Karnataka is a leading state that witnesses the devastating effects of sand mining

Illegal sand mining is wrecking rivers and lives

Hanumantha Bhangi, a social activist in Raichur, who has been fighting against the illegal sand mining relentlessly for years, saw the bloody face of the mafia just four months ago.

On May 31, 2018, he had visited Krishna riverbed at Kolooru village in Shahapur taluk, in Raichur district, on receiving information about illegal extraction and transportation of sand. A known activist in the district, Hanumantha was soon identified and the perpetrators pounced on him. They kicked him and attempted to drown him in the river. When he tried to film the illegal loading of sand, the perpetrators snatched his mobile phone and money.  

“I somehow survived the attack. A few in the mob got to know that I have been actively petitioning various departments against illegal sand mining. They threatened me with dire consequences and let me go. I had to run from pillar to post to register an FIR. Instead, several false cases were filed against me and I was included in the list of ‘rowdy sheeter’. Right from the constable to the higher-ups in the police department, the administration is involved in the sand mining business,’’ Hanumantha told DH. On the same day, Devadurga police station registered the FIR, but did not take any action citing jurisdictional issues. It took two months for the police to find out that the crime spot fell under the Shahapur police station limits. On July 21, 2018, the case was transferred to Shahapur police station. The police arrested three persons and are still looking for the other accused. 

There are reasons why Hanumantha is targeted in and around Raichur district. He has filed a public interest litigation before the Karnataka High Court and the court has directed the officials to submit a detailed report on illegal sand mining in the district. The relentless fight against illegal sand mining has earned him the title of a ‘rowdy-sheeter’. 

Hanumantha’s experience is not an isolated one in the state. Revenue officials such as tahsildars, assistant commissioners, Forest Department officials and even IAS officers have been attacked by the sand mafia. In April 2017, two women bureaucrats, including an IAS officer, were attacked by a group of sand miners in Udupi district. The Deputy Commissioner of Udupi district, Priyanka Mary Francis, and Assistant Commissioner, Shilpa Nag, conducted a raid on an illegal sand mining block in Halnad and took six persons into custody. They later raided another block in Kandlur village in Udupi district, but were attacked by the sand mafia. The police arrested 14 persons for the attack on the officials.

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Karnataka is one of the leading states, after Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, to witness the devastating effects of rampant sand mining. Between 2015 and 2018, the state has officially registered 20,779 cases of illegal sand mining, and 9,599 FIRs. No doubt, the Department of Mines and Geology has been taking action against the sand mafia. But then, why does illicit sand mining continue unabated in the state at the cost of people and natural resources?

40 million metric tonnes of sand unaccounted for
The state government is receiving approximately Rs 150 crore as royalty from legitimate sand mining blocks every year. As per estimates, the state government is losing around Rs 200 crore per year due to illegal sand mining. Here is a ballpark estimation to find out the consumption of sand in the state. According to cement manufacturing companies’ data, around 18 million metric tonnes of cement is sold in the state every year. The cement-sand mix ratio is either 1:4 or 1:6 (four or six bags of sand per cement bag). Even if 1:4 ratio is taken, a whopping 70 million metric tonnes of sand is approximately used in the state every year. The official data from the Department of Mines and Geology shows that from the blocks permitted by it, a total quantity of 30 million metric tonnes of sand (from all types of blocks - river sand, patta land, blocks allocated to government departments, and manufactured sand) is produced in the state. As per this, there is a difference of around 40 million metric tonnes of sand in comparison to the cement sold in the state.

Excavators extracting sand from River Hemavathi near Sakaleshpur. Credit: DH File Photo

Social activists and experts who have been watching the trade closely since long attribute it to the continuous unaccounted cash flow. A huge profit margin with no control over the price by any government agency is one of the main reasons why illegal mining of river sand continues unabated in the state. The sand mafia in the state is largely controlled by politicians and their close inner circles and thus, it dares to take on the law.

“There is a direct connection between big infrastructure, irrigation projects and illegal sand mining. The construction boom has resulted in a sharp increase of this illegal trade,’’ an official told DH. According to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change guidelines, sand is a minor mineral and the mining of sand comes under the state jurisdiction. Hence, illegal sand mining is rampant in states that are seeing huge infrastructure and irrigation projects.

