Illegal sand mining destroying Garo Hills ecology in Meghalaya, India
Man’s unbridled greed is degrading the environment at an unprecedented rate. For example, ‘Excessive’ sand mining is contributing to severe erosion and leading to rivers changing their course in India. Such an incident has come to light in Meghalaya, a northeastern state of India, where the Ganol River is changing course, says the Centre for Environment Protection and Rural Development (CEPARD). The NGO, based in Tura, said that illegal sand mining in Meghalaya’s Garo Hills is a big challenge for the ecology and environment. It can threaten low-lying areas due to frequent erosion as well as inundate villages, especially in the plains of West Garo Hills as well as the neighboring Assam’s South Salmara-Mancachar district.
‘Buoyancy of water table in plain areas of Garo Hills isn’t stable any more. In the dry season, a segment of the Ganol river remains dry which affects riverine ecology,’ says Samgar Sangma, who is the president of CEPARD.
However, there is an absence of proper research-backed scientific studies to validate the claims. The organization CEPARD founds its claims on the observation that areas along the Ganol River have been submerged and that there is huge erosion. This has led to the river changing its course.
The threat of Illegal sand mining in Meghalaya
In the year 2014, the dangers of Illegal sand mining first came to the fore in the aftermath of devastating floods, which wiped off over a hundred people. The State Disaster Management Authority recorded the floods as the “worst to hit” in about 30 years.
After the floods, the problem of ecological imbalance gained center stage. It was discussed at length. Directions were issued by the Government of Meghalaya for stringent measures to be followed in order to regulate all types of mining in the state, particularly the stone mining activities along forest areas, where rampant deforestation had been a prime reason for ‘ecological imbalance.’ As a result, stone quarries as well as mines were stopped after the floods. The dangers of Illegal sand mining were pointed out. However, measures to regulate could not be taken due to the fact that most people involved in Illegal sand mining activities are villagers who are dependent of this activity since centuries.
CEPARD had raised this issue of erosion as well as the river changing course. It collected information, according to which in the past 3 decades, several low lying areas such as those of Shyamnagar, Bhaitbari, Phulbari, and Rajabala in the West Garo Hills got inundated. Villages lost land due to the erosion. Several low lying areas in places such as Solartek, Salmara, Fakirganj, and Mancachar in Assam witnessed large-scale erosion. It also led to the submergence of many villages. In the year 2014, Bholarbitha village, near Phulbari, got totally washed away. At least six people were killed and more than 350 households got displaced.
Environment activist Samgar Sangma says: ‘This demand for sand has been a concern which led to excessive mining. Erosion along different riverine areas has been a major ecological threat, and, measures to stop sand mining are a must. This threat is real, and the government should take steps to immediately halt sand mining in the Garo Hills.’
However, there are some who are skeptical of the claims made by the organization. Professor O P Singh, Department of Environment, North Eastern Hill University, says: ‘There is little study on sand mining, and its impact on environment in Meghalaya; but mining is definitely going to have impact on riverine ecology.’
Environment activist Shoshan Sangma says they did submit a charter demanding immediate halt of sand as well as stone mining from riverbeds and streams in June 2017. ‘We asked Department of Forest and Environment and the Garo Hills Autonomous District Council (GHADC) to strengthen check gates with installation of CCTVs and promulgation of stringent environment policy.’
Environmentalists cite excessive illegal sand mining in hilly areas as a matter of concern, with serious implications for the plains of the Garo Hills. They point out that the sand mining is ‘illegal’ and rampant in all districts of the Garo Hills. The sand as well as stone mining is widespread along Ganol, Simsang, as well as the other rivers of the Garo Hills.
‘Inaction’ in regulating illegal sand mining
Rules for the regulation as well as mining of minor minerals weren’t framed in Meghalaya till the year 2016. Hence, in the absence of a mining policy and with the ‘confusion’ surrounding different views on various implications of the Central Acts in the Sixth Schedule areas, regulation of mining by enforcing agencies, such as the Forest and Environment Department as well as the Directorate of Mineral Resources has not been found to be satisfactory on the ground.
The Meghalaya Minor Minerals Concession Rules, 2016, framed for the exercise of powers conferred under Section 15 of the Mines and Mineral (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957, aims to regulate as well as grant mining leases and quarry permits with respect to the minor minerals found in the state.
Consequently, all illegal stone mines as well as quarries in the Garo Hills were closed down and operators asked to take permission under the new rules. This happened in adherence to new rules that were framed. Till September 2015, as many as 25 stone quarries applied for the land status certificate, of which around 13 were given the letter of intent (LOI). They now need to submit a mining plan that is duly approved by the DMR along with an environmental clearance from the District Environment Impact Assessment Authority as well as the consent to operate from the Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board, no objection certificates (NOCs) from the District Revenue as well as Disaster Management Authority, along with the Labour Department within 6 months from the date of issuance of the LOI. This was laid down so that final lease or quarry permit could be issued.
The new rules posed a problem for common people, who had started construction work as all forms of mining got stopped. The Department of Forest and Environment was able to facilitate the permit for a few, from whom stones, boulders, and stone chips had been seized by the department. They were later auctioned off mostly to government departments for construction work and welfare projects. In the Garo Hills alone, more than 95 stone quarries as well as 46 stone crushing units were closed in 2017 for not complying with the environmental clearance norms.
The Forest and Environment Department together with the District Administration has been able to streamline stone mining as well as quarrying in the Garo Hills, which is a major minor mineral. However, they haven’t been able to regulate the sand mining and restrict sand miners, brick kiln industries, and earth cutting in the Garo Hills. It seems as if the authorities considered facts such as: whether sand miners practice indigenous methods of extraction of sand from rivers and whether the quantum of sand extraction is huge or not.
