Illegal mining thrives in resource-rich Aravalli
: On May 29, 2022, the Haryana forest department issued directions to its field staff in Mewat to increase vigil in the area amid tip-offs about the rampant illegal mining of minor minerals, including stone, despite a ban by the Supreme Court in the ecologically sensitive Aravalli hills
: On May 29, 2022, the Haryana forest department issued directions to its field staff in Mewat to increase vigil in the area amid tip-offs about the rampant illegal mining of minor minerals, including stone, despite a ban by the Supreme Court in the ecologically sensitive Aravalli hills.
Since then, the department has lodged 23 FIRs in the region against illegal miners. On Tuesday, deputy superintendent of police, Taura, Surendra Singh, was on the ground to stop another incidence of illegal mining when he was mowed down by a truck carrying stones.
His death has now put under national spotlight Haryana’s Nuh district -- which falls in the Mewat region spread across Haryana, Rajasthan, and parts of western Uttar Pradesh -- where, officials said, no clear demarcation of forest land, easy access to illegal mining zones, and porous state borders aid the illegal activity. Once mined, the minerals and stones are moved through narrow roads that cut across the Aravalli forest to potential buyers in Rajasthan and southern Haryana. And as mining in the Aravalli in Rajasthan through “safeguards” is allowed, it becomes difficult for authorities to distinguish between what is permissible and what is illegal, they added.
According to Haryana government data, Nuh, with 239 out of 910, recorded the highest number of FIRs registered for illegal mining among all districts in the state in 2021-22. In the 23 FIRs registered in the current financial year, 68 vehicles used to transport the illegal mines minerals were confiscated, the data showed.
Mining has been banned by the Syin Faridabad, Gurugram and Mewat (including Nuh district) since 2002 by the Supreme Court, but activists allege its order has never been implemented properly -- a charge the Haryana government denies.
“In order to prevent illegal mining, we have set up district level task force (DLTF) which is headed by the respective deputy commissioners (DCs). It is the responsibility of DLTF to conduct surprise inspection of areas affected by illegal mining and take stringent action on ground to check illegal mining in the district,” Mool Chand Sharma, Haryana’s mines & geology minister, said on Tuesday to Hindustan Times.
However, a senior Gurugram police official, said several organised gangs have been involved in mining in the Aravallis for over two decades, and about 1,460 cases have been registered in Palwal, Faridabad, Gurugram and Nuh districts since 2019 alone. Preet Pal Sangwan, assistant commissioner of police (crime), who till March this year was in charge of stopping illegal mining, said the network of these illegal mining gangs was robust.
“There were many challenges when I worked there, as their network was strong and they used to keep a check on police movement. Their gang members were spread all over and used to pass information as soon as any police vehicle entered the area. The mining operations have been taking place in these three districts for over two decades,” he said.
Illegal mining is primarily of two types. First, when the minerals are mined without approval from the appropriate authority, which is the central government in case of 13 categories of major minerals and the state government in case of minor minerals. Second, when minerals are mined above the permissible limit set by the mining lease approved by the government. In the case of Aravallis, the first type of illegal mining dominates.
According to officials, the stones and sand from Aravalli hills is illegally extracted and sold to local suppliers of construction material and building contractors. The officials said it was difficult to estimate the total worth of illegal mining in Aravalli in Mewat region. However, the state governments are empowered under the section 23 C of Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 2015, to take measures to prevent illegal mining. The police can also register cases for illegal mining under section 379 of Indian Penal Code for theft as minerals are considered a government resource.
Banned, and banned again
First in 2002, and then in 2009, the Supreme Court banned mining of major and minor minerals in the ecosensitive Aravalli hills in Faridabad, Gurugram and Mewat to restore the hills to their traditional ecological value. The order in 2009 said all mining activities must be suspended till statutory provisions for restoration and reclamation were complied with, particularly in cases where pits or quarries had been abandoned.
The Supreme Court had issued in 2002 in a petition filed by environmental activist Deepak Kumar claiming that Aravalli was being destroyed as there was no clear monitoring of the limited mining the apex court had allowed in 1994 and it has lead to ecological damage to Aravalli ecosystem.
Environmental activists and former forest officials in Gurugram, however, allege that illegal mining or quarrying continued unabated despite the ban.
RP Balwan, former conservator of forests, Gurugram, alleged that some people in administration were involved in the trade, and cited his own case of 2008, when he was beaten by illegal miners for trying to nab them while he was posted there as a district forest officer.
