The Indian construction market is developing rapidly, and the demand for sand is growing rapidly. Capital, politicians, and corrupt police officers hold sand mining resources and carry out large-scale mechanized illegal sand mining activities, resulting in endless violence and death incidents, and the ecological environment continues to deteriorate.
On the banks of the Songhe River, away from roads and people, more than a dozen men were shirtless and held shovels. They began excavating the banks at dawn to gather the “yellow gold” – sand. The Song River is one of the main tributaries of the Ganges and has a reputation for high quality sand. The bank behind them was very steep, about 20 meters high. For a meager income of 400 rupees a day, these men work hard under the yellow sand cliffs, where they may die at any time. “I can only support my family by mining sand,” said 25-year-old Bugar. “If we don’t dig sand, our family will starve to death.” The
bend in the river is full of boats, stretching for several kilometers. In a few hours, backhoes will bring in sand to fill the cabin. A dozen or so workers on one of the boats explained to us that they raised funds to buy a boatload of sand and sold it elsewhere. The profit was not much and everyone shared it equally. It was hard work for them, too, and it was getting harder and harder to do business.
The water level of the river has dropped, making it difficult for boats to pass. The COVID-19 pandemic has also had an impact on business. And now, the Bihar state government bans sand mining during the four-month monsoon. “Now you can’t mine sand in the middle of the river, you can only mine it secretly. If you are found by the police, you will be imprisoned and your boat will be confiscated.” Doman told us. “This ban has made it impossible for many poor people to survive. There are no factories or industries here, so how can they make money?” said Anil, who is beside Doman.
Bihar is located in northwestern India, and the rural areas of the state are among the poorest and most populous in the country. Like the rest of India, Bihar’s population is growing rapidly, its construction industry is booming, and its demand for sand is exploding. Sand is the cornerstone of the construction industry. Globally, sand is the second most consumed resource after water. India is the second largest cement producer in the world (330 million tons in 2021 and 260 million tons in 2014). From 2023, India will also become the most populous country in the world (with a population of more than 1.4 billion).
| Large-scale mechanized sand mining|
In 2019, research scholar Prem published a report. According to the report, India’s demand for sand has tripled since the early 2000s. In the past, sand mining has been a manual operation with little impact on the environment. However, in recent decades, sand mining has been changed to large-scale mechanized operations, resulting in harsh ecological consequences. Moreover, most sand mining projects are illegal. Prem pointed out that although it cannot be quantified, what is certain is that the sand mining business has enriched a group of capitalists, politicians, union leaders, local celebrities and corrupt officials. These people are the so-called “Black Sand Party”, and a large number of violence and deaths have been caused by them. “These black sand parties are loosely organized and do not have a unified structure. They fight independently and are distributed in various parts of India. Each state or even each town in each state has multiple competing sand mining gangs.” Prem said .
According to NGO surveys, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh are the three places where the black sand party is most rampant. The local Black Sand Party has close ties with the police and the government. In villages and towns near Patna, the capital of Bihar state, sand is everywhere. There are many sand dunes piled up between the fields and huts, and cement bags filled with sand are sold in large quantities at street stalls, and trucks running on the road are also full of sand. “As night falls, long convoys pass by the village.” Basha, a villager, said, “Sand mining and wine selling are prohibited on the surface, but in fact, these two industries are the most prosperous in our area!”
Outside the village Not far away is the Ganges, with wreaths floating on the river. In the hearts of Hindus, the Ganges water is sacred. Some villagers bathe in the river with their families, and some villagers fetch water by the river with a big bucket. The more than 20 boats moored beside them are used for sand mining on the Song River. Hundreds of men on board, shovels in hand, are busily filling sand into large plastic basins. The basin filled with sand was so heavy that it took two men to lift it. The Ganges is chest full. To keep balance, they will put the sand basin on their heads, walk to the bank, and then pour the sand into the trailer. Loading sand on the boat and unloading sand by the river, the two actions are going on at the same time. As soon as it was filled with sand, the blue trailer with the golden garland set off, and another trailer took the empty space.
