New platform unites tech and activism to monitor sand mining in India

As illegal sand mines continue to harm river ecosystems and communities in India, a non-profit initiative launching this month empowers journalists, activists and concerned citizens with data.

Demand for Indian sand tripled between 2000 and 2017, and in 2019 the industry was valued at INR 150 billion (U$2 billion). And while China is the runaway leader in cement production, India is in second place, producing 370 million tonnes in 2022 alone. Image: , CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

AWest Bengal-based non-profit organisation has launched a new platform ­– India Sand Watch – which aims to monitor every stage of both legal and illegal sand mining operations in the country.

Created by Kolkata’s Veditum India Foundation, India Sand Watch has been designed to become a one-stop destination for those concerned about sand mining in the country, from activists and journalists to researchers and policymakers.

The environmental impacts of sand mining in India range from eroded riverbanks and lost biodiversity to disrupted sedimentation processes and altered river courses. Furthermore, the industry exacts a human toll: during the past two years, a total of 124 people in India’s eastern states have died in accidents and violence related to sand mining.

Launching in early August, the India Sand Watch platform should enable users to find out the location of a sand mine, its legal status, any documented impacts on local communities and rivers, as well as any related legal documentation.

Reporting on the lucrative sand trade can be a dangerous undertaking in India and journalists covering it often face serious threatsSiddharth Agarwal, founder of both India Sand Watch and the Veditum India Foundation, says one of the project’s goals is to provide a method for information sharing that doesn’t compromise contributors’ safety.

A booming business anchored by riverbeds

As a core material in cement production – and therefore essential to the construction of modern infrastructure – sand is big business in India. Demand for Indian sand tripled between 2000 and 2017, and in 2019 the industry was valued at INR 150 billion (USD 2 billion). And while China is the runaway leader in cement production, India is in second place, producing 370 million tonnes in 2022 alone.

Sand from deserts and the seabed is not suitable for use in construction due to its shape and strength, so the burden falls upon rivers. In India, major rivers like the Ganga, Yamuna, Narmada, Jhelum and Brahmaputra have been dredged to extract sand for concrete. But this exploitation is not limited to major rivers; sand mining is also rampant in smaller tributaries such as the Sone in Bihar and the Rambi Ara in Jammu and Kashmir, and in smaller rivers like the Gaula in Uttarakhand.

It’s not enough to simply have identified potential mining sites unless you’re also building a story around that.

Akshay Roongta, co-founder, Ooloi Labs

There are no official estimates of how much sand is being mined in India, nor of the share of legal versus illegal extraction within the industry. As construction continues to boom, the country’s sand market is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 6.2 per cent between 2023 and 2028. But as the second most exploited natural resource in the world, sand is a shrinking commodity.

Sand is a classified as a ‘minor mineral’ in India, which means that unlike ‘major minerals’ such as coal, iron or bauxite, the power to grant sand mining licenses lies with state governments. Mining is regulated under the 1957 Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, which is designed to ensure that resources are mined in a ‘sustainable manner’.

Despite this regulation, illegal mining (for example, mining without the necessary state government permits) continues largely unabated. According to an official estimate, there were 416,000 documented cases of illegal mining between 2013 and 2017 in India; states with the most cases included Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka.

Governmental efforts to regulate sand mining

In an effort to deal with illegal sand mining, India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change released a set of guidelines in 2016 aimed at regulating the extraction of sand and gravel, while adopting ‘required environmental safeguards’. It also recommended targeting alternative sources of sand and gravel and exploring manufactured substitutes to reduce dependence on riverbeds.

Four years later, the central government released new guidelines for monitoring the sand mining process, from the identification of deposits through to dispatch and end uses, via new surveillance technologies including drones and night vision.

These guidelines also sought to strengthen regulation and enforcement by looking to India’s top environmental court, the National Green Tribunal. The court set up a high power committee to assess illegal mining on the Yamuna River, which established environmental audit procedures in 2020 for state authorities issuing mining leases. It dictated, for example, that an independent audit of each lease should take place annually.