“During my SOS calls to some higher-ups (during 2008 case), I realised their involvement in the matter. We filed an FIR and took the formalities forward but important people are involved in all such quarrying cases and so investigating such incidents is also difficult. This despite SC banning mining in the Aravalis in 2002 and then again in 2009” said Balwan.
Gurugram-based environmentalist Chetan Agarwal said the killing of DSP Surendra Singh underscores the scale of the problem. “It’s a terrible tragedy. The activity happened for years, but the administration turned a blind eye to rampant illegal mining in Aravallis, and failed to enforce the Supreme Court orders,” he said.
NGT interventionOn May 23, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) asked the state pollution control board and government authorities to submit a factual report, and take steps to preventing illegal mining on a petition filed by the Aravalli Bachao Citizens Movement (ABCM), a group of activists working for protecting Aravallis, which alleged that illegal mining was going in at 16 locations across three districts of south Haryana — Faridabad, Gurugram, Palwal and Nuh.
The members of the Aravalli Bachao Citizen Movement alleged that in many locations, they found substantial portions of the hills mined and, in some instances, completely razed to the ground. Many of the areas of illegal mining fall under the Punjab Land Preservation Act — a law passed in 1900, that prohibits the cutting of trees, clearing of land, and mining of stones in the Haryana Aravallis.
“Over the last 1.5 years, members of our group have documented 16 locations where sand and stone mining is taking place in violation of the Supreme Court ban on mining in these areas,” Neelam Ahluwalia, said a spokesperson for ABCM, adding that they asked NGT in May 2023 to set up an independent Aravalli Protection Authority
The NGT bench on May 23 also constituted a joint committee of representatives of the Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC), the Central Pollution Control Board, the Haryana State Pollution Control Board, principal chief conservator of the forest, mining & geology department of the Haryana government, the state’s director general of police, and police commissioner of Gurugram division.
The joint committee was directed to meet within four weeks and undertake visits to all 16 locations to ascertain whether any illegal mining has been carried out in the area, the quantum of such mining, and the magnitude of the loss caused to the environment and the state exchequer. The Haryana State Pollution Control Board was made the nodal agency for coordination and compliance. Their verification report is expected to be submitted at next NGT hearing on August 24.
Plea to resume miningEven as illegal mining continued to thrive, the Haryana government in 2021 filed an appeal before the Supreme Court seeking that mining be allowed again in fragile ecosystem of Aravallis in Gurugram and Faridabad on the grounds that the state was being deprived of benefitting from its natural resources and had to depend for minerals of neighbouring states at a higher cost.
“The execution of infrastructural projects in the state is not only getting delayed but the cost escalation of the same due to higher cost of basic material has been a major concern affecting all new projects,” said Haryana’s appeal in the apex court. The Haryana government also told the court that the plan for rehabilitation of Aravalli hills destroyed by previous mining activity was pending with the environment ministry since 2013. “Our appeal in the SC will be to finalise the rehabilitation plan and allow start of mining in Gurugram and Faridabad,” Haryana government lawyer Anil Grover told the court in 2021.
The appeal is pending with the court as Central government is yet to submit a report on rehabilitation of the Aravalli hills.
Several environmental and legal experts have raised concerns about Haryana’s attempts to dilute the legal provisions that conserve Aravalis, and have said that officially restarting mining would kill the ecological hotspot as around 600 hectares of forest would be opened for mining.
The Aravalli is an almost 700km-long mountain range that starts from Gujarat, travels through Rajasthan and Haryana before finishing at Raisina hill in the heart of Delhi. It is one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, and full of minerals, flora, and fauna. Several water streams originate from Aravalli and it stands as a barrier against the Thar desert to protect parts of Rajasthan, Haryana and Delhi from dust, pollution and sand storms.
Ahluwalia said that mining has already wiped out 31 Aravalli hills in Rajasthan.
“There are 12 identified gaps in the Aravallis from which the Thar desert is inching towards Gurugram and NCR. If we keep losing Aravalli hills in Haryana to illegal mining, we lose our only shield protecting us from being swallowed up by the dust storms coming from the Thar. Air pollution levels in Gurugram and NCR cities will become unbearable if the Aravallis are gone. With their natural cracks and fissures, the Aravallis also function as NCR’s most critical water recharge zone with the potential of recharging two million litres of water per hectare in the ground every year. Losing Aravallis means losing our water security. Aravalli forests are also home to leopards and 20 other species of mammals, 200 species of birds, 100 species of butterflies. As we destroy the habitat of wildlife, we increase chances of man - animal conflict. Aravallis are also the only wilderness space that people have to connect with nature in the highly concretised NCR,” said Ahluwalia.