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Use camera drones to curb illegal sand mining, identify erosion: Union environment ministry

PUBLISHED ON JAN 30, 2020 05:41 PM IST

The Union environment ministry has directed all states to use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with advanced cameras to identify illegal sand mining hotspots and survey areas where sand needs to be replenished.

The Enforcement and Monitoring Guidelines for Sand Mining, 2020, published on Monday as an 83-page document in line with the 2016 sustainable sand mining guidelines, for the first time, directed states to develop trans-boundary combined task force teams (mostly involving district officials from the revenue department) to prepare regular district survey reports assessing quantity of sand mined, and areas where illegal mining is rampant.

The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) said the guidelines were based on various court orders. The Supreme Court in July 2019 pulled up the Centre for not being able to curtail illegal sand mining across Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Andhra Pradesh.

“So far, information from remote zones where illegal sand mining has been reported lacks ground-truthing,” said a senior official from MoEFCC. “Along with physical surveys, the advent of advanced technology in the form of drones needs to be used by states to have a topographic overview and provide information accuracy to curb illegal sand mining. The latest guidelines are an amalgamation of all previous guidelines and court directions issued over the years,” the official said.

Other major guidelines include optimal utilisation of mined materials; monitoring through environment audits of sites where environment clearances have been issued; quantifying final-end use by the consumer for gravel and sand mining; and a mining plan to help avoid environmental impacts on forests, protected areas, wildlife habitations, and to protect critical infrastructure projects such as bridges.

“Mindless unsustainable mining destroys the natural sedimentation process, loosening the foundation of soil. Long term effects lead to bridge collapses and inundation,” said V Subramanyan, geologist.

In May 2019, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) declared India and China the two top countries globally where illegal sand mining has become a major environmental problem. Extraction of sand from rivers, coastal marine areas, lakes, reservoirs, agricultural fields, etc., leads to pollution, flooding, lowering of water aquifers, beach erosion, destruction of important ecological habitats, and frequent droughts, geologists have said.

In a first, states have also been directed to quantify future demands for sand over the next five years, based on a market survey to compare demand and supply (factoring in illegal sand extraction). This needs to be done under the mining plan for each district.

A November 2019 study by the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay (IIT-B) calculated the annual demand for sand in urban India across the housing sector, infrastructure construction including highways, ports, harbours, airports, dams, and railways as well as for construction of institutions and offices throughout the country at a staggering 60 million metric tons. To put the amount in perspective, the national demand stands at an average of 1kg per person per day in urban India, according to IIT-B. “Nearly 10% of the annual sand requirement can be fulfilled by setting up facilities for ‘manufactured sands’ and diverting segregated construction and demolition wastes to processing facilities rather than municipal solid waste management facilities,” said Shyam Asolekar, professor at IIT-B. “The remaining 90% can be fulfilled by processing various solid wastes and utilising them gainfully in preparation of manufactured sand.”

A ministry official pointed out that a separate chapter on manufactured sand had been prepared under the latest guidelines, and inventories needed to be developed under the mining plan at the district level.

Environmentalists said developing a market survey mechanism was welcome but the monitoring mechanism fails to address how the local mafia needs to be tackled. “Having drones will boost protection but these are still interim measures. The long-standing demand to have environmental police or empower existing officers to address the mafia nexus operating out of remote districts needs a more focused and centralised approach,” said Sumaira Abdulali, convener, Awaaz Foundation, which has been working on environmental issues.

Rampant illegal sand mining in India fetches $250 million or 1,611 crore in profits every year, a documentary by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) found in 2018.

The Maharashtra government said illegal sand mining was much lesser in the state as compared to other areas, but cases of illegal sand dredging, especially along creeks, was on the rise. “These guidelines will help control that at the district and taluka level by cracking down on the mafia and allowing revenue to be generated through correct means for the local livelihood. At the same time, the infrastructure risk will reduce if the quantity of sand requirement is calculated,” said Sanjay Sandanshiv, undersecretary, state environment department.

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