The Construction Industry is growing at a stable pace. In 2008 the contribution of construction to India’s GDP was 6.4%. In 2012 it had grown to 8.4%. As of 2017, the statistic stands at an unprecedented 9%.
Sand is a basic requirement for this rapidly growing industry. It is primarily used as a concrete mix, or for making bricks. There are other available alternatives such as quarry waste, furnace slag, construction demolition waste etc. But these alternatives require processing. On the contrary, sand is relatively easier and cost-effective to procure. All that is needed is a truck, a driver, labourers and a place where it is possible to mine. Being a difficult and heavy commodity to transport, such a mining site is often within a 50 km radius of the construction site, even if the mining of sand at such a site is prohibited.
The unbridled demand for sand coupled with minimal regulatory consequences has made it a lucrative illegal business and given rise to the sand mafia. It is to be noted here that sand is categorised as a minor mineral. As opposed to major minerals such as coal, diamond or gold, minor minerals are governed by the states. That is, the state government has the power to make rules preventing illegal mining, and regulating transportation and storage of such minerals. Until recently, the punishment for mining sand without permission in many states was imprisonment up to two years of a fine of up to Rs. 25,000.
According to the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act of 1957 amended in 2012, persons desirous of mining sand are required to obtain a licence from the state authorities and pay royalty on the amount of the extract. The fee generally amounts to about 8% of the sale price. Nevertheless, even when miners get permission to extract a certain amount of sand, they often extract multiple times that amount.
The economic viability of illegal sand mining is such that with time it has developed into an organised crime, complete with networks and syndicates. The kingpins of such syndicates enjoy political patronage. There are enough margins in the business to grease the palms of a few corrupt officials for permits and passage through check posts. Tough to handle unwanted intrusions have reportedly been met with intimidation and violence. Even when illegal mining consignments are caught, the collectors and transporters are found to be poor people who are lured into the business for as less as Rs. 300 a day due to lack of other employment opportunities. It is therefore difficult for the law to trace and lay its hands on the kingpins.
In 2016, the Union Environment ministry drafted guidelines on sustainable sand mining and proposed strict monitoring and crackdown against illegal mining. It suggests that states should increase penalty against illegal miners. This includes confiscation of vehicles carrying illegally mined sand, recovering ten times the market value of the seized mineral and confiscation of all machinery and equipment recovered on non-leased mining premises. Similar punishments have also been recommended for miners who mine more than the permissible limit within the leased area.
The Environment Ministry has, however, also observed that “the implementation of these guidelines on sustainable mining is not possible till states create a robust mechanism to monitor the mining operations and measure the mined out mineral.”
As we wait for states to put an end to the sand mafia, illegal mining continues at the cost of erosion to our river banks and the resultant damage to biodiversity.