Business Standard

Sand min­ing saps the lifeblood along Kosi river

With the re­cent lift­ing of a ban on min­ing and a pro­posal to build a road through core tiger habi­tats in Ut­tarak­hand, its frag­ile ecol­ogy is be­ing threat­ened like never be­fore. In the first of a two-part se­ries, Busi­ness Stan­dard looks at the ef­fects of s

- GEE­TAN­JALI KR­ISHNA Ram­na­gar (Naini­tal), 16 April Ecology · Mining · Industries · Ramnagar · Rana Pratap Singh · Terai

With the re­cent lift­ing of a ban on min­ing and a pro­posal to build a road through core tiger habi­tats in Ut­tarak­hand, its frag­ile ecol­ogy is be­ing threat­ened like never be­fore. In the first of a two-part se­ries, GEE­TAN­JALI KR­ISHNA looks at the ef­fects of sand min­ing in the state.

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-yearold child, on these roads in the last two years.”

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 ~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

En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists aver that riverbed min­ing in the Terai and Bhab­har re­gions of the Hi­malayas has far-reach­ing eco­log­i­cal con­se­quences. In­deed, water lev­els in Choi, which used to be as high as 15 feet, have dipped in some ar­eas to 150 feet

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 ?? PHOTO: GEE­TAN­JALI KR­ISHNA ?? A pile of stones left be­hind dur­ing a raid in Choi. To­day, nine sand stock­piles in Choi have de­stroyed land that was once fer­tile and pro­duc­tive
PHOTO: GEE­TAN­JALI KR­ISHNA A pile of stones left be­hind dur­ing a raid in Choi. To­day, nine sand stock­piles in Choi have de­stroyed land that was once fer­tile and pro­duc­tive
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EARTH-I SCORCHED

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