In­dian vil­lagers pay price of sand boom

Killings high­light ru­ral cri­sis as protests against river min­ing turn vi­o­lent

The Guardian Weekly - - International news - Michael Safi

“We didn’t know they had guns,” San­tosh Ya­dav says. “If we knew they had so many guns – that they were plan­ning to com­mit a massacre – we would never have ar­gued with them.”

Ya­dav still re­plays the morn­ing of 19 May last year in his mind. The de­ci­sion he made with his un­cle and cousins to go to the river­bank. To con­front the men min­ing sand near his vil­lage. Not to run when the min­ers went to their ve­hi­cles and re­turned with guns.

“We were telling them to stop tak­ing the sand,” he says, stand­ing by the same river on the out­skirts of Jat­pura, his vil­lage in the east In­dian state of Jhark­hand. “They said, who are you to stop us? If we want to lift sand, we will. Then they lifted their guns and fired.”

His cousin, Ni­ran­jan Ya­dav, died first, he says. Then his un­cle, Uday. The min­ers turned their guns on Vim­lesh, the sec­ond son. Post­mortem re­ports show all three were shot at close range in the chest. “They also fired at me,” Ya­dav says. “To save my­self, I jumped back and hid be­hind one of the trucks, and then in a hole be­hind a nearby bush … It is by sheer luck I man­aged to es­cape death that day.”

The three shot men were vic­tims of an en­vi­ron­men­tal cri­sis. Vir­tu­ally ev­ery facet of con­struc­tion de­pends on sand. With Asia in the midst of his­tory’s largest-ever build­ing spree, aware­ness is grow­ing of the ex­tent to which the world’s sup­plies are dwin­dling. China used more ce­ment be­tween 2011 and 2013 than the US used in the en­tire 20th cen­tury. In In­dia, by some es­ti­mates, the amount of sand used for con­struc­tion has tripled since 2000. The coun­try plans to build at least 60m new houses by 2024. “De­mand for sand now out­strips that of any other raw ma­te­rial,” says Su­maira Ab­du­lali, con­vener of the Awaaz Foun­da­tion, which cam­paigns against il­le­gal sand ex­trac­tion.

As sup­plies of sand close to cities such as Delhi and Mum­bai have be­come ex­hausted, de­vel­op­ers are turn­ing to more re­mote re­gions to source it, bring­ing them into con­flict with smaller, usu­ally vul­ner­a­ble, com­mu­ni­ties. Ground­wa­ter short­ages, flood­ing and de­ple­tion of an­i­mal life of­ten fol­low in the wake of un­sus­tain­able min­ing, which ac­tivists claim can also weaken bridges and bar­rages along the path of heav­ily mined rivers, lead­ing some to col­lapse. No reli­able data ex­ists for the amount of sand mined, Ab­du­lali says. “But it’s quite clear when you visit the coun­try­side in In­dia, there is hardly a creek, river or beach where you don’t see the ef­fect of sand min­ing.” Also un­known is the toll of the hun­dreds of con­flicts in small com­mu­ni­ties be­tween those with min­ing leases and local res­i­dents. “But we know the vi­o­lence is wide­spread,” Ab­du­lali says.

Jat­pura is a long way from the bur­geon­ing cities of ur­ban In­dia. The sand min­ers ar­rived at the be­gin­ning of the year, us­ing ex­ca­va­tors and in­dus­trial vac­u­ums that could slurp vast quan­ti­ties of sand from the riverbed. Ni­ran­jan Ya­dav led the op­po­si­tion to the project. The min­ing was veer­ing close to a patch on the banks of the river where Hindu vil­lagers tra­di­tion­ally burned their dead. The dredg­ing also made the river treach­er­ous. Holes ap­peared be­neath the sur­face, some­times six me­tres deep. Vil­lagers said that in April a 12-year-old boy had been play­ing in the water when he slipped into a crevice and drowned.

Satin­der Singh was a man­ager from a nearby vil­lage who over­saw the sand min­ing in Jat­pura and other sites. After the Ya­dav men were shot and the al­leged gun­men fled, he re­mained close to the river “to keep watch”, ac­cord­ing to Neha Arora, deputy com­mis­sioner for the state’s Gar­wha district. Of­fi­cers found him beaten to death, and his rented house in Jat­pura razed. Po­lice be­lieve he was at­tacked by a mob.

The Jat­pura shoot­ings trig­gered protests and Jhark­hand state has since amended its min­ing poli­cies. Lift­ing sand is now per­mit­ted only from large rivers; the river by Jat­pura, clas­si­fied as medium-sized, is now out of bounds.

Build­ing spree … sand has be­come vi­tal to feed In­dia’s hous­ing drive

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