Nishad, his spotless white shirt, observes the non-stop sand movement from his hut on the shore. He came to buy sand. A trailer of gray sand is 1,500 rupees, and a trailer of yellow sand is 4,000 rupees. After Nishad bought the sand, he would sell it at 5,000 and 8,000 rupees respectively. A little further away, a driver named Yadav was also waiting for his cargo. He will pay Rs 30,000 for the sand and sell it for double the price. “I also have a lot of costs. I have to pay for oil, I have to find workers to load and unload the sand, and I have to pay kickbacks to the police.” Yadav said. At this time, a police car happened to pass by on the crumbling steel plate bridge. An intermediary revealed that the owner of the sand dredger needs to pay the local police a “favor fee” of 70,000 rupees per day. In 2021, more than 30 police officers in Bihar were suspended for colluding with the Black Sand Party.
|Hundreds of deaths|
Farmers, drivers, boat owners, sand mining companies, capitalists, officials… The interest chains of sand mining activities are intertwined, and the players at the top of the interest chain swallow most of the cake. and difficult to trace.
A Bihar government official responsible for regulating river sand mining said there is no way to completely ban sand mining. “There’s too much oil and water in it,” he told us on condition of anonymity. He had been in close contact with sand mining gangs, and he had clearly seen how these people escaped supervision, and he knew what would happen to them if they were exposed. “The Black Sand Party has money, power, and weapons. It is a huge criminal group that can wipe anyone off the face of the earth. They are so powerful that no one can fight them alone,” the official said.
According to information provided by non-governmental organizations, from December 2020 to March 2022, at least 12 civilians and two policemen were killed by the Black Sand Party. Between January 2019 and November 2020, at least 23 civilians, 5 journalists and environmentalists, and 11 government officials lost their lives. In addition to being intentionally killed, there are also accidental deaths: traffic accidents, accidents while mining sand, drowning, etc. Hundreds of people are killed and injured each year in India related to sand mining.
Sumela’s family and friends are amazed that she is still alive. For 20 years, the environmentalist’s life has been filled with violence and threats. In early 2000, illegal sand mining did not attract much attention. Sumela found illegal sand mining along the river bank in her hometown of Mumbai, which had a bad impact on the environment. So she contacted the local government, but to no avail. “Everyone knows that the government and the sand-mining gangs are in collusion. I was told that we need to catch the current situation,” Sumaila said. One night in May 2004, she and her friends went to the sand mining site and stopped a truck with her car. The sand miners violently attacked them and Sumaila’s teeth were knocked out. The incident hit newspaper headlines, and with it the first investigative reports on sand mining. In 2006, Sumela filed its first public interest lawsuit over illegal sand mining.
Since then, more and more people have contacted Sumela to report illegal sand mining activities. In 2010, she took the first pictures of a large-scale sand mining operation. Several men pursued her in SUVs. She was nearly run over by a car on a bridge in the mountains.
| Regulations are only partially enforced |
Sumaila, who narrowly escaped death, fought bravely against the sand mining gangs and achieved significant and significant results. Since 2012, all sand mining projects must obtain an environmental permit to carry out. In 2016, the Indian government introduced sustainable management guidelines for sand mining, requiring each region to conduct studies on the deposition rate of river sediments. Facing pressure from the media and environmentalists, illegal sand mining activities have decreased in some major cities.
However, government decrees are also powerless to stop river sand from being over-exploited. Everything is just talk on paper, and only some laws and regulations have been implemented. Although there are relevant permits, sand mining workers do not abide by the prescribed scope and depth of mining. Su Maila said: “For 20 years, we have successfully brought the topic of sand mining into the public eye, and what needs to be done now is to implement the regulations. In the past two years of the epidemic, I have received a lot of requests for help, and the situation is actually worse than before. …”
For Akash, the dawn of life finally appeared. His father was a farmer who worked the fields on the banks of the Yamuna River. On July 31, 2013, his father was brutally killed for reporting sand mining activities in the Yamuna River. The Akash family lived in the overcrowded small house where the father was killed and his younger brother was a witness. A year after his father’s death, his brother’s body was also found on the train tracks. Nearly a decade has passed and the father’s case is about to go to trial.
Akash, who previously worked in sales, returned to school at the end of 2017 to study law in order to better protect himself. He explained to us that in order to force him to give up justice for his father, he had been falsely accused many times, mainly of rape. This tactic is common in India. Today, the murderer still lives not far away, and the Akash family still cultivates farmland on the banks of the Yamuna River.
