Despite the National Green Tribunal’s (NGT) ban on mining sand without environment clearance, the sand mafia continues to operate brazenly in Uttarakhand. Incidentally, the state has sought clearance from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to mine over 2,000 hectares (ha) of land.
The riverbed in the lower reaches of hills has risen up to 1.5 to 2 metre at some places because of the debris that came down with the flood waters of rivers. To the advantage of miners, swollen rivers left behind huge amount of boulders and pebbles behind when they receded.
While illegal mining goes on unchecked in the state, those in the business of construction material are earning huge profits by charging almost double for a trolley of boulders on pretext of the ban.
Soon after the disaster, chief minister Vijay Bahuguna had admitted there was a link between indiscriminate mining and the disaster that hit the state in June. In Pithoragarh district, areas like Baluakot, Jualjibi, Ghat and Jhulaghat where mining was rampant suffered extensive damages. However, even three months after the disaster, mining continues in these places.
Just days before the state witnessed the calamity the government had asked the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) to tackle the problem of high sediment deposits. Such rise in riverbed would also mean rise in water levels, posing a threat to the buildings that are built very close to the river.
The state government also conducted a study on its own in May, 2013 on river aggradation and sought help from NDMA to address the problem. In the study, a selected stretch of 15 km was studied from 1900 onwards. The report of the study was sent to NDMA.
However, when disaster stuck in June, environment activists and experts claimed that it was due to rampant mining that the scale of damage was so extensive. Khush Naseeb Khan, an activist based in Uttarakhand, filed a petition in NGT, saying “commencement of mining activities in riverbeds and other areas of the state will lead to further soil erosion and make the state more vulnerable to natural calamities such as the one witnessed recently.” He said that illegal sand mining from riverbeds is rampant as the state had issued notification extending MoEF licence periods.
The tribunal served a notice to the state government and also stayed the state government’s notification that allows sand mining without approval from MoEF. The petition claimed that this year, the Uttarakhand government, through its notifications of July 12 and August 1, extended the licence period even during the monsoons. It also claimed that sand is being mined illegally and being stocked to be sold when the notification expires on September 30.
Shailesh Bagauli, director of geology and mining unit of Uttarakhand’s Directorate of Industries, says that since there is a significant rise in the riverbeds because of aggradation, it has become necessary to clear the debris. “The courts have not banned mining. They have simply said that mining cannot be done without clearance from Centre. So, we have sought mining clearance on more than 2,000 hectares of land from MoEF and the files are in process,” he says.
According to the state forest department data, from 2000 to 2010, 14 mining projects were going on in the state in a forest area of 3,903.24 hectares (ha). Tenders proposing the diversion of an additional 1,608 ha land for mining came in 2012 when the state government drafted a new policy for mining in 2011 which proposed that certain identified sites be auctioned for mining.
A source in wholesale market of construction supplies in Dehradun says that boulders that were brought illegally from nearby rivers used to cost Rs 2,000-2,500 per trolley. Now they cost Rs 3,000-3,500. The three government agencies—Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN), Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam (KMVN) and Uttarakhand Forest Development Corporation (UFDC)—have control over legal mining in the state.
Ravi Chopra, former member of the National Ganga River Basin Authority and director of People’s Science Institute, says: “The state will never learn. The damage in Srinagar and several other places where the river changed its course was because of rampant mining.”