Stop The Sand Mafia!
Steps need to be taken to combat the illegal sand mafia in India, and they need to be taken urgently.
Photo: Rajeev Tomar.
All across India, a deadly battle is underway between the sand mafia and those who come in their way. You may have heard of conflict minerals and blood diamonds, but here, it’s sand, used in copious quantities by the real estate industry, and extracted illegally from riverbanks and beaches, that is at the nucleus of a bloody war. A little-reported war, but one that has seen human deaths and environmental devastation all the same. In March 2016, forest guard Narendra Kumar Sharma was tragically crushed to death by a lorry loaded with illegally mined sand as it tried to flee a checkpost in Gwalior district. His name is only the most recent addition to a long list of victims – including farmers, journalists, activists, government officials and forest staff – brutally silenced by the sand mafia.
Globally, it is estimated that over 40 billion tonnes of sand and gravel is used each year, by a sand-mining industry worth 70 billion dollars. Sand, like so many of our natural resources, is finite and thus its extraction is regulated on paper by most governments. But as a key ingredient in concrete, and with the construction boom continuing apace in India, the demand for sand is high and the profits to be made very lucrative. The ‘mafia’ indiscriminately ravages beaches and riverbeds, and then sells the sand to builders to make fat profits.
In 2012, India’s Supreme Court took cognisance of the problem and restricted all mining activity in riverbeds without environmental clearances. Unfortunately, like so many laws and orders, this one too, is poorly implemented. With illegal sand-mining operations underway in almost every state in the country, and at all scales, from filling baskets by hand to employing industrial machinery, it is essential that authorities in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) focus on systemically curbing the trend with an iron fist. The organised crime syndicates that run these operations have thus far found it to be a low-risk activity, and have literally been getting away with murder.
Other than the gross disregard of the law and the violent repercussions on whistle blowers, unregulated sand mining has a hugely negative impact on riverine and coastal ecosystems. It can change the course of rivers, make our coasts vulnerable to erosion, and create dust that stunts crop-growth. Its removal also means the destruction of habitat of innumerable species, for example the critically-endangered gharial that basks and nests on sand banks. In some parts of the world, like Indonesia, excessive sand mining has eroded entire islands, and in others, like the Middle East, builders are now importing the resource from Australia!
Too much blood has been shed in this ‘sand war’, it’s time we pushed the government to crackdown on the mafia.
Photo: Rajeev Tomar.
Sanctuary readers, now that you know the grim reality of where so much of India’s construction material comes from, and the price that is being paid by those who oppose the sand mafia, please write to India’s Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change demanding that the sand mafia be controlled and known offenders be punished. Ask that conditions should include revealing the original source of sand, which should be monitored nationally. Request that sustainable housing and architecture be incentivised.
Address your letters to:
Shri. Prakash JavadekarMOS (IC) Environment, Forests and Climate Change,
New Paryavaran Bhawan (4th floor),Jor Bagh,
New Delhi – 110003.
E-mail him at:
With a copy to
First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 12, April 2016.