The waters of the Yamuna River are as black as the buffaloes in the river. Sewage from the sewers has made the rivers filthy, and dams on the river channels are draining the rivers. There are six excavators working by the river, loading the trucks waiting aside to the brim. On a single day, at least 150 trucks travel to and from the shore, and workers who mine sand from the fertile riverbed bear the environmental impact of sand mining.
| Unrecognizable river course|
Rupa, who has four young children, has a field of callista, a small shrub with red flowers, in her field. “The sand mining truck drove by, and all the dirty water flowed into our field.” The young girl pointed to the road full of sewage and potholes. Nagendra oversees 24 hectares of farmland where banana trees, okra and other vegetables are grown. Nagendra needs to dig to get water and irrigate the fields, and she digs deeper every year. In the past, it only took more than 10 meters to get water, but now it needs to dig more than 30 meters. “Excavating river sand will deplete groundwater,” said Vik Kron, an environmentalist who lives in the area.
In fact, moderate mining of river sand is beneficial to the environment, and can avoid excessive sediment in the river, while excessive mining will damage the ecological environment. The flow and shape of the river channels have changed, the volume of water has decreased, and species and their habitats have been affected. A 2019 study looked at three mining sites near Patna. Studies have pointed out that due to the turbidity of the Ganges, the number and types of plankton in the river have decreased significantly.
Hydrologist Romokar said, “Rivers have a role. Sand mining should pay attention to time and place, and you can’t do it randomly. You must pay attention to the amount and depth of sand mining. The amount of mining should not exceed the amount of sedimentation.” From the perspective of hydrology Generally speaking, the narrower and deeper the river, the faster the water flow, the higher the utilization efficiency. However, river sand mining activities have made the riverbed of the Ganges bigger and bigger. In 2012, the Supreme Court of India stated that overexploitation is one of the main causes of environmental degradation and poses a threat to biodiversity.
A few hundred meters away from the construction site of the excavator, skyscrapers rose from the ground. In the suburbs of Delhi, many high-rise buildings are under construction. In 2030, more than 40 percent of India’s population will live in the suburbs (compared to 34 percent today), meaning at least 25 million additional new homes will need to be built. Old four-, five- and six-story houses in central New Delhi have been demolished to make way for high-rise buildings.
On the outskirts of Mumbai near the sea, the tallest building reaches 91 floors. An eight-lane coastal road is under construction and a new airport is nearing completion. These projects have put the last remaining mangroves in the area at risk. Between 1991 and 2008, Mumbai lost 40% of its vegetation and 30% of its wetlands. Urbanization is fast and chaotic. “50-story and 70-story high-rise buildings have been built one after another, but no one has thought about environmental issues. We should take a long-term view and think about what the environment will look like in 50 years. It is a pity that no one has such a vision.” said Mu Da, chairman of a local construction company.
In Mouland, Rajesh is overseeing a construction site where two 74-storey skyscrapers will be built, targeting the middle class. He assured that the 80,000 cubic meters of sand needed for each building would not be mined from the river. They use sandstone that is ground from rocks in the quarry. There wasn’t enough room horizontally, and the engineer could only create “vertical chaos.” Rajesh admits: “I love my job, but every time I watch an environmental documentary, I feel like I’m committing a crime. Real estate developers have failed to leave a better planet for future generations.
” Under the premise of not excessive consumption of natural resources, to meet the needs of housing and urban construction? Shyam believes it can be done. Shyam is a professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Engineering at Bombay Institute of Technology. Her research project is to develop alternative materials for cement and concrete. “India can completely stop mining sand, but it won’t happen overnight. And it’s not just a matter of scientists, it also needs to mobilize capital and the government. India is full of rubbish, enough to produce enough to replace cement and Concrete.” Shyam’s team calculated the volume of solid waste generated in India in 2019, and also quantified the volume of waste that had accumulated in landfills over the past 38 years. After the waste is sorted and sorted, it can be reused to make new materials.
Bricks made from soot lie on Shyam’s desk. India still relies heavily on coal for power generation. One of her female doctoral students is researching how to convert wastewater into biomass. “These women can change society,” Shyam says cheerfully of her outstanding students.