As literary experts would attest, the Patal-Bari — a heritage building on the banks of the Hooghly at Chandernagore — is immortalised in several novels penned by celebrated author Rabindranath Tagore. However, if sand miners in West Bengal have their way, the pages of his books would end up becoming the only place it exists in.
“Rampant mining of sand from the river bed is to be blamed… it’s threatening the very foundations of buildings like the Patal-Bari. Besides this, several other residential buildings in the town – including the office of the Red Cross Society – have also begun developing cracks,” says Biswajit Mukherjee, a former chief environment law officer of the West Bengal Pollution Control Board, pointing at a long crack running along the length of a Patal-Bari wall.
Rampant sand mining and excavation of boulders from river beds are threatening the ecology of several rivers in West Bengal, so much so that even chief minister Mamata Banerjee recently asked the authorities to monitor their activities.
“All the three major river basins of the state – the Bhagirathi-Hooghly basin, Damodar basin and Teesta basin – are being threatened by this illegal industry. The authorities, including police personnel, know what’s happening but do little to stop it,” said an irrigation department official.
Experts say the real estate boom in West Bengal and nearby states is aggravating the problem.
However, cracking down on such illegal units would cause considerable inconvenience to officials as well as residents – not only would this mean less flow of cash to political parties, the common man would also be hit by the consequent rise in the cost of construction and raw material.
Mining activities, meanwhile, continue to take a toll on the environment.
“Sand mining not only erodes river banks but also degrades the river’s ecosystem, affecting fishes and dolphins. Besides this, depletion of sand in the streambed deepens rivers and estuaries and enlarges river mouths and coastal inlets – leading to the intrusion of saline water from the sea,” says BC Barman, deputy director (hydraulics) at the River Research Institute in Nadia.
Many rivers in northern West Bengal have turned out to be rich sources of boulders, sand and stone chips for illegal miners – who excavate and transport the raw material to places within the state as well as Bihar and Bangladesh.
“There are at least 500 quarries, many of them illegal, in the Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar districts,” says an irrigation department engineer.
According to Upendra Kumar Dhruv, assistant commissioner of the Siliguri custom division, 350 to 400 trucks filled with boulders cross over to Bangladesh every day through the Chengrabanda and Fulbari borders.