Members of the fishing community in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) have said that almost 80,000 fishermen had taken to illegal sand mining over the past five years as an alternative livelihood because of a significant drop in fish catch.
According to NGO Shree Ekvira Aai Pratishthan (SEAP), high levels of water pollution and rampant destruction of mangroves, wetlands and fish culture ponds in the MMR had led to a drop in catch.
“Locals who struggled to make ends meet were swayed away by the sand mafia to pull out sand illegally for quick money,” said Nandkumar Pawar, head, SEAP. “In my complaint to the state government, I have highlighted the fact that similar to compensations for natural calamities such as droughts and floods; fishermen need to be compensated so that they can move out of this illegal profession.”
He added that labourers were hired mostly from Vada and Jawad in Palghar district. Several come from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand for employment opportunities. Fishermen from Gaimukh, Mandve, Kemnidive, Kharbao, Kolshet, Kalher, Kasheli, Waghbil and others, all mostly in Thane and Palghar district, act as the mafia and allocate 12 labourers on each of their boats,” said Pawar.
“On an average, each boat can store 7,200kg of sand, which the labourers first identify from a distance. Once the coast is clear, they use ropes and small buckets to quickly pull up the sand from creeks, rivers and even close to the sea shore. It is collected and transported to the heads, who send it to industries for construction purposes,” he added.
The state government, in accordance with the national guidelines for sustainable sand mining has appointed district level committees to control illegal sand mining. These committees, headed by district collectors, also have members from the Maharashtra Maritime Board (MMB) and police in coastal districts.
On Saturday, the Thane collector, MMB officials and Sumaira Abdulali from Awaaz Foundation inspected sites to for illegal sand mining at various locations in Thane district. “Sand excavating machinery, sand storage pits, jetties and huge piles of sand were spotted at various locations during the inspection. Raids will be carried out in the coming weeks under the supervision of the Thane collector, local police and MMB officers,” said a local MMB officer who accompanied the group.
Last Wednesday, 300 employees from various departments, including revenue, civic body, MMB and the police, carried out a raid in Kalyan and recovered 26,000 tonnes of sand.
Abdulali wrote to the chief minister on Sunday, highlighting the need for better policies to tackle the problem and ensuring safety of officers carrying out raids. “On Saturday, we were unprotected as the sand mafia surrounded us. There was no back up or protection,” she said adding, “The state has to use modern technology to implement policies that can track the extraction, transport and use of this sand. Letting district level officers shoulder responsibility, when they have no training or protection, is a severe shortfall on part of the government.”
Officials from the Konkan divisional commissioner’s (KDC) office said that even though committees were present at the district level, the manpower was less. “We witness nearly 15 cases a month from different districts. There is lack of manpower and infrastructure for crackdowns in the state, which automatically makes teams liable to attacks,” said Bhausaheb Dangade, Konkan deputy commissioner (revenue). “There are no boats to enter deep creeks or river areas, where the work is carried out.”
State government officials said that the responsibility to reduce sand mining was solely upon the district collector. “Permissions for legal sand mining are taken from the district collector, who is responsible for mining laws. If there has been an increase in such cases, we will pull up the collectors from every district to take stock of why these cases are on the rise, how many raids have been made and action will be taken against them if they fail to make their stand,” said Satish Gavai, principal secretary, state environment department.