.
Mining for sand and gravel downstream of the Karcham Wangtoo Dam on the Sutlej River.
Photo by Samir Mehta/International Rivers.

The NGT then issued a follow-up order on 14th August, 2013 further addressing non-compliance with the Supreme Court’s judgment. The order first acknowledges that rampant illegal sand mining has continued despite the ruling of the Supreme Court, and then directs all Indian state governments to respond to seven issues. Among them, state governments are now required to inform the NGT what steps they have taken to implement the judgment, how many sand mining proposals they have approved or rejected, the role of states’ Pollution Control Boards in this matter, and which experts the NGT could hire to look into the problem.

Meanwhile, processes within the MoEF continued. On August 6, 2013 – soon after the first NGT order – the MoEF set up a three-person special committee comprised of members from the MoEF and the Indian Bureau of Mines to enquire into the adverse environmental impact of the alleged illegal sand mining in Gautam Budh Nagar district in Uttar Pradesh.

MoEF's committee has now submitted its site inspection report. It has once again concluded that it is “evident that rampant, unscientific and illegal mining has been going on at various locations in the Gautam Budh Nagar District along the Yamuna River.” While many of the next steps proposed in this site inspection report relate to current judicial orders and legal requirements, it explicitly mentions the need to understand the cumulative impacts of sand mining. The report recommends that “ the ‘Cluster Approach’ be adopted for collection of baseline data, which shall adequately cover every single Lease Area under consideration before seeking Environmental Clearance.” Such a cumulative impact assessment should also emphasize various aspects related to transportation of mined materials including pollution, available infrastructure and rate of sedimentation.

What all of these judgments, orders and directions attempt to emphasize is the need to uphold the environmental safeguards and regulatory requirements embedded in the Indian legal system. The people profiting from riverbed mining are known to have strong and far-reaching political connections. So far, regulatory processes have not been worth bothering about. Whether or not the recent court rulings will lead them to comply with the law is yet to be seen.

The final outcomes of these judicial and executive orders are yet to be realized. Meanwhile the next hearing before the NGT is slated for August 29, 2013. Will illegal riverbed mining be condoned or – worse yet – legalized overnight? Will there actually be steps taken to allow rivers to flow unhindered? Even as we wait for next steps to emerge, river systems continue to be over-mined so that urban India can continue to spread; dam building continues unabated in a misguided scramble for outdated energy sources; and other projects of present-day India continue to be “concretized” in the never-ending quest for growth. And all of this is being shored up by the rapidly dwindling banks of our precious Indian rivers.

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*Kanchi Kohli is an independent researcher working on environment regulation, governance and biodiversity conservation issues. She is based in New Delhi and works through the strength of various organizations.

Satyagraha is a film about the struggle against riverbed mining. It is scheduled to be released in India in September 2013.

Saturday, August 24, 2013