Card Houses and Sand

It was an economic activity limited to fishermen before construction boom set in Kashmir paving way for sand mafia to take over. With huge money involved, extracting sand is a costly affair now. Bilal Handoo travels across Kashmir to report the ecological costs of mindless mining.   

Sand-Extraction-From-Jhelum
Sand extraction in river Jhelum.  Pic: Bilal Bahadur

In November, Sangam in south Kashmir’s Islamabad district is done with harvest, but isn’t sleepy. The passing River Jhelum is dotted with scores of men extraction sand in their boats. A heap of sand on boats is unloaded near banks which subsequently gets dumped on agricultural fields nearby. But it doesn’t stop there. As collection mounts, sand subsequently enters into courtyards. And then, a cascade of tippers loaded with sand leave behind a trial of dust on plants as well as on public.

The early morning haze over Niana village in Sangam is hiding its rough look and men extracting sand from Jhelum. The morning clock has just touched 8 am. And already scores of men are in waters extracting sand by braving bone-chilling cold waves. A barrage of men keep coming and joining others. All of them are workers who come, extract sand and end up earning Rs 1000 a day.

But they aren’t ordinary men. Some of them have university degrees, most are college degree holders, while others possess professional degrees like B.Ed.

“I live in Kulgam district [in south Kashmir]. I regularly come here to earn a day of labour,” says Suhail Magray, a man in his early thirties with folded forehead and looks of exhaustion on face. “I have done my post-graduation in Political Science from Kashmir University. I applied for number of posts but met failures. For last two years, I make my living by extracting sand here.”

Magray along with his three friends set motion for Niana village soon after offering morning prayers in their village mosque. They extract sand that fills one entire truck daily, which fetches them around Rs 3,000 and more.

Of late, sensing ‘easy money’ in sand mining, locals in Niana say that school going students prefer spending their day to date with waters instead of learning in classrooms.

“You see, it is cash in hand that too close to Rs 1000 a day,” says Gaffar Malik, a man in his late forties and one of the sand miners in Niana. “Therefore, many students, mostly hailing from low income family backgrounds turn to sand extraction.”

The income potential promise perceived by students in sand had gripped Sangam over a decade ago. Before euphoria began in early 2000, only a particular class of society was known for extracting sand for the living. They were fishermen, who would collect sand in their wicker baskets and assemble it over a period of time before selling it for ‘peanuts’. But as construction boom set inside the valley, the demand of sand soared. And sniffing an opportunity, landowners of Sangam started sand mining as their principal work over agriculture.

“Now those fishermen who used to extract sand originally are extracting sand for landowners,” says Zulfikar Bhat, an elder in Naina. “The large devotion towards sand mining in Sangam has improved the income graph of people.”

A decade down the line into active sand extraction, ecological impact has dawned over the waters in Sangam. People linked with the trade activity say that sand production of Jhelum has dwindled due to relentless extraction. “Earlier, 100 tippers loaded with sand would leave from Sangam to other parts of the valley daily,” Bhat informs. “But now, hardly 40 to 45 tippers of sand leave the village.”

Some 4km from Niana, a village called Latir has already faced what is looming large over Sangam. Three years ago, sand ran out of stock from the water-body passing through the village, which left many villagers in lurch. Subsequently, economic condition supported by sand dipped. “People in Latir used to mine sand mindlessly,” says Gul Farooz, a villager in Latir. “They mined to an extent of damaging the river bed. And now sand extraction has stalled in the village.”

The ecology of Jhelum and other water-bodies is fast heading to the “point of no return” as sand extraction being done is largely illegal. Many sand miners have no license, no permit and no official nod to carry out the activity and yet, they pounce on waters daily with no official reprimand.

“Yes, it is illegal,” informs an official in the state’s Geology and Mining Department in Niana. “Almost all sand miners are illegally extracting sand. The department is merely collecting a royalty fees from them, that too from tipper owners when the same should have been paid by sand miners. There is a big mafia involved in sand extraction.”

Officials from the department are monitoring the movement of sand-loaded tippers in Niana by charging a royalty fee of Rs 120/tipper. Official data reveal that the department has collected Rs 181.62 crores between 2006 and 2013 as the royalty on minerals (including sand) from the state. But this year the department mired in controversy over tendering the royalty charges rights to an outsider.

The department allotted tender to receive royalty on sand from Niana Bridge to Kadalbal Pampore (which is considered as rich in sand resource) to a New Delhi based M/S Azam Mining Pvt. Ltd. for a period of six months for a sum of Rs 15.75 lakh only. After contract expired in early October, the contact wasn’t renewed. This pushed the department to sent their men to collect royalty themselves. “But now, the contract of Azam Mining has been renewed and will be put in effect from December,” says an official of the department who preferred anonymity. “Since October, the department was itself collecting royalty.”

In south Kashmir’s Pulwama district, sand extraction is going on unabated in Rambi Ara stream despite the J&K government banning illegal extraction of sand from streams in the state. The Deputy Commissioner Pulwama vide order No. DDCP G & Mining 121356/61 dated 10/05/2012 directed complete halt on illegal extraction of stones, boulders and sand from the stream. But the directives, it seems, have never been implemented.

Kakapora in Pulwama district offers the similar picture as Sangam. Jhelum is hosting scores of boats who are laden with sand. The extraction remains in force throughout the year, but witnessing surge in spring.

“Right now the demand of sand isn’t on high end,” says Shabir Khanday, 34, a local extracting sand. “During this time of the year, we usually supply sand for household construction, but in April, the demand surges as government constructions are on a large scale.”

Relentless mining has improved the economic fortunes of people of Kakapora, but has affected the ecology of the place. The sand housed on agricultural land is slowly affecting its fertile potential. “Crop production has gone down due to deposition of sand over it,” says Bashir Ahmad, an official in state agricultural department. “Deposition of sand over soil slowly changes it into a desert. And given the amount of sand being taken inside agricultural fields, soil fertility is likely to get hit.”

Like in south, sand continues to boost economy of north Kashmir, but on ecological front, the picture remains gloomy. Last year, Government imposed a ban on extraction of sand from Madhumati River and other allied rivulets at Kaloosa and Nathpora villages of Bandipora district by claiming that sand extraction affects hatching tout fish.

The issue of illegal sand mining again hogged headlines this year when fisheries officials claimed that relentless sand extraction is taking a heavy toll on endangered rainbow brown trout in major stretch of Arin Papchan.

“Sand dunes are affecting the spawning area along the river course leading to a decline in trout population,” said Dr Rather Mansoor, a fisheries expert.

But there is no hiatus in illegal extraction of sand in other parts of north as well. In various streams in Kupwara, Lolab, Kehmil and Mawar, unabated mining is going on. Scores of tippers, tractors, and JCB machines extract sand and boulders from streams and transport it to other areas in broad day light. “These cold water streams form the habitat of trout and the extraction has taken a heavy toll on it,” says Dr Mansoor.

Some years ago, there were dozens streams in Kupwara, says Tauseef Ahmad, a local in Kupwara. “Ironically due to illegal extraction of sand and boulders, the water level in these streams has decreased,” he says.  “Now, we are forced to fetch water after covering a long distance.”

Sand extraction  in river Jhelum. Pic: Bilal Bahadur
Sand extraction in river Jhelum.
Pic: Bilal Bahadur

But there aren’t merely ecological costs involved in the sand extraction, sometimes it also involves human lives. Last year in October, an 18-year-old youth was killed and two others injured in a violent clash that broke out between two villages over extraction of sand from Jhelum at Lehwalopora, in district Bandipora.

The dispute between the villagers of Banyari and Lehrwalpora was actually a few months old when the sand extractors (residents) of Banyari asked the residents of Lehrwalpora to stop the extraction of sand in the area that falls within the jurisdiction of Banyari village.

Earlier, the dispute was settled by local heads in presence of a magistrate. However, it again surfaced after some youth from Banyari allegedly stopped the residents of Leherwalpora to extract sand in the ‘troubled’ area.

The sand extractors from both the villages exchanged heated arguments, but locals managed to defuse the tension. However, the situation turned ugly triggering violent clashes which ultimately led to killing of the 18-year-old Nigaar Ahmed Dar who was reportedly hit by a hard stick by sand extractors from Banyari. Two other persons were seriously injured in the clashes.

Apart from south and north Kashmir, the sand from