Unaccounted deaths plague sand mining operations in India

According to a study, 418 people lost their lives and 438 people were injured in India from December 2020 to March 2022, in cases related to sand mining.

Two Indian boys in the Thar desert in Rajasthan, India, near the city of Jaisalmer. Image: Emre Azizlerli, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

Illegal and unscientific sand mining from rivers is generally seen as a threat to the environment, especially aquatic life. But there is another dark side to this that is neither recorded in government files nor discussed enough: the hundreds of unaccounted deaths every year due to sand mining, leaving behind broken families.

Haryana resident Dharampal is one such person who lives with these consequences of such sand mining. In July 2019, his 18-year-old son Santi and 15-year-old nephew Sunil died due to drowning in the Som river.

The cousins had gone to bathe in the river, narrates Tejpal, the brother of Dharampal, a resident of Kanalsi village of Yamunanagar district. Due to illegal sand mining in the river, many deep pits were formed in it. When the boys went for a swim, no one was aware that mining was taking place in the river or that it had caused such a situation.

Talking to Mongabay Hindi, Dharampal said, “For two months, we kept pursuing the police administration and even approached the district magistrate. Our complaint was not heard. No compensation was given for the death of our children. We are labourers. How many days could we devote to this, leaving our work? From that day onwards, we have not allowed our children to go towards the river.” With no action from the administration, Dharampal prepares to file a case in court.

Kanalsi, the village where the tragedy struck, is where rivers Yamuna, Som and Thapana meet. Kiranpal Rana, another resident of this village, is associated with the Yamuna Sanitation Committee. He says that ever since mining started in his area in 2014, five children from their village have drowned in the river. He claims that mining is not even allowed in the Som river and is being carried out illegally.

Kiranpal says, “The administration is not ready to accept that children have died due to drowning in the pits dug for mining. Those children did not know that the machines had dug pits up to 30 feet deep in the river (about 10 times deeper than the prescribed depth). There was no signboard to warn them either.

Deaths caused by mining pools in the river are a result of rampant illegal mining. Also, it changes the entire ecosystem of the river.

Rajiv Sinha, professor, Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur 

The mining department, Yamunanagar administration and Haryana government did not help them. Even the post-mortem of their bodies was not done.” He says that the same river where the children would go to swim and play in a carefree manner has now left them in fear.

In Haryana, the limit of sand mining in the river is fixed up to three metres (9.8 feet) deep.

Sunil Tandon, a lawyer in the Punjab and Haryana High Court, says, “At present, I have three cases in Kanalsi village and two adjoining villages in which six juveniles have died. The biggest reason for these deaths is (illegal sand) mining. There is also negligence of the irrigation department. The banks of the river are also unsafe. The river is 10 feet deep in some places and in others it is as deep as 30 feet. If mining is going on, there should be a security guard or notice board to indicate the same so that people living on the banks of the river can be alerted.”

Sand has a high demand globally, with about 5,000 crore (50 billion) metric tonnes of sand and gravel being used annually. Along with China, in India too, sand is mined faster than the rate of its formation. Due to high demand, India has to import sand from countries such as Cambodia and Malaysia. The high demand for sand is also the reason why its mining, especially illegal mining, is flourishing.

Even though the Indian government had issued guidelines for sustainable mining in the year 2016, they have not been strictly followed in many places.

Sand mining-related deaths

The South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), a non-profit organisation, studied accident cases and violence, caused due to sand mining, based on English media reporting in India, over a span of 16 months from December 2020 to March 2022.

According to the study, at least 418 people have lost their lives and 438 injured across the country due to sand mining-related reasons during this period. Of the deaths, 49 have occurred due to drowning in pools dug in the rivers for mining purposes.

The study also reveals that in mine collapses and other accidents during sand mining, a total of 95 people died, while 21 others were injured in this period. Another 294 people lost their lives and 221 were injured in road accidents related to mining.

The document also finds that 12 people were killed and 53 were injured in the mining-related violence. The number of people injured in attacks on activists/journalists who raised their voices against illegal mining stands at 10. Whereas in the mining mafia attack on government officials, two people have been killed and 126 officers were injured. In mutual disputes or gang wars related to mining, there have been seven deaths and an equal number of injuries.

These deaths, recorded in the study between December 2020 and March 2022, have been the highest in northern Indian states and union territories, including Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Delhi, Jammu and Kashmir and Chandigarh, with a total of 136 people dead. Of these, 24 have died due to drowning in pits dug for mining.

Bhim Singh Rawat, the associate coordinator of SANDRP, who has conducted the study, says, “The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) registers a death in a road accident due to mining, as a normal road accident.” But it is the mining-related speeding vehicles, bypassing police check-posts and trucks laden with gravel wrongly parked on the side of the road that are causing accidents, he said. “The NCRB also needs to look into the deaths caused by drowning in the river due to excessive mining,” he added.

The NCRB report on Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India (ADSI) has categories such as road accidents, speeding, overloading and drowning. But such accidents due to mining are not kept in a separate category.

Sub-Inspector Preeti Sharma, who is preparing data on accidents in the State Crime Records Bureau (SCRB), Uttarakhand, says, “We mention in the data that drowning occurred due to the influence of nature. The category of drowning due to mining, flood or any other reason has not been prescribed.”

Sub-inspector Manmohan Singh, who prepares road accident data for the NCRB, points out that there are 35 categories of road accident deaths such as overloading and speeding. “There is no category under which we can record that the accident was caused by a vehicle connected with mining.”

Mongabay-India tried to reach out to NCRB officials in this regard through email, but no reply was received at the time of publishing.

Talking to Mongabay Hindi, SANDRP coordinator Himanshu Thakkar suggests setting up of monitoring committees for mining and bringing together the local community.

“How will the government officials know that (illegal) mining is going on? People’s participation is essential in this. People living along the river know whether mining is legal or illegal. Day or night, machine or people, river or river bank, the level to which mining is taking place. The local people are an important link. Only when they will be involved in surveillance can it be regulated properly.”

Accountability must be fixed

Siddharth Aggarwal, an environmental activist associated with Veditum, a research and media organisation that has work focused on rivers,  says, “It is most important to bring transparency in matters related to mining. Information like where permission has been given for sand mining across the country should be made public. One also needs to be informed about what action is being taken at the central or state level on illegal or irregular mining. The problem is that in matters related to mining there does not seem to be any strong will on the part of the government.”

According to the Uttarakhand river training policy, every year after the rains, a report is put together to access how much sand-gravel stone and debris have accumulated in the river. Based on this, a decision is taken as to how much mineral can be extracted from the river during the mining period from October to May-June. The Forest Department prepares this mining report every year.

Professor Rajiv Sinha at the Department of Earth Science, IIT Kanpur, says that sand mining takes place in rivers at a depth deeper than the prescribed limit.

“We are doing a survey inside the Gaula river in Haldwani (Uttarakhand). We are working on developing a better scientific method for estimating the quantum of mining. But this is also a matter of law and order. Deaths caused by mining pools in the river are a result of this practice (rampant illegal mining). Also, it changes the entire ecosystem of the river.” The survey work is still underway.

The government has issued guidelines related to monitoring and continuous surveillance of sand mining.

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.

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