This small village on the banks of the Ganga, some 15 km from the holy city of Haridwar, has few green fields left. Sand from the riverbank now covers vast areas of what was once farmland, leaving patches of barren deserts in one of India’s most popular pilgrimages in Uttarakhand.
Unchecked sand mining – most of it illegal – is slowly taking a heavy price on the ecology here with the government failing to put a curb the rampant dredging of the riverbed.
Illegal quarrying is big business now at Bishanpur, tractors and trucks move up and down a dirt track from the river to the city and beyond, carrying sand to meet the construction sector’s demand in the state. The activities increase at night.
For those in the real estate business, dealing with the illegal sand mafia makes sense as they get the material at prices far lower than the market rates.
This HT correspondent saw four sand-laden tractor-trolleys emerge from the riverbed in a span of two minutes while an excavator continued to dig away. Sources said the trolleys carry 200 quintals of sand on each trip, worth around Rs 1,000.
The larger stones dug from the riverbed along with the stone are taken to crushers located at some 300 meters from the river. Sources said the stone crusher processes the material which is then sold for a higher price. For example, dust (fine crushed boulders) is sold for Rs 65 to Rs 85 per quintal. A 200-quintal tractor trolley of dust costs around Rs 14,000.
Suresh Saini (49), a villager from Bishanpur, said officials seldom crack the whip on illegal quarrying. “The excavators dig deep anywhere on the river. During night, the excavators even collect material from the river banks which later triggers erosion,” Saini said.
Besides Bishanpur, a few other villages along this stretch of the Ganga have become hotbed of illegal mining.
Umesh Kumar, a farmer from a neighbouring village, initially hesitated to share any information. “Our crop growth is stunted growth due to presence of dust particles in the air. The cattle also refuse to eat the grain barn due to presence of dust,” he said.
There is, however, a very thin line between legal and illegal quarrying.
The Haridwar district administration has given permission (pattas) to around 60 contractors to collect minerals.
However, at present only seven pattas are operational while others are yet to meet compliances, said VS Budiyal, sub-divisional magistrate, Haridwar.
As per rules, the patta owners can collect material from the middle of the river’s course so that it is not affected. But the catch is there is no way to check patta owners whether they are collecting or digging deeper into the river.
“There is no check and excavators are digging everywhere in the river up to two meters which is against norms. Quarrying vehicles are running so frequently as if Ganga river were a national highway,” said activist Navneet Parmar.
“There should be a blanket ban on mining activity on the Ganga bed. The administration, government and officials are part of a nexus who are directly or indirectly involved in quarrying,” alleged Swami Shivanand, the head of ‘Matri Sadan’ ashram. There is already a ban on quarrying in the Kumbh area.
‘Matri Sadan’ is also questioning why around 40 stone crushers operational in the banks of the Ganga in the district have not been shifted to five km away after a court order. It has been consistently flagging the issue. In June 2011, Swami Nigamanand had died after days of fasting against the illegal quarrying.
Experts from the Environment ministry, in a recent report, underlined that the state should stop illegal mining on the Ganga to avoid any further adverse impact on the surrounding environment.
The district administration said it has forwarded the recommendations to the government and that the ball was in its court now. “As far as putting a stop on illegal mining is concerned, we do regular inspections and penalise the errants,” said district magistrate HC Semwal.