Ground survey reveals that at least 20 trucks of sand gets extracted from a stretch of 30 kilometers from the Ganol river in West Garo Hills, leave alone Simsang and other Garo Hills rivers, where Illegal sand mining continues unnoticed. It seems that new rules framed by the Government would be imposed on sand miners soon, which could come as a surprise for them. More than 15,000 people in the West Garo Hills alone would be affected.
An independent survey carried out by this journalist revealed that the Forest and Environment Department hasn’t been able to regulate sand-mining due to the lack of man power, which is the main reason. Second, they perceive that the threat due to Illegal sand mining is not big since as it isn’t ‘mechanized.’ However, the law of the land has to be the same for everyone and the regulation of sand miners can’t be exceptions.
The unexpected imposition of new rules could be a hurdle for people, who are engaged in this trade. They would be deprived of livelihoods. The new rules have sections that aim to restrict ‘benami transaction,’ which implies a non-tribal wouldn’t be able to carry out mining either in the name or on the behalf of a tribal. However, it lacks provisions to address indigenous practices of mining and whether they could be deprived of livelihoods.
On the ground, it was found that sand miners are tribal people from adjoining villages along rivers, who don’t have other means of livelihoods. Thus, imposition of new rules would have a direct impact on lives of people, who are dependent on rivers for livelihood. In such a case, a ‘holistic’ policy has to be formed that ensures livelihood opportunities for people currently engaged in the Illegal sand mining trade.
SC order banning illegal sand mining
While hearing the special leave petition (civil) No. 19628-19629 of 2009 (in case of Deepak Kumar etc. vs State of Haryana and others), the Supreme Court of India, on 27 February 2012, said that excessive in-stream sand as well as gravel mining degrades rivers.
“In-stream mining lowers the bottom of rivers, which may lead to bank erosion. Depletion of sand in streambed, and along coastal areas, causes deepening of rivers, which may result in the destruction of aquatic and riparian habitats,’ said the Supreme Court order.
The Apex Court also observed that the sand mining may have adverse effect on biodiversity, as the loss of habitat due to sand mining would affect different species of flora and fauna and that it may also destabilize soil structure of river banks, often leaving isolated islands. Based on the Supreme Court order and its directions to all the state governments, the state of Meghalaya framed its rules. However, law-enforcing agencies failed to stop sand mining.
‘Political will is a hindrance for the ban on the regulation of sand mining in the Garo Hills,’ says environment activist Samgar.
Concerns for the loss of livelihoods after curbs on illegal sand mining
Most villagers living along the Ganol river banks are in this trade. There are over 15,000, from Damalgre to Phulbari in the West Garo Hills, dependent on River Ganol for the extraction of sand. On average, around 20 to 30 trucks of sand get sold regularly on daily basis, along a stretch of 30 kilometers along the River Ganol—from the outskirts of Tura in the West Garo Hills. These people, who depend on sand mining for livelihoods, say it’s an old practice, and it will be difficult to do away with it.
“We were asked by Forest Department to halt mining… Led by the village chief, we approached the department, and sought their permission to continue. They weren’t able to give any commitment, but because we have no other options, we continued,’ says Theopilash Ch. Sangma, the Treasurer of the Sand Mining Association of the Garo Hills.
When asked whether sand mining posed an environmental threat, Theopilash says: ‘We extract sand without machinery, which is being done in other states, and only from the upper riverbed.’ He tried to justify, saying only slit deposited during rainy season is extracted.
‘Even if government provides us an alternative for survival, it will be difficult for us. River Ganol has been a source of livelihood,’ says Pelbin Sangma, who is dependent on sand mining for his livelihood from the adjoining village of Jebalgre. Miners, who collect sand from river, earn around Rs 1,000 every day.
‘It would be difficult for us to take permissions from authorities to mine our river. We are poor and dependent on the river for collecting sand,’ says Matgrik Sangma of the Damalgre village.
‘I have been engaged in the sand mining since childhood. We played in the river, and literally lived our life in the river. To part with this river and do something else is unimaginable,’ says Selbarish Marak of the Damalgre village. Selbarish is in the late 40s. He says: “The youth from our village don’t move out of the area, because there is something on which they can rely for livelihood.’
All age groups of people are involved in the Illegal sand mining activity. Both men as well as women are engaged in extracting sand from Ganol River. Although most of them are dependent on the Ganol river, a few have adopted other forms of sustainable agricultural practices.
‘I was engaged in sand mining prior to starting an arecanut plantation. Over time, my plantation increased and returns are enough to sustain family. My husband is in sand mining. I try to convince him to take up agriculture and farming for income,’ says Rikje Momin, who is a mother of 2 children.
However, Johan Marak, Rikje’s husband, says sand mining is an easy way to earn a livelihood. ‘I can support my wife, but to part with sand mining is not possible at the moment. The river is the source of life,’ adds Marak.
Sand miners of the Garo Hills have been carrying out this business for centuries without any regulation or restriction. An abrupt imposition of new rules could pose difficulties for them, as they are mostly illiterate and poor. This is a big challenge for the government to persuade sand miners to form cooperatives so they can apply collectively for license and adhere to new rules and provide alternative livelihood opportunities together with capacity building.
Meghalaya Chief Minister Mukul Sangma’s project “Integrated Basin Development and Livelihood Programme” (IBDLP) has been instituted to enlighten people on the conservation of natural resources as well as sustainable alternatives to livelihoods. However, such government programs have not been able to prevent Illegal sand mining.
(The story was first published in North East Today in November 2017)