Indian villagers pay price of sand boom
Killings highlight rural crisis as protests against river mining turn violent
“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