No-mining zones to protect river ecosystems from sand mining

  • The government recently released guidelines to enforce rules to stop illegal sand mining. The latest rules come four years after the 2016 guidelines to promote sustainable sand mining which didn’t help in clamping down on illegal sand mining.
  • The 2020 guidelines for sand mining stress on protecting rivers and habitats of species including turtles and calls for such sensitive areas to be declared as no-mining zones. It also called for using the latest technology for surveillance of illegal mining as well as estimating mine reserves.
  • A United Nations Environment report has said that, led by China and India, the world is mining sand at unsustainable levels exceeding the replenishment rate and that can have far-reaching social and environmental implications.

Unsustainable sand mining practices are rampant in India. Despite a set of guidelines in 2016 to curb the practice, illegal and unsustainable sand mining has continued to be common, spurring the Indian government to take another step toward enforcing rules. The environment ministry has now come out with ‘Enforcement & Monitoring Guidelines for Sand Mining 2020’ to regulate sand mining and check illegal mining.

This comes four years after the government’s ‘Sustainable Sand Management Guidelines 2016’, which was unsuccessful in putting an end to rampant illegal sand mining across the country. 

The latest guidelines suggest the use of technologies like drones with night vision for surveillance of sand mining sites, steps to identify sources of sand, procedures for replenishment of sand, post environmental clearance monitoring of sand mining sites, a procedure for environmental audit of such areas and steps to control the instances of illegal mining. 

Among these, the focus on monitoring of sand mines after environment clearance is considerable given that so far it has been an area where the performance of authorities, central or state, is considered very poor. On this, Noida-based environmentalist Vikrant Tongad told Mongabay-India that the weakest point in the new guidelines is the post environment clearance monitoring mechanism. 

“The new guidelines are nothing but a compilation of all court orders for curbing illegal sand mining over the last few years. It is an idealistic document but not implementable. On the ground, there is a lot of corruption but there are no mechanisms to ensure its implementation,” said Vikrant Tongad. 

The need for the latest version of the guidelines was felt after illegal and unsustainable sand mining continued despite the 2016 guidelines and many court cases. Since 2016, the National Green Tribunal, in many of the cases, stressed on the need of regulating sand mining and passed several orders. The court in some cases even expressed concern over the death of officials who tried to stop illegal mining and noted that on the ground level, illegal mining is still going on. The guidelines are thus a result of many such orders by the NGT wherein the tribunal passed directions to control it. 

The new guidelines also laid special emphasis on the protection of rivers and species from sand mining as it called for surveys for identifying the stretches with freshwater turtles or turtle nesting zones. “Similarly, stretches shall be identified for other species of significant importance to the river ecosystem. Such stretches with adequate buffer distance shall be declared as no-mining zone and no mining shall be permitted,” the guidelines said. 

It also called for a survey report in every district for identifying the sand bearing area but also the “mining and no mining zones” considering various environmental and social factors like the distance of the mining area from the protected area, forest, bridges, important structures and habitation.

According to the Sand Mining Framework 2018 of the central government’s ministry of mines, in India, there is a shortage of sand in the country, similar to the situation in other developed and developing countries. It estimated that the demand of sand in the country is around 700 million tonnes (in the financial year 2017) and it is increasing at the rate of 6-7 percent annually even as the quantity of natural generation of sand is static. 

Due to uncertainties and inadequateness in supply, the selling rate of the material varies significantly leading to black marketing and illegal mining of the mineral. It noted that illegal and uncontrolled extraction of sand has an adverse environmental impact.

This fact was even acknowledged in a recent report by the United Nations Environment which said that led by China and India, the world is mining sand at unsustainable levels exceeding the replenishment rate and that can have far-reaching social and environmental implications.

Read more: The world is extracting sand faster than it can replenish it

Environmentalist Manoj Misra of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan said while they welcome the new guidelines they are not very hopeful of a long-lasting solution. 

“The problem with rules and guidelines is their implementation. The whole issue with illegal sand mining is basically about demand and supply. There is such a huge demand from the real estate sector and until we have an alternative there cannot be any solution to this problem. Mafia involved in this is very powerful as it has low risk and high return which then leads to lawlessness. It has to be made a high-risk venture for those involved in illegal mining to control this,” Misra told Mongabay-India.

Protect the rivers from illegal sand mining

The main sources of sand in India are considered to be rivers (riverbed and flood plain), lakes and reservoirs, agricultural fields, coastal/marine sand and manufactured sand. 

The guidelines spanning over 83 pages focus on identifying sand mining sources, its quantification and feasibility for mining considering various environmental factors like proximity of protected area, wetlands, creeks, forest etc. and presence of important structures, places of archaeological importance, habitation, prohibited area etc. 

To protect the rivers from illegal sand mining, the guidelines said that abandoned stream channels on the floodplains should be preferred rather than active channels and their deltas and floodplains.

In 2017, the demand for sand in India was estimated at around 700 million tonnes per annum. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay.

However, it cautioned that the streams should not be diverted to form an inactive channel to promote mining. It stressed that sand and gravel “shall not be allowed to be extracted where erosion may occur,” or “up to a distance of one kilometre from major bridges and highways.”

“In case of the river beds, mineable material per hectare area available for actual mining shall not exceed the maximum quantity of 60,000 MT (Metric Tonnes) per annum,” it said while calling for regular replenishment studies to keep a balance between deposition and extraction of sand.

It suggested the use of drones for checking illegal mining, reserves estimation, quantity estimation, land use monitoring. It also highlighted the case of Kerala which has river mapping and sand auditing of around 20 rivers of Kerala “as a good example” wherein the “profile of rivers was created at regular intervals and aggradation/deposition was identified along with water level.” 

“It is proposed that for preparation of district survey report, the auditing of rivers needs to be carried out,” said the guidelines while adding that there shall be no river bed mining operation allowed in monsoon. 

The guidelines also recommended that all precautions be taken to ensure that the water stream flows unhindered and said that no mining shall be permitted in an area up to a width of 100 meters from the active edge of embankments. 

Involve the public to curb illegal sand mining

The new guidelines also focused on involving the public in the process. It said once mining sites that are to be auctioned for sand are identified, they should be put in public for at least one month for obtaining their comments and the final list should be finalised in accordance with them. 

It stressed that to curb illegal mining it is very necessary that the general public is aware of the legal sources of sand. It discussed the development of an online portal for sale and purchase of sand.  

It further said that to make monitoring of vehicles carrying sand effective, “all the sand carrying vehicles (tractors/ trucks) should be registered” with the government and “GPS equipment should be installed in all the sand carrying vehicles.” 

Assess environmental damage due to illegal mining

Expressing concern about the environmental damages due to illegal mining, the guidelines said that a committee formed by district authorities having expertise from relevant fields shall assess such damage. 

“Compensation, as fixed, shall be paid by the project proponent,” it said while noting that the action should be taken against all persons responsible as often there is a tendency to penalise only the drivers of the vehicles. 

“The mafia of illegal mining and transport is much bigger and drivers are only one part of the system. It is necessary to identify all those involved in the offence,” the guidelines said. 

Not just that, the guidelines said, that the people who purchase illegal sand should also be probed and legal proceedings need to be initiated against all such people.

Banner Image: Illegal sand mining in Rajasthan near Ranthambore tiger reserve. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay.

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