However, experts point out that the central government’s measures are advisory in essence: reports of illegal sand mining, coupled with state-level judicial interventions into some of these operations, betray lacklustre implementations of government regulations. An analysis of how effective these guidelines are is yet to take place.

How does the India Sand Watch platform work?

From June 2016 to April 2017, Agarwal walked 3000km along the Ganga River, from West Bengal’s Ganga Sagar to Gangotri in Uttarakhand. This resulted in Veditum’s Moving Upstream project, which charts various challenges faced by the riparian communities that Agarwal encountered. During his survey, Agarwal identified sand mining as one of these challenges, in particular the paucity of public information regarding where it takes place, the volumes of sand extracted and who is licensed to do it.

Veditum’s India Sand Watch platform is now aiming to tackle this lack of public information. It comprises multiple modules through which users can upload information about sand mining, from news reports and relevant legal documents about operations, to on-the-ground mine location data.

Users can access data organised around three parameters: states, districts and rivers. As the database grows, users will be able to collect location-specific information about the discovery of a mineral, the tendering process, sites where mining is happening illegally, and relevant guidelines and district survey reports.

Monika Mondal, an independent journalist who has investigated unsustainable riverbed mining in the Gaula River, says that this platform could be helpful for journalists like her.

“When I was working on my report, I had to look for [court cases and tender documents] at multiple places and it was difficult to find information. If someone could curate all of this information in one place… it is definitely helpful for journalists,” she says.

Mondal is especially keen on gathering more information on which companies are involved in sand mining and thinks this data could be a strong asset to the platform.

At present, India Sand Watch is dependent on user-generated information, which brings with it questions over the reliability and veracity of its data. “That’s a challenge that exists with all the open data platforms because the ethos of the platform is trust,” says Agarwal. “But there are various ways in which we can try and ensure that this trust is not breached.”

Adding data to the platform requires users to sign up and create a profile. Initially, the data entered by the users will have to be approved by the India Sand Watch team. Agarwal explains that Veditum’s methodology is to initially engage and encourage trusted partners to add data, thus building a robust dataset. Once this strong foundation of users has been established, Veditum’s long-term plan is to engage this community to clean, verify and approve any uploaded information before it is published.

According to Akshay Roongta, co-founder and partner at Ooloi Labs, a Mumbai-based social enterprise which is partnering with Veditum on the project, one of the big advantages that the platform offers is a safe space for those researching or reporting on sand mining in India. For example, digital platforms facilitate data collection without the need to be physically close to illegal and potentially dangerous activities, and India Sand Watch users are able to request anonymity.

Creating a community of stakeholders with technology

Agarwal and Roongta say that India Sand Watch can be a place where various stakeholders – organisations, activists, journalists and concerned citizens – can build something new from the various scraps of information that have so far been gathered.

For example, one user could add court documents related to sand mining happening at a given riverbed. A second user could add GPS coordinates for other sites on the same river where sand is being mined. A third user, for example a local policymaker or an environmental activist, could then combine these datasets for a better understanding of the situation in a particular district or state, thus informing new policies or campaigns.

Roongta says collating different types of data paints a more comprehensive picture of sand mining in India: “It’s not enough to simply have identified potential mining sites unless you’re also building a story around that and corroborating, or rather cross-referencing, tender documents and survey reports.”

As a next step, Agarwal wants to introduce regional languages to make the platform more inclusive. Initially, those regional languages will be introduced where users are most active to exploit the greatest amount of information. Another goal is to introduce satellite imagery using GPS coordinates submitted by users, so that people can easily see where sand mining is happening.

Agarwal says India Sand Watch is one response to the growing environmental anxiety he is witnessing, by enabling something more proactive than simply sharing information on social media: “I see so many people around me who are constantly spending their time firefighting. As the civil society and citizens, I think we can set the agenda instead of constantly responding to the challenges that are emerging.”

This story was published with permission from The Third Pole.

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