Almost all the major rivers in the state, such as Cauvery, Hemavathi, Tungabhadra, Krishna, Ghataprabha, Bhima, Vedavati and Netravati, are bearing the brunt of illegal sand mining. Numerous streams and tanks are also exploited indiscriminately. 

According to social activists, the sand mining mafia is growing stronger despite the state having a separate sand mining policy.

“Karnataka state introduced a sand mining policy in 2016. The concept is good, however, there is a huge gap between the policy and its implementation. The rules framed in 2016 mandate setting up of taluk level and district level committees for sand mining. The taluk committees identify the blocks for sand mining and the district committee grants permit through tender or auction. Every block needs to be cleared by a committee for environmental clearance,’’ a senior official said.   

Credit: DH Photo

Any violation of the permit condition attracts the provision of the Mines and Minerals Act (Development and Regulation). While the Department of Mines and Geology is short-staffed, police consider illegal sand mining as a non-cognisable offence.

Mallikarjun Bhattrahalli, a social activist from Chikkanayakanahalli in Tumakuru district, explains: “We used to complain about illegal sand mining to officials. Now we have stopped complaining because it is turning out to be valuable information for the officials to make more money. Just last week, we filed a complaint with electronic evidence. The police registered a non-cognisable offence and sent us back. How can the theft of natural resource be passed off as a non-cognisable offence?’’ 

Mallikarjun says the sand monitoring committees are an eyewash and remain only on the paper. “Every elected public representative will have his or her own associates to continue the illegal mining business to ensure the flow of illicit money. After causing irreversible damage to major rivers, the illegal sand mafia has now ventured into small rivers, streams and even village tanks. The Jayamangali river in Madhugiri, Undinanglu river near Sira and Ankasandra river near Chikkanayakanahalli have been damaged beyond restoration,’’ he reveals.

Farmers at stake 

Mallikarjun says thousands of acres of coconut groves and numerous water sources in Sira, Chikkanayakanahalli and Madhugiri taluks have been badly affected by sand mining. As a result, once self-sustaining agriculturists, the farmers here have quit farming and are heading to Bengaluru in search of jobs. Illegal sand mining is rampant in around 60 km area of Krishna and Tungabhadra riverbeds, covering Manvi, Devadurga, Shahapur and Surpur taluks. In 2016, the permits were given to 20 blocks. Instead of mining up to 3 feet depth as permitted, the contractors go 10 to 15 feet deep.

The contractors are all backed by politicians and the government servants are hand in glove with them. In a recent raid, 47,000 cubic metres of sand was seized and in a court auction, the same was sold at Rs 3.80 crore.

River Sharavati, which flows through the Western Ghats, is the major source of sand for miners in the region. Hosanagar taluk in Shivamogga district and Honnavar taluk in Uttara Kannada district are the main areas of sand mining.

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“For illegal operators, one legal permit is what is required to carry out large-scale illegal activities. There are no Weighbridges, no CCTV surveillance and loaded trucks ply right in front of police stations and check posts. Permit conditions stipulate that heavy machinery, including JCB and Hitachi machines, should not be used in this region. However, machines are used to abstract sand and to load it to the trucks,’’ Girish Achar, an activist from Hosanagar taluk, said.

Former Upalokayukta Justice Subhash B Adi had conducted several raids and reported to the government on the shortcomings in regulating sand mining. “Sand is a profitable business. Till 2015, extraction of filter sand was rampant in Chikkamagaluru, Kolar and Bengaluru rural. We had conducted raids and made surprise visits to many illegal river sand mining spots. What I have found is that there is no coordination among the officials of the departments of Revenue, Mines and Geology, and the Police. Department of Mines and Geology must be provided with additional staff and the power to prosecute. There is one more way to end this menace. All the sand mined should be deposited to the state government. The government depots should sell sand, and not the contractors or transporters,’’ Justice Adi says.

Retired IFS officer Dr U V Singh, who was part of various committees and commissions constituted to enquire into the illegal mining, including sand mining, suggests certain modifications in the permit and regulations.“Usually, sand mining permits are given for a period of five years. Once the monsoon sets in, the trenches dug to mine sand get washed off and it is difficult to gauge the quantity of illegal sand abstracted. We had suggested earlier to issue permits for 6-7 months, instead of five years. If the permit is granted for a period from October to May, illegal sand mining could be regulated to a large extent. Besides, the environmental clearance should also be for this specific period and then the blocks susceptible to exploitation can be monitored regularly,’’ he said.

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