The death of IAS officer DK Ravihas again focussed attention on the widespread illegal practice of mining sand from riverbeds and the threat posed by the entrenched sand mafia to upright officials who take them on.
From Uttar Pradesh to Karnataka and Maharashtra to Bihar, the mining of sand in violation of environmental laws and Supreme Court directives has continued unabated, largely because of a construction boom across the country.
Ravi, who allegedly committed suicide on Monday by hanging himself at his home in Bengaluru, had taken on the sand mafia in Karnataka’s Kolar district and become popular among local residents for his actions. His transfer from Kolar last year had prompted protests by the people there. On Tuesday, there were fresh protests in Kolar that led to the cancellation of board exams.
Though no link has emerged between the alleged suicide and earlier threats from the sand mafia, police have formed a special team to investigate Kumar's death.
But Ravi isn’t the only official who dared to take on the sand mafia, who often use heavy equipment to scoop up tons of sand from riverbeds every day, sometimes under the very nose of authorities that are required to stop such activities.
In 2013, Indian Administrative Service officer Durga Shakti Nagpal shot into the limelight when she was suspended by the Uttar Pradesh government after she formed special teams to stop the illegal mining of sand from the beds of the Hindon and Yamuna rivers in Greater Noida area.
The teams seized hundreds of trolleys used to transport the sand and levied fines running into lakhs of rupees. Nagpal’s drive against the sand mafia upset leaders of the ruling Samajwadi Party who were allegedly hand-in-glove with the sand mafia.
Sand, which is cheap and plentiful, is mixed with cement at scores of construction sites across the country, mostly real estate projects. The sand mafia is often the main source of the commodity, selling it at a very low cost and helping builders cut construction costs.
In the National Capital Region (NCR) alone, the sand mafia is believed to collect some 300 truckloads of sand every day. In Andhra Pradesh, reports have suggested that 2,000 truckloads of sand reach Hyderabad every day from the beds of the Krishna, Godavari and other rivers.
Political patronage of the sand mafia is often a reason why the mining has continued in many states, including Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Maharashtra. Reports have suggested that the sand mafia often pay huge kickbacks to politicians who pressure local authorities to look the other way as the mining goes on.
The killing of young Indian Police Service officer Narendra Kumar in Madhya Pradesh in March 2012 pointed to the deep-rooted politician-mafia nexus in illegal mining activity. Kumar, who was investigating illegal mining, died when people involved in the illicit mining of white stone, whom he had intercepted, ran a tractor-trolley over him.
“If illegal sand mining is stopped in the Yamuna, then construction projects in the NCR too will stop. Seventy per cent of the materials used at construction sites is sand. There is supply because there is demand,” said Dushyant Naagar, convener of the Kisan Sangharsh Samiti, an NGO that works against illegal mining.
“There is a nexus between builders and politicians. Landless and unemployed youngsters often join hands with the sand mafia to make a quick buck,” Naagar told Hindustan Times.
Environmentalists and experts say the massive mining is responsible for erosion and changing the flow of rivers. The mining and dredging of river banks in the NCR has resulted in the Yamuna shifting its course by 500 metres and posing a threat to flood embankments in Noida, experts said.
In 2012, the Supreme Court made environmental clearance from the Centre mandatory for mining minor minerals, including sand. The following year, the National Green Tribunal issued an order against sand mining without environmental clearance across the country. But authorities in several states have done little to implement such directives.
Activists say the need of the hour is a sound policy for sand mining that protects the environment, provides revenue to land owners and prevents the activities of the sand mafia.
“We are not opposed to the use of sand, but the government must make a policy that works. But no cares about the environment or the rivers. Those of us who have chosen to fight on this issue often have to pay a heavy price,” said Naagar, pointing out that a fellow activist, Palay Ram Chauhan, was allegedly killed by the sand mafia In Noida area in 2012.