Sand mining saps the lifeblood along the Kosi

Malba and landslide causing bottleneck on Ramnagar
With 65% of its area covered by forests and 86% by the Himalayas, Uttarakhand has always struggled to balance the need for development with the imperative of preserving its rich natural resources. However, with the recent lifting of a ban on mining and a proposal to build a road through core tiger habitats in the state, its fragile ecology is being threatened like never before. The first of a two-part series looks at sand mining on its riverbeds.

Five years ago, Chandrashekhar Tamta used to get 20 quintals an acre from his litchi orchard in village Choi, Ramnagar. Today, the yield has dropped to about 14 quintals an acre.

Along Ramnagar’s famous fruit belt, his neighbours have seen similar dips in litchi and mango yields but they have more pressing problems to worry about. Next door, Ganga Singh Chauhan can’t walk a couple of steps without getting breathless and is undergoing treatment for asthma. A few metres ahead, Manju Yadav has just obtained an oxygen tank for her aged father, suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. “Coughing has just become a habit now,” says her neighbour Pratap Singh Rautela. “We don’t even notice it anymore.”

These problems have a single root cause. Situated on the banks of the Kosi, Choi has become the cynosure of illegal sand mining in the area. A temporary ban on mining by the Uttarakhand high court on March 28 gave its residents some respite. On April 10, the Supreme Court stayed the order, and it has been business as usual along the Kosi and the Dabka.

The riverbed along Choi has always been mined for sand and stones. But residents say their problems have exacerbated since the government allowed stockpiling in the village in 2013. Today, nine sand stockpiles in Choi have come up on land that was once fertile and productive. "We’ve noticed that the areas used for stockpiling sand have become permanently sterile,” says Chauhan, pointing to one where the soil has turned white and barren.

Moreover, dust from the stockpiles has adversely affected the productivity of the abundant litchi and mango trees. "It has literally choked many of my trees to death,” says Tamta, pointing to the grey dusty cast of the leaves.

Most of this riverbed mining illegal and, therefore, uncontrolled. According to law, only chugaan, picking up mining materials by hand, is allowed here. Yet, excavators are a common sight in Choi and other mining areas in the region.

A settlement of migrant labourers has come up on the riverbed. During mining season (mainly summer), there are as many as 9,000 labourers living here.

“There’s noise and dust all night as dumpers carry sand to the stockpiles, where larger trucks are loaded all night,” says Chauhan. “None of us are able to sleep in peace.” He shows the furrows pockmarking the riverbed, some so deep that groundwater has pooled in their depths. Piles of stone lie everywhere, dumped when trucks have had to flee government raids. Yadav describes what happens on their narrow village roads when these raids are in progress. "Trucks move down these roads at breakneck speeds, trying to avoid capture. There have been at least eight fatal accidents, the last one involving a six-year-old child, on these roads in the last two years."

Marchula Road under construction on weakened mountainside
Environmentalists aver that riverbed mining in the Terai and Bhabhar regions of the Himalayas has far-reaching ecological consequences. “These areas are natural sponges, absorbing water flowing down the Himalayas,” says Ajay Rawat, environmentalist and retired professor of Kumaon University. “Mining riverbeds here can affect groundwater recharge not only close to the dense forests of Corbett, but all the way across the Indo-Gangetic plain.”

Indeed, water levels in Choi, which used to be as high as 15 feet, have dipped in some areas to 150 feet. Also, even as the forest department states that none of the riverbed mining on Kosi and Dabka is taking place close to forest and wildlife habitats, the recent killing of a man-eating tiger close to the mining area on Dabka’s riverbed belies their assertion.

Residents and scientists are also worried about the impact of this uncontrolled mining on flooding during monsoons. "This is bound to lead to greater floods in the years to come," says Yadav, “and all this damage to the riverbed may cause the river to change course.”

A recent riverbed mining ban in the state had several legal precedents, the latest being the National Green Tribunal’s 2016 decision to ban mining on the Gaula, which flows into the Ramganga, on the grounds that it flows through an ecologically fragile wildlife area. Yet, mining continues there, thanks to a politician-bureaucrat-mafia nexus and the ceaseless demand for sand and building materials.

While many locals support the mining ban, others stand to lose too much. One of them has built a road through his private land in Choi, connecting the riverbed to the main road. Rumour has it he charges Rs 150 for a truck to pass through. The 200-odd trucks operational here make at least five trips a day. About 150 villagers around the Kosi and Dabka have signed a petition to disallow mining and stockpiling so close to their homes. Others say the high court’s blanket ban on mining was anyway an impractical decision.

“We can’t wish away our need for sand,” says Yadav, as she locks her gate to keep her three-year-old from stepping out on the village road. “But, if mining is not strictly regulated and continuously monitored, we will leave a barren, dead world for our children.” 
Next: Road construction in fragile environments


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