Illegal sand mining is one of the biggest ecological disasters in India
Excessive sand mining can alter the river bed and force the river to change course. It can also destroy the edges and cause flooding.
Pro. Venkatesh Dutta, (School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar (Central) University, Lucknow)
River sand or sand is in high demand in the construction sector. According to an estimate, by 2025, India will need about 2 billion tonnes of river sand. Illegal and unscientific sand mining is one of the biggest ecological disasters in India. Sand is formed naturally from finely divided rock and mineral particles. River sand has the ability to refill itself, but if the mining rate is too high, rivers cannot refill the dug pits. River sand is preferred for construction, as it has better quality. The trouble is that its river and its people have to pay a heavy price. Excessive sand mining can alter the river bed and force the river to change course, eroding banks and causing flooding. Deep digging and sand lifting creates ponds in the river bed, posing a risk of river diversion during floods. This can prove to be disastrous for the rivers and the villages along the banks of the river. The use of heavy machines is changing the natural topography of the area.
Apart from affecting groundwater recharge, it also destroys the habitat of aquatic animals and micro-organisms. Illegal sand mining is becoming the biggest threat to the breeding alligators and tortoises. Mining of sand banks is disastrous for them. This is because alligators and turtles lay their eggs under sand beds, but illegal sand mining destroys their nests. What is worrying is that the largest number of alligators in the ongoing National Chambal Sanctuary in three states – Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan – are losing out to human intervention.
In the guidelines regarding sand extraction, it has been said that the quantity of sand removed should be in proportion to its replenishment rate and the width of the river. Heavy machinery is prohibited for mining and manual mining is preferred. Demarcation of river banks and use of GPS enabled vehicles have been suggested to check illegal mining. The administration sometimes confiscates sand-laden trucks and fines the owners of the vehicles to stop illegal sand mining. Participation of Self Help Groups and regular audit of sand reserves have also been recommended. These guidelines are often not followed, as enforcement and monitoring mechanisms are weak. The failure of the Mineral Resources Department to monitor compliance with the conditions laid down by the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) while granting environment clearance for sand mining is evident.
Assessment of the impacts of sand mining activities on the environment and the commitment of the State Governments towards the implementation of environmental management plans is not visible. Some states are exploring alternatives such as sand produced by breaking rocks and quarry stones to meet the ever-increasing demand of the construction industry. State governments should formulate a new mineral and sand policy to stop illegal sand mining. Along with eliminating the monopoly of some companies and creating jobs for village level societies, the environmental damages of sand mining must also be reduced.