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Legal regime should define what sustainable sand mining is

August 26, 2013 22:13 IST

More than legal and illegal mining of sand, the issue which stares us in the face is sustainable sand mining, says  Gopal Krishna

Will there be compliance with National Green Tribunal’s order restraining sand mining without any licence or environmental clearance across the country? Given the past record of the compliance with such orders, the order is a step in the right direction but it does not inspire hope. This is order is hardly sufficient. Unless mechanised sand mining is not stopped river ecosystems are bound to be suffer an irreparable damage. The Supreme Court had made environmental clearance mandatory for all mining sites that included sand mining. There are several high courts which have issued similar orders. Have they been complied with?

Is sand an inexhaustible minor mineral? Construction industry seems to think so. All rivers have sand, a minor mineral for which the construction industry is hungry. According to research from Transparency International, it remains one of the most corrupt sectors according to the Bribe Payers Index. Sand mining is impossible without political patronage anywhere in the country because sand mining or sand dredging makes the engine of ‘sustainable development’ run. Construction industry can come to a grinding halt without it. But sand mining is happening at a rate faster than nature can replenish it.

India has the world’s largest construction business that accounts for 9 per cent of its 2 trillion USD economy. China and the USA have a bigger business.

The million dollar question is how much sand does Indian construction and real estate industry need and what will be its environmental cost?

The country produces about 250 million tonnes of cement every year but there is no official figure on the total quantity of sand required or produced. The cement consumption pattern alone can provide an estimate for sand requirement. Under the 12th Five Year Plan road infrastructure is likely to use about 150 million tonnes of sand and power infrastructure about 90 million tones. This is derived from the fact that the concrete has per capita annual consumption of 1.5 tonnes in India. The Union Ministry of Urban Development had projected a sand shortage of 91,666.7 million tonnes by the end of 2011 for building 42 million units of housing. There is no estimate of sand requirement in non-housing sector either. It is estimated that it could be twice that of the housing sector.

Road infrastructure for instance, would require 75 million tonnes of cement and power infrastructure about 45 million tones under the 12th Five Year Plan. The National Highway Development Programme has plans to construct 45,000 km of roads. The National Highway Authority of India has awarded construction contracts for about 6,500 km for 2011-12. It plans to award contracts for 7,300 km in 2012-13. Road infrastructure needs about 150 million tonnes of sand and the power infrastructure about 90 million tonnes of sand.

The 12th five year plan projects an investment of 10 per cent of the national gross domestic product or Rs 45 trillion in infrastructure. Production of silica sand was 2.28 million tonnes in 2009 -10, as per the Minerals Resource Book prepared by the Indian Bureau of Mines, Union Ministry of Mines in 2010. This figure is based on the information provided by the state-allotted quarries and mines. There are no estimates of sand mined illegally. Sand contributes only 9.4 per cent to the total minor minerals mined in the country valued at Rs 18,734 crore. In 2009 and 2010, India was ranked 12th in sand and gravel production.

The leading producers of sand are Andhra Pradesh, which is responsible for 39 per cent, Gujarat for 17 per cent, Rajasthan for 14 per cent, Maharashtra for 13 per cent and Uttar Pradesh for 7 per cent. Rivers in the Indo-Gangetic belt have good quality fine sand but coarse aggregate is scarce. Coastal areas also are a source of sand. There is a need for a national sand mining policy. Illegal sand mining has been documented in at least 15 states of the country, ruled by parties of all hues. 

Now sand mines have to undergo the Environmental Impact Assessment process under the Environment Protection Act of 1986.  Earlier, minor minerals were mined in more than 5 hectare but given the fact that extraction of alluvial material within or near a riverbed impacts the river’s physical characteristics like stability, flood risk, environmental degradation, loss of habitat and biodiversity extraction in blocks of less than five hectares and separated by a kilometre is not enough because its cumulative impact is bound to be quite significant.

If sand mining continues to follow the current trend more wells and aquifers in the floodplains will start drying up because sand mining lowers the riverbed. It must be noted that sand in the riparian areas recharges groundwater through percolation of water from different layers of sand. But indiscriminate sand mining adversely affects the vertical and lateral movement of water and the groundwater recharge.

The Supreme Court, high courts and the tribunal should define what is sustainable and environment friendly sand mining. Sand from desiltation of major reservoirs can meet the requirement of the construction industry for the next 10 years. Wastage of sand must be prevented like any other precious natural resource. But construction industry will have to seek and shift to alternatives of sand as a building material in due course. The legal regime to regulate sand mining is not yet robust but in the face of imminent environmental crisis due to construction sector very soon legal system will not allow any sand mining other than by manual excavation that too of accumulated sand.

Gopal Krishna