August 17, 2013

sand mining in india -- government's head buried in the sand

Here is an editorial I contributed recently in the newspaper I work for presently on the issue of sand mining in India (picture to the left is courtesy a November 2010 blogpost in 

Head in the sand

The country can ill-afford to ignore the perils of un-fettered sand mining, legal or not

Almost every state in the country which has sea coasts or rivers flowing through their territories, the issue of illegal sand mining crops every now and then with alarming frequency. The recent spotlight on sand mining in Uttar Pradesh, as a result of the sacking of an Indian Administrative Services' official most probably due to action taken by her against illegal sand miners, is only the latest incidence. For reasons, political or otherwise, the ministry of environment was quick to set up a 3-member panel on August 6 to look into the adverse environmental impact of alleged illegal sand mining. The panel was also fast enough to submit its report, late last week, less than four days after being set up, with a conclusion of a confirmation of illegal sand mining. All the panel members did was collective visit the sites by car, take photographic evidence and speak informally to some local villagers.

Given that it was quite easy and quick to arrive a conclusion of illegal sand mining, one wonders why no similar efforts can be deployed to hundreds of river banks and coastal sea-beds across the country where citizens and activists have been straining to make governments sit up and take notice of illegal sand mining happening there. An all-India audit on the issue of sand mining is long overdue.

Mined sand is used in construction as the main ingredient in concrete whose use is perhaps second only to the use of water in the country given the construction spree in all the cities and towns of the past two decades. Given this economic aspect, mining of sand along coastal sea-beds and river banks is not banned in the country. The fact that construction makes up for around 8 per cent of our GDP and the fervent endeavours to show higher GDP growth rates means that, barring for isolated political opportunism cases, sand mining will continue to get the short thrift from policy-makers and law-enforcers. Be that as it may, rampant, un-regulated and un-scientific sand mining does destroys sensitive ecologies and we all know about the climatic havoc and resultant economic losses which can be caused by devastated ecologies

Successive central governments and state governments have been reluctant to frame tough laws and been more than willing to look the other way in case of violations of the existing ones. Only as recently as 2006 did the central government tightened a little bit the norms pertaining to sand mining by requiring mining projects to obtain prior environmental clearance under the amendments made to environment impact assessment notification of that year. But it left a loop hole -- clearances were not required for lease areas of below 5 hectares. One had to wait for Supreme Court, hearing citizens' petitions on sand mining, to issue a direction in February last year to the government to require environmental clearances for all mining areas, regardless of size.

Un-fettered sand mining ought not to be allowed to continue. Even when state governments legally allot lease areas for sand mining these should be monitored rigorously, and not lazily, by the environment protection agencies of the government, as well as get audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General to cull out instances of fake bidders or benami allotees.

Alternatives to sand-based concrete by the construction industry ought to be seriously and quickly pursued. These do exist such as the cast-off from copper furnaces and granulated blast furnaces (in the iron and steel industry), and many more including the use of construction and demolition waste. The Indian standards on construction need to allow for these to be used as a viable substitute for sand. The government should no longer bury its head in the sand.

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