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Natural Resources Rights: FUTURE OF SAND QUARRIES, By Dr S Saraswathi, 15 December 2017 Print E-mail


Open Forum

New Delhi, 15 December 2017

Natural Resources Rights


By Dr S Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)


The Real estate industry, a major feature of development, got a rude shock in Tamil Nadu when the Madurai Branch of the Madras High Court ordered closure of all sand quarries in the State within six months. Environmentalists are happy that indiscriminate sand mining going on over river courses, which is a major cause of depletion of river water in the State, is given the punishment it deserves.


Lamenting over rampant illegal sand mining that makes even assessment of the problem difficult, the judge said, “ …in larger interest, for the welfare of the people of the State, to protect the environment, river beds, river bodies, and the field of agriculture on which thousands of farmers are thriving, the court found it appropriate to stop all quarry activities”.


The order is doubly significant as it came soon after the announcement made by the Government to open 70 sand quarries in eight districts across the State. It seems that we have given up the concept that people have vital interests in conserving natural resources and have a right to be consulted regarding their use.


Sand, unlike coal, gold or diamond is considered a minor mineral under Indian law and is governed by State rather than Central law. Licence is required for sand quarrying and royalty to be paid to the government.


But, unlicensed sand mining is rampant in many parts of the country because of huge demand for sand in building construction. Quick money with practically no investment encourages this business in cooperation with truck and lorry owners. Active and passive support of law enforcing authorities of State Governments is also needed.


Erosion of river beds affecting ground water level, loss of aquifers, drying up of small rivers and streams, all affecting agriculture are growing problems that have been crying for State help in stopping over-exploitation of sand. The damage caused to ecology is irreversible. For, extraction of sand is faster and much more in quantum than what can be replenished during the same period.


The problem seems to have drawn attention only with reports of large scale sand mafia in operation, revelation of unaccounted wealth, and reports of tax evasion. Urgent and sustainable solutions are immediately needed not just for reaching Sustainable Development Goals, but for our own safeguard against natural disasters.


Besides detrimental effect on the ecology of rivers, sand mining has earned a bad name due to its close association with construction industry traditionally known for providing vast scope for corruption at many points. Mining activities cannot go on in secrecy without the knowledge of political and administrative authorities giving rise to a network for legal as well as illegal operations.


Sand is the fourth minor mined mineral resource in India after road metals, building stone, and brick earth, according to the Bureau of Mines. Sand mining goes on in several States – Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh. Indeed, no river bank, small or big, is free of sand mining. The only condition is availability of sand in adequate quantity so as to cover the cost of mining and leave sufficient margin as profit.


In reply to a question in the Lok Sabha in 2015-16, the Government of India had stated that there were over 19,000 cases of illegal mining of mineral resources including sand. Punjab Government is in the midst of a multi-crore sand scam. UP’s land mafia is said to have a firm hold in Noida thriving in illegal sand mining operation. The business is aided and supported by   construction activities of development process. A survey has reported that sand mining in the National Capital Region has resulted in change in the Yamuna course 500 metres east posing a serious threat of flood in Noida.


In February 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that approval under 2006 Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification is needed for all sand mining and gravel connection activities even if the area mined is less than 5 hectares. In 2013, the apex court ordered mandatory environmental clearance for mining in all minor minerals from the Ministry of Environment and Forests.


Development needs and environmental protection comes in conflict with each other all over the world. Sand mining is a cause for many environmental problems in many countries. Some environmentalists are warning that over three-quarters of the natural sand beaches in the world are about to vanish.


In-stream mineral mining is prohibited in England, Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, and strictly regulated in Italy, New Zealand, and Portugal. Malaysia presents some of the worst problems of unregulated in-stream mining that should be taken into account in India.   Dealing with a case in Haryana, the Supreme Court also observed that sand mining on either side of rivers in-stream or upstream is one of the causes of environmental degradation and also a threat to biodiversity.


In 2005, a movement in Sri Lanka against river sand mining under the Sri Lanka Water Partnership, the Network for Women Water Professionals and their partners received the support of the Global Water Partnership and Water Integrity Network.


China has developed capacity for large-scale dredging in South China Sea. It has assembled a large fleet of vessels that can extract materials directly from the ocean floor to supply sand for construction activities in the country. However, effects of human technological intrusion into the bottom of seas cannot be prevented.


Japan is said to be the only country in Asia that has managed successful transition from natural   river sand to manufactured sand (M-sand). All dredging activities were prohibited in Japan in 1990 to conserve the valuable natural resource.


Construction industry in India cannot go on forever depending heavily on available sand. It must find alternatives to river sand and develop sand manufacturing industry from other resources.   Heavy use of sand was introduced only with cement in the construction industry. Builders in Tamil Nadu now look forward to importing sand from Cambodia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, which seems to be much cheaper than local river sand.


Exploitation of any natural resource must be accompanied with mitigation activities to overcome loss and damage to the natural resource and replenish the source. The riverine eco system should not be allowed to fade and decay, but restoration activities to regenerate sand must be explored and augmented.   


Illegal sand miners are not worried over ecology. Strong vested interests have taken roots in this field which are likely to put down popular protest. It is for the community to stand up to their rights over natural resources. Community Based Conservation (CBC) is catching up in many countries including the developing nations.


Uttarakhand High Court recently declared the Ganga and Yamuna rivers as persons and gave them legal standing to seek remedies against harms done to them. Similar recognition was granted to two Himalayan glaciers also by the same court. They have a precedent in New Zealand where Whanganui River was accorded the right to counsel in a court of law. In the same way, we can hope that the Supreme Court will concede the rights of other natural resources including sand and end illegal sand mining.---INFA


(Copyright, India News & Feature Alliance)

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