Drowning for sand: miners risk all for building boom

Drowning for sand: miners risk all for building boom

Drowning for sand: miners risk all for building boom
At dawn on a sultry summer morning, Balaram Raute stood on a boat bobbing in a murky creek outside Mumbai, waiting for the sun to light up the water so he could dive in to dig sand.

Minutes later he was neck-deep in Vasai Creek where untreated chemicals and industrial waste float – and, at times, the corpses of fellow workers. While authorities and mining officials deny the existence or the dangers of an illegal sand mining industry, a Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation found miners are dying to meet rising demand from a booming construction sector.

Although there is no official data, studies estimate illegal extraction of sand in India generates about $150 million a year with the states of Gujarat and Maharashtra the main hotspots. An investigation in Mumbai, the nearby city of Thane, and villages in the neighbouring district of Palghar over two months found evidence of at least two deaths in the past year and more in the past few years - none of which were reported.

“I don’t feel scared,” said Raute, 27, wiping the water from his eyes. “My only worry under water is to find good sand.” Raute is among about 75,000 men, many from India’s poorest areas, who work illegally as sand miners along Vasai Creek, diving 40 feet (12 metres) into pitch-black waters clutching just a metal rod for balance and an iron bucket to fill with sand.

Sand mining has been declared illegal in most parts of India with countless court petitions highlighting the danger it poses to coastlines, marine life and sand reserves. The crackdown has helped make sand so valuable it has been dubbed “India’s gold”, with mining dominated by criminal gangs.

The so-called sand mafia is a network of businessmen, transporters and also criminals who often enjoy political patronage and are unafraid to use violence. Sandeep Khakha, a migrant worker from Chattisgarh who works on one of the nine sand ports on a 16 km stretch of the Vasai Creek, said he saw two divers lose their lives last year.

Other workers at Vasai Creek said deaths go unreported, with hundreds of boats in the creek nightly, and they only find out when the body of a drowned diver floats to the surface a day or two after disappearing or they find it buried in the creek bed.

Activists opposed to sand mining have been shocked by the deaths and suffering accompanying the surge in demand for sand. “I could never have imagined all these new buildings and beautiful constructions you see in Mumbai would have this terrible back history of human suffering,” said Sumaira Abdulali, a leading voice against sand mining in India and founder of the environmental advocacy group Awaaz Foundation.

However, India’s national association of real estate developers, Confederation of Real Estate Developers’ Associations of India, denied manual mining takes place and a local sand mining association dismissed any risks.

“This work has been going on for over 150 years. This is traditional work and is a good physical exercise for those who do it,” said Bhagirath Ramchandra Mhatre, who heads the Bhiwandi Taluka Reti Utpadak Sanghatna, an association of sand businessmen in Thane.
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