- Illegal extraction of sand in the Spiti valley of Himachal Pradesh is affecting the course of the Spiti river and in turn, people’s lives.
- Over-extraction of sand can have dire impacts on river ecosystems. The Spiti river has changed course over the years due to illegal mining, inundating farmlands and leaving many people landless.
- This video story displays the transformation of the river through the years, while also narrating the plight of the residents affected, and their demand for a clarity in sand mining law, to save their lands.
The Spiti Valley of Himachal is a trans-Himalayan desert where people survive on only one farming season. The Spiti river is the lifeline for agricultural communities in this region. But the river ecosystem is under threat.
The extraction of sand from the riverbed, which began primarily for local construction purposes, slowly expanded and has led to a change in the course of the river itself. Chhuldim Tengyal, a farmer, Rangrik (Spiti) shares, “Since the villagers started constructing concrete houses, people started taking sand from the riverbed. Because of that, the river has eroded the banks.”
Although some residents opine that some sand mining is necessary as the poor cannot afford to buy the cement for the construction of their houses, they state that over-extraction has had a heavy impact on the river ecosystem.
Sand supports biodiversity and filters contaminants. Explaining the ecological significance of sand in a river ecosystem, Jagdish Krishnaswamy, Dean, School of Environment and Sustainability, Indian Institute for Human Settlement says, “So, the work the river has to do in carrying sediments, helps dissipate some of the energy that is already there in flowing water. Now, when you remove sand, which is an important part of the sediment from a particular stretch of the river, then there is less work for the river to do, less energy that can be dissipated. And therefore, the extra energy that is now left in flowing water can for example erode deposits. It’s not just a direct destruction of habitat in that particular region but it can cause further destruction downstream.”
The rising demand for sand in the construction industry has caused severe social and environmental impacts. The river has inundated farmlands leaving many people landless. In 2019-2020, 8,360 cases of illegal sand mining were reported in Himachal Pradesh, according to a report from 2020 by South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.
Dechen Angmo, the pradhan (leader) of Rangrik talks about the efforts taken by the residents to protect their lands saying, “People extract sand from the river because of which the river changes its course and washes our lands away. It’s been going on for 30 years now. The river also floods the forests nearby.” She adds, “The villagers of Rangrik have erected a gate to our fields to prevent non-local tractors from entering. The gram panchayat and villagers have also submitted a written demand for the channelisation of the river to save our fields from floods.”
However, one challenge that has led to increased illegal mining is the lack of clarity among the residents about the intricacies of sand mining laws. “The sand mining laws are not strong, and we are often not aware of the technicalities,” Sonam Targe, Vice President of Spiti Civil Society explains. “The special Panchayati Raj acts made for the scheduled areas called PESA ACT of 1996 grants special provisions to our Panchayats. And it states that for domestic purposes we can procure an NOC from the panchayat and get permission for sand mining. But the problem with the PESA Act is that many state governments and local leaders fail to recognise the act,” he adds.
Banner image: The Spiti river has eroded the banks and changed its course over the years at Rangrik due to excessive sand mining. Photo by Munmun Dhalaria.