Even though the Uttar Pradesh (UP) government has launched a Rs 300 crore project to bring back Ganga to its original course along the ghats of Kanpur, indiscriminate mining of sand on the five-kilometre stretch in the Jajmau area is causing the river to go further away from the shores.
These miners, mostly influential people with political clout, have erected blockades at the river near the Siddhnath ghat in Jajmau by putting up HDP high density plastic (gunny bags) and stones across the river. A motorable track has been made across the width of the river through which the excavated sand is carried away on trucks. The obstructions have led to the diversion of the river course towards downstream Unnao and resulted in water stagnation at many places. As the effluent treatment plant is upstream, dilution of sewage and tannery waste is getting hampered due to reduced flow of the stream. The dissolved oxygen in the water in these places has fallen below 3.5 mg/l, which is lower than the lowest limit of 5mg/l. Recently, when the waste was drained into the river, shoals of fish died due to inadequate water over the stretch thereby preventing the toxicity of the discharge to get diluted. According to Vinod Tare, senior scientist with the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur, “If the natural flow of a river is disturbed, negative impact is felt on aquatic creatures living near the banks.”
“The dry riverbed on which mining is being carried out is notified as reserve forest,” says Narendra Vikram Singh, deputy conservator of forests, Kanpur. Singh points out that on October 25, 2000, the central government issued a 10-year lease to the state forest department to undertake collection of sand from 25 hectare of the river bed under certain conditions. The contract of sand mining was granted by the forest department to two people with political influence.
Sand collection was to be done in accordance with the Mines & Minerals (Regulation & Development) Act, 1957 which disallows any activity during the night. However, trucks are transporting the sand during the night through the track. The forest area where sand is quarried should be properly demarcated. But miners are carrying out the activity according to their free will at any place that they find suitable.
Under the stipulations, it was to be ensured that no new roads/tracks are constructed within the forest area. But the track made by obstructions while changing the course of the river is in total contrast of the prescribed rules. Besides this, extraction of bed material should have been from the middle of the river bed after leaving one-fourth of the river bed of each bank untouched. No such condition has been followed. There are also labour camps in the forest area for labourers involved in the sand scooping work, which are unauthorized.
The district administration is fully aware of the illegal sand mining. Yet it is apparently conniving with the sand mafia and abetting the activity. Every day around 400 trucks are loaded with sand and the miners get a royalty of Rs 400 for each truck. By such estimates, the daily income of the miners works out to Rs 1,60,000. It does not hurt the miners to dole out even one fourth of their income form the thriving business to the district authorities.
Last year, this miner-local administration nexus became more pronounced. Acting on a public interest litigation (PIL) filed in December 2001, the Allahabad High Court summoned the district magistrate (DM). The magistrate set up a taskforce comprising 11 administrative officials from the water corporation, irrigation department and forest department. The body gave a clean chit to the miners. The then additional district magistrate (capital and finance) SK Singh is even reported as saying that for sand mining, barriers are necessary. He denied that such blockades had diverted the course of the river in any way. River diversion takes place only when silt gets gathered during the rains, he had said.
The taskforce constituted by the district magistrate said that no illegal mining was taking place nor was the natural flow of the river tinkered with. It stated that the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board (UPPCB), Kanpur had informed that the gunny bags filled with sand that are put on the temporary route up to the excavation area do not pollute the Ganga river. Ironically, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), Kanpur, zonal officer BP Shukla said that if done in an unscientific manner, sand mining would certainly cause ecological imbalance and cause havoc on riverine ecology.
According to the document, sand mining was not interfering with the functioning of the effluent treatment plant, set up under the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) Phase I. It also said that on surprise inspection, no illegal mining after sunset was found. However, the reality is that the team did not even visit the site and did a cursory job. “The report is an eyewash. It was prepared in just a day without consultations from the departments concerned,” said Rakesh Jaiswal, executive secretary of a local non-governmental organization, Eco-Friends. He alleged that the sand mafia and the district officials are hand in glove. These mafia, wielding power and influence, also intimidate those who oppose their activity, he pointed out.
Earlier, in Januray 2001, the then UP chief minister, Rajnath Singh, when intimated about the illegality of the structure, directed the district administration to look into the matter. Interestingly enough, the administration had at that time accepted that obstructions were erected in violation of the rules. Again, on February 23, 2002, the then Officer-in-charge (Mines, Kanpur city) CP Pathak brought to the notice of the Deputy Collector IP Pandey that as per Rule 4 of the UP Mining & Minerals Rule 1963, no obstruction or wall could be constructed to block the stream of the river Ganga and that the lease holders for sand mining had erected four blockades on the river. In his response, Pandey had confirmed the violations and underlined the need for serving notices to the forest department and arrangement of labour, machinery and police force for removal and dismantling of the barriers. But the notice remained merely on paper and no action was initiated.
Executive Secretary of Eco Friends, an intervener in the PIL alleges that the entire file relating to the enquiry which was being conducted in the matter of illegal construction of track on the Ganga has been dumped in cold storage and the culprits continue their unauthorized work. The sand miners can manipulate even the higher judiciary or the proceedings, he points out.
Orders that matter
There are two judgements, one of the Supreme Court and another of the Kerala High Court at Ernakulam, which are significant in this connection. On March 14, 2002, the Span Motels was slapped an exemplary damage of Rs 10 lakh for changing the course of Beas river in Kullu in Himachal Pradesh. While applying the ‘polluter pays’ principle and public trust doctrine, the apex court made the culprits responsible for any damage they caused to the environment.
In a case regarding sand mining in the bed of Periyar river, the Kerala High Court on October 21, 2001, made it clear that the district collector should obtain report of the Centre for Earth Sciences Studies (CESS) or Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (CWRDM) before undertaking any such activity. No vehicle shall be brought to the river bed for the purpose of loading sand and vehicles shall be parked at a minimum distance of 25 metres from the river bank, the court said. Apart from this, it underlined that the panchayat shall directly carry out sand mining and it shall not auction that right in favour of contractors. And that 50 per cent of the income generated by the sand miners must go into the River Development Fund for regeneration of natural resources and protection of river banks. It also stipulated that mining should be conducted only on the pass issued by the geology department after a survey from where and how much quantity could be mined from the rivers. The interim report submitted by the CESS stated that bridges are in dangerous condition and indiscriminate scooping of sand from the river channel is a threat to the stability of bridges. Interestingly, there is a bridge 200-300 metres upstream of the mining area which may be a potential threat to its long term safety. However, there is no mention of this in the taskforce report. The miners in Kanpur are clearly violating the doctrine of public trust too. This doctrine primarily rests on the principle that certain resources such as air, sea, water, river and forest have such great importance to the people as a whole that it would be wholly unjust to make them a subject of private ownership.
The Karnataka state government has said that it would take stringent action against those who indulge in lifting of sand from the river bed. The state mining department has been given the onus of monitoring the operations of the miners. A committee headed by assistant commissioner in every district has been constituted to monitor it. However, the UP state government remains a mute spectator to the entire affair. The Allahabad High Court formed a two-advocate commission on the matter but nothing came out of it.
Meanwhile, unabated sand mining continues causing obstruction and diversion of the river course. It is aggravating the rate of lowering of river beds and also causing drastic changes in river bed configuration. At stake is the overall ecology of the river, including the acquatic life.