Drown­ing for sand: Min­ers risk all for In­dia's build­ing boom

Kuwait Times - - BUSINESS -

At dawn on a sul­try sum­mer morn­ing, Balaram Raute stood on a boat bob­bing in a murky creek out­side Mum­bai, wait­ing for the sun to light up the water so he could dive in to dig sand. Min­utes later he was neck-deep in Va­sai Creek where un­treated chem­i­cals and in­dus­trial waste float - and, at times, the corpses of fel­low work­ers.

While In­dian au­thor­i­ties and min­ing of­fi­cials deny the ex­is­tence or the dan­gers of an il­le­gal sand min­ing in­dus­try, a Thom­son Reuters Foun­da­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tion found min­ers are dy­ing to meet ris­ing de­mand from a boom­ing con­struc­tion sec­tor. Al­though there is no of­fi­cial data, stud­ies es­ti­mate il­le­gal ex­trac­tion of sand in In­dia gen­er­ates about $150 mil­lion a year with the states of Gu­jarat and Ma­ha­rash­tra the main hotspots.

An in­ves­ti­ga­tion in Mum­bai, the nearby city of Thane, and vil­lages in the neigh­bor­ing dis­trict of Pal­ghar over two months found ev­i­dence of at least two deaths in the past year and more in the past few years - none of which were re­ported.

"I don't feel scared," said Raute, 27, wip­ing the water from his eyes. "My only worry un­der water is to find good sand." Raute is among about 75,000 men, many from In­dia's poor­est ar­eas, who work il­le­gally as sand min­ers along Va­sai Creek, div­ing 40 feet (12 me­tres) into pitch­black waters clutch­ing just a metal rod for bal­ance and an iron bucket to fill with sand. Al­though man­u­ally mined creek sand by cheap la­bor­ers plays sec­ond fid­dle to the large quan­ti­ties of sand ex­tracted legally by suc­tion pumps from rivers, it is in high de­mand in a na­tion of 1.3 bil­lion peo­ple with fast grow­ing cities.

The sand is used across the con­struc­tion in­dus­try, in the floor­ing of up­mar­ket apart­ments in Mum­bai and Thane and to plas­ter the walls of cheap, il­le­gal homes in dis­tant sub­urbs where peo­ple are mov­ing as space tight­ens in the cities. Sand min­ing has been de­clared il­le­gal in most parts of In­dia with count­less court pe­ti­tions high­light­ing the dan­ger it poses to coast­lines, marine life, and sand re­serves.

Un­even depths in creeks and rivers caused by il­le­gal sand min­ing can spark cur­rents and whirlpools, pos­ing a dan­ger not just to min­ers but any­one us­ing the rivers, with mul­ti­ple drown­ings across In­dia blamed on the black mar­ket for sand.

The crack­down has helped make sand so valu­able it has been dubbed "In­dia's gold", with min­ing dom­i­nated by crim­i­nal gangs. The so-called "sand mafia" is a net­work of busi­ness­men, trans­porters and also crim­i­nals who of­ten en­joy po­lit­i­cal pa­tron­age and are un­afraid to use vi­o­lence. De­spite the dan­ger in­volved, divers keep on work­ing, mak­ing 1,000 In­dian ru­pees ($15) for a boat-full of sand and gravel, much higher than the av­er­age daily wage in In­dia of about 270 ru­pees. Their em­ploy­ers sell the sand for up to 5,000 ru­pees to be sieved, washed, and bagged for build­ing projects.

But the po­ten­tial re­wards and de­plet­ing re­serves have in­ten­si­fied the risks, with fre­quent re­ports of op­po­nents at­tacked and even mur­dered. Of­fi­cials and bureau­crats have been ar­rested over the past year and cor­rup­tion is rife. In June alone, a po­lice in­spec­tor in the cen­tral In­dian state of Mad­hya Pradesh was se­ri­ously in­jured and an­other po­lice­man crushed to death in the north­west­ern state of Ra­jasthan for tak­ing on the sand mafia - the lat­est in a string of at­tacks.

A dis­trict head in the south­ern state of Kar­nataka was at­tacked in a raid on an il­le­gal sand min­ing site in April - the same month in which a po­lice­man in the north­ern state of Ut­tar Pradesh was run down by a sand truck he tried to stop. Em­ploy­ers who iden­tify them­selves as Mum­bai's na­tive fish­er­men want the state gov­ern­ment to le­gal­ize man­ual min­ing, ar­gu­ing it does not harm the en­vi­ron­ment like suc­tion pumps. Crit­ics, how­ever, say the real rea­son for seek­ing a le­gal stamp is to in­su­late them from hefty fines levied each time of­fi­cials seize trucks filled with il­le­gally mined sand. But there is vir­tu­ally no discussion about the threat to hu­man lives among the au­thor­i­ties or builders, al­though min­ers speak of death as a com­mon oc­cur­rence.

"I have seen peo­ple fall and drown. There is no count of the num­ber of peo­ple who have died here," said Rad­heshyam Sahni, who has been min­ing sand from the creek bed for 15 years and said he has seen at least five deaths him­self.

DE­NIALS AND COR­RUP­TION

Lo­cal po­lice de­nied min­ers were dy­ing in the creeks. "We have reg­is­tered cases of theft of sand and also vi­o­la­tions of en­vi­ron­men­tal norms but there are no cases ever of drown­ing," said S D Jad­hav, a se­nior po­lice in­spec­tor with the lo­cal po­lice sta­tion, when asked about the deaths. San­deep Khakha, a mi­grant worker from Chat­tis­garh who works on one of nine sand ports on a 16 km (10 mile) stretch of the Va­sai Creek, said he saw two divers lose their lives last year. For the creek bed is not smooth but has sand dunes mea­sur­ing 1.5 to 2 me­tres in height and scoop­ing out sand loosens these struc­tures. The work can be fa­tal if a sand dune falls on a miner, bury­ing him if he fails to right his bal­ance. "I never lose my grip on the metal rod. If I lose my bal­ance, I am gone," said Khakha.

"It is pitch dark un­der the water. I just feel a wall of sand. I have to dig my feet in it, bal­ance my­self and push the bucket into it to fill it." Other work­ers at Va­sai Creek said deaths go un­re­ported, with hun­dreds of boats in the creek nightly, and they only find out when the body of a drowned diver floats to the sur­face a day or two af­ter dis­ap­pear­ing or they find it buried on the creek bed. "There have been so many times when I have gone down for sand and touched a body," said Shiva Shahni, 35, a worker at a sand port in Bhi­wandi, Thane, who mi­grated from the north­ern state of Ut­tar Pradesh. Shankar Megh­wali's son Ma­hesh is one of the min­ers who died.

Out­side the fam­ily's mud house in Mo­hokhurde vil­lage in Vikram­gad - a lit­tle over 100 km from Mum­bai - is a holy basil plant where Megh­wali and his wife buried the ashes of their son who drowned in Va­sai Creek five years ago. He was 22, just mar­ried and with a baby girl. "He went down once and came up. The sec­ond time he went inside the water, he didn't come up," San­guna, Ma­hesh's grand­mother, told the Thom­son Reuters Foun­da­tion. Ma­hesh's body was found float­ing in the water a day later. "My son would ac­com­pany me to the creek as a child and by the time he was 15 he joined the work him­self," Megh­wali said. The fa­ther-son duo worked 20 days a month, bring­ing back earn­ings that helped them build a house that they painted blue and em­bla­zoned with a boat to in­di­cate their pro­fes­sion. The sculpted boat is now a grim re­minder of their lost son. "I don't go sand min­ing any­more. My son lost his life work­ing there. I feel uneasy go­ing to the creek," Megh­wali said.

About a dozen peo­ple from Megh­wali's vil­lage worked as sand min­ers, but the num­bers fell af­ter his son died. Ac­tivists op­posed to sand min­ing have been shocked by the deaths and suf­fer­ing ac­com­pa­ny­ing the surge in de­mand for sand. "I could never have imag­ined all these new build­ings and beau­ti­ful con­struc­tions you see in Mum­bai would have this ter­ri­ble back his­tory of hu­man suf­fer­ing," said Su­maira Ab­du­lali, a lead­ing voice against sand min­ing in In­dia and founder of the en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­vo­cacy group Awaaz Foun­da­tion. "Even if peo­ple see (the creek), they would think these are fish­ing boats and not imag­ine that peo­ple are dy­ing, suf­fer­ing to pro­duce con­struc­tion (ma­te­rial)," said Ab­du­lali, who has been at­tacked twice by the sand mafia for op­pos­ing min­ing. Cam­paign­ers fear the num­ber of deaths will only get worse with the con­struc­tion boom set to con­tinue and de­mand for sand fore­cast to dou­ble by 2020 as the gov­ern­ment pur­sues a "hous­ing for all" pro­gram. They want work­ers to be given al­ter­na­tive and le­gal ways to make a liv­ing which will mean they have so­cial se­cu­rity cover and com­pen­sa­tion in the event of an ac­ci­dent or death.—

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