Unaccounted deaths expose the dark side of sand mining

  • According to a study, 418 people lost their lives and 438 people were injured in India between December 2020 and March 2022, in cases related to sand mining.
  • Of the deaths, 49 occurred due to drowning in deep pits formed in the river due to sand mining. No official accounts are kept to track deaths caused by mining accidents such as drownings and road accidents.
  • Environmental activists demand greater transparency in decisions made by central or state governments and recommend involving local people to keep tabs on illegal mining.

Illegal and unscientific extraction of sand from rivers is generally considered a threat to the environment, especially to aquatic life. But there is another dark side to this that is neither recorded in government records nor sufficiently discussed: the hundreds of unaccounted deaths each year from sand mining, leaving behind broken families.

Dharampal, a resident of Haryana, is one such person who lives with the consequences of such sand mining. In July 2019, his 18-year-old son, Santi, and his 15-year-old nephew, Sunil, died after drowning in the Som River. The cousins ​​had gone to bathe in the river, says Tejpal, the brother of Dharampal, a resident of Kanalsi village in Yamunanagar district. Due to illegal sand mining in the river, many deep pits have formed there. When the boys went to bathe, no one knew that mining was going on in the river or that it had caused such a situation.

Speaking to Mongabay Hindi, Dharampal said, “For two months we have been suing the police administration and even approaching the district magistrate. Our complaint was not heard. No compensation was given for the deaths of our children. We are workers. How many days could we dedicate to this, leaving our work? Since that day, we have not allowed our children to go to the river. With no action from the administration, Dharampal is preparing to file a case in court.

Kanalsi, the village where tragedy struck, is the confluence of the Yamuna, Som and Thapana rivers. Kiranpal Rana, another resident of this village, is associated with the Yamuna sanitation committee. He says that since mining began in his area in 2014, five children from their village have drowned in the river. He claims that mining is not even allowed in the Som River and is being carried out illegally.

Kiranpal Rana from Kanalsi village, associated with the Yamuna sanitation committee, shows the pits dug for mining in the Yamuna. Most of these pits are deeper than the prescribed limit. Photo by Varsha Singh/Mongabay.

Kiranpal says: “The administration is not ready to accept that children have died by drowning in the pits dug for mining. These children did not know that the machines had dug pits up to 30 feet deep in the river (about 10 times deeper than the prescribed depth). There was also no sign to warn them. The mines department, Yamunanagar administration and Haryana government did not help them. Even the autopsy of their bodies was not done. He says the same river where children used to swim and play carefree has now left them in fear.

In Haryana, the limit of sand mining in the river is set at three meters (9.8 feet) deep.

Sunil Tandon, Barrister in the High Court of Punjab and Haryana, says: “At present, I have three cases in Kanalsi village and two neighboring villages in which six minors have died. The main reason for these deaths is (illegal) sand mining. There is also the neglect of the irrigation service. The banks of the river are also dangerous. The river is 10 feet deep in some places and in others it reaches 30 feet deep. If mining is going on, there should be a security guard or a notice board to indicate this so that people living on the banks of the river can be alerted.

Sand has a high demand globally, with approximately 5,000 crore (50 billion) metric tons of sand and gravel used each year. With China, in India too, sand is mined faster than the rate of its formation. Due to high demand, India has to import sand from countries like Cambodia and Malaysia. The high demand for sand is also the reason why its exploitation, particularly illegal, is flourishing.

Even though the Indian government issued guidelines for sustainable mining in 2016, they have not been strictly followed in many places.

Deaths related to sand mining

The South Asian Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), a non-profit organization, studied incidents of accidents and violence, caused by sand mining, according to English media reports in India, over a period of 16 months, from December 2020 to March 2022.

According to study, at least 418 people lost their lives and 438 were injured across the country for reasons related to sand mining during this period. Of the deaths, 49 occurred by drowning in pools dug into rivers for mining purposes.

The study also reveals that in mine collapses and other accidents during sand mining, a total of 95 people died, while 21 others were injured during this period. Another 294 people lost their lives and 221 were injured in road accidents related to mining. The document also finds that 12 people were killed and 53 were injured in the mining-related violence. The number of people injured in attacks on activists/journalists who have spoken out against illegal mining rises to 10. While in the mining mafia attack on government officials, two people were were killed and 126 officers were injured. In mutual disputes or mining-related gang wars, there have been seven deaths and an equal number of injuries.

These deaths, recorded in the study between December 2020 and March 2022, were the highest in north Indian states and union territories, including Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Delhi, Jammu and Kashmir and Chandigarh, with a total of 136 dead. Among them, 24 died by drowning in pits dug for mining.

Bhim Singh Rawat, the associate coordinator of SANDRP, who conducted the study, says: “The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) records one death in a traffic accident due to mining, as a road accident normal. But it was mining-related speeding, circumventing police checkpoints and poorly parked gravel-laden trucks on the side of the road that caused the crashes, he said. he declares. “The NCRB must also look into deaths caused by drowning in the river due to excessive mining,” he added.

The NCRB report on Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India (ADSI) includes categories such as road traffic accidents, speeding, overloading and drowning. But these accidents due to mining are not classified in a separate category.

Sub-Inspector Preeti Sharma, who prepares accident data at the State Crime Records Bureau (SCRB), Uttarakhand, says: “We mention in the data that the drowning happened due to the influence of nature. The category of drowning due to mining, flooding or any other reason was not prescribed.

Deputy Inspector Manmohan Singh, who prepares road crash data for the NCRB, points out that there are 35 categories of road crash deaths, such as overloading and speeding. “There is no category in which we can record that the accident was caused by a mining-related vehicle.”

Mongabay-India has attempted to contact NCRB officials in this regard via email, but no response has been received as of press time.

In Yamunanagar, Haryana, news of sand mining accidents continues in the media. Photo by Varsha Singh/Mongabay.

Speaking to Mongabay Hindi, SANDRP coordinator Himanshu Thakkar suggests setting up mining monitoring committees and bringing the local community together. “How will government officials know that (illegal) mining is going on? Popular participation is essential in this regard. The people who live along the river know whether mining is legal or illegal. Day or night, machine or people, river or bank, the level at which mining takes place. The local population is an important link. Only when they are involved in surveillance can it be properly regulated.

Liability must be fixed

Siddharth Aggarwal, an environmental activist associated with Veditum, a research and media organization that works on rivers, says: “It is very important to bring transparency in issues related to mining. Information such as where permission has been granted for sand mining across the country should be made public. One should also be aware of actions taken at the central or state level regarding illegal or irregular mining. The problem is that in matters related to mining, there does not seem to be a firm will on the part of the government.

The impact of sand mining on the banks of Yamuna also affects the lives of local people. Photo by Varsha Singh/Mongabay.

According to the formation of the Uttarakhand river Politics, every year after the rains, a report is made to access the amount of stones and sand-gravel debris accumulated in the river. Based on this, a decision is made as to how much ore can be extracted from the river during the mining period from October to May-June. The Forestry Department prepares this mining report annually.

Professor Rajiv Sinha of the Department of Earth Sciences, IIT Kanpur, says that sand mining takes place in rivers at a deeper depth than the prescribed limit. “We are carrying out a survey inside the Gaula River in Haldwani (Uttarakhand). We are working on developing a better scientific method to estimate the quantum of mining. But it is also a matter of public order. Deaths caused by mining ponds in the river are the result of this practice (rampant illegal mining). Moreover, it changes the whole ecosystem of the river. Investigative work is still ongoing.

The government has released guidelines related to monitoring and continuous monitoring of sand mining.


This story was first published in Hindi from Mongabay.


Banner image: Tejpal and his wife with the photo of Santi and Sunil. In 2019, the cousins ​​had gone swimming in the Som River and died from drowning in a deep ditch dug in the river due to sand mining. Photo by Varsha Singh/Mongabay.

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