Monday, February 15, 2010

Unregulated sand mining threatens Indian rivers

Many in India, perhaps, are not able to foresee how lack of governance, virtually, in every sphere is going to hit them in not too distant future. Take for instance mining. Illegal mining of mineral resources, with generous help of political and bureaucratic big wigs, is so rampant that not only are the country’s precious natural resources being purloined in a big way, its forests are being clean-felled, land degraded and its rivers threatened with extinction.

Mining of sand, for instance, is depleting the waters of the rivers. While the construction boom fuels the demand, weak governance and rampant corruption are facilitating uncontrolled and illegal mining of sand and gravel in the rivers, threatening their very existence. What is happening is nothing but suicidal. This mindless, unrestrained and unregulated activity is posing threats of widespread depletion of water resources which may lead to avoidable food shortages and hardships for the people.

Sand is vital for sustenance of rivers. Geologists know that uncontrolled sand mining from the riverbed leads to the destruction of the entire river system. If sand and gravel is extracted in quantities higher than the capacity of the river to replenish them, it leads to changes in its channel form, physical habitats and food webs – the river’s ecosystem. The removal of sand from the river bed increases the velocity of the flowing water, the distorted flow-regime eventually erodes the river banks. Beside these on-site effects the off-site effects are also quite lethal. Sand acts like a sponge, which helps in recharging the water table; its progressive depletion in the river is accompanied by sinking water tables in the nearby areas, adversely impacting people’s daily lives, even their livelihood.

River sand, therefore, is vital for human wellbeing. That, however, is yet to be appreciated, for instance, in the central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh where unscrupulous contractors, with more than willing co-operation of the corrupt government officials, are emptying the river beds of sand. Whether it is the major rivers like Narmada, Chambal, Betwa or Wainganga or numerous rivulets and streams all are being ravaged for their sands. The state Government has wittingly lent a helping hand for the loot. Overstepping its authority, it exempted mining of sand and gravel from any kind of environmental clearances under Rule 49 of its Minor Mineral Rules notified in 1996, neutralising the provisions made in several Central legislations on conservation of environment and mineral resources. None of these central legislations has delegated powers to the states to amend any of their provisions. Worse, a section of the contentious Rule authorises the government to exempt any mine to operate without obtaining environmental clearance. Hundreds of lessees of the Mining Corporation of Madhya Pradesh are, therefore, merrily excavating sand from the State’s rivers, generally, disregarding all environmental regulations. Mercifully, Ajay Dube, the social activist secretary of “Prayatna”, a reputed environmental advocacy group, has approached the State High Court for quashing of the unconstitutional exemptions so that indiscriminate mining of sand could be put a stop to. After all, the State’s water security is at stake, as indeed its food security.

The southern state of Kerala, likewise, is experiencing the effects of the veritable loot. Its second longest river Bharathappuzha has become a victim of indiscriminate sand mining. The journal India Together recently reported, “Despite numerous prohibitions and regulations, sand mining continues rapidly on the riverbed of the Bharathapuzha. Water tables have dropped dramatically, and a land once known for its plentiful rice harvest now faces scarcity of water...In the villages and towns around the river, groundwater levels have fallen drastically, and wells are almost perennially dry”. Last year Palakkad, a district largely dependent on the river for drinking water, saw “one of its worst droughts in its history”. Instead of a free-flowing river that it was, Bharathappuzha had no water in it. Unregulated sand mining during the past decade has all but devoured the riverbed. With the sand cover gone, shrubs and acacia groves have cropped up in the middle of the river. A source of drinking water for about 700,000 people in 175 villages and several towns, Bharathppuzha is rapidly ceasing to be so. Meetings and rallies are held on its dry bed while drinking water in the neighbourhood has become scarce. Palakkad, known as the “The rice bowl of Kerala”, is on the threshold of losing that sobriquet.

Similar has been the fate of the Pamba River, Kerala’s third longest river. For its association with the Sabarimala shrine it is considered sacred and is also known as “Dakshin Ganga”. That, however, has not saved it from meeting the same fate as that of Bharathappuzah. In fact, reckless sand-mining has reduced the water-holding capacity of several rivers in the state. They become trickles soon after the monsoons only to dry up later. Kerala may, in all probability, lose its green mantle and may not be able to live up to its epithet of “God’s own country”.

Little up north , the supposedly sacred Godavari River, flowing from West to East over the Deccan plateau, has been mined so badly for its sands that its basin in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra State has almost dried up. In Aurangabad district, villagers have recounted to “Down to Earth”, the well-known environmental periodical, how Godavari would be brimming with water until only about two years ago, but now it has considerably shrunk, so much so that scores of villages in Paithan tehsil have to get water through tankers. This is so despite the existence of the nearby big Jaikwadi dam. Wells have dried up and farmers have to have water piped in over long distances. Rocks jut out in the mercilessly excavated banks of the Godavari near Wadwali village, the resident farmers of which had threatened to commit self-immolation in front of the district collector’s office. According to rules, sand can be excavated only up to a depth of one metre but greedy contractors, most without permits, in connivance with officials, dig up to as much as seven metres. Rules and regulations are seldom observed. It is kind of free for all.

The instances cited above are only illustrative. The malaise is pretty widespread as many other states, like Gujarat, Karnatak, Tamilnadu, etc. are also victims of unchecked illegal sand-mining the consequences of which, needless to say, are very serious. Rivers of India are already seriously sick. Polluted by industrial and urban effluents, they are also victims of deforestation in their catchments, sequential damming and degradation because of unchecked sand-mining on their banks and beds. Besides, erratic monsoons, induced by changing climate is taking its toll, adversely impacting their capacity to sustain the current levels of economic activities, especially agricultural productivity.

The Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, has already warned that the country has to snap out of its false sense of food-security. Perhaps, he also needs to advise the states to take necessary care of their rivers and other water resources so that the country is prevented from being overtaken by desertification, famine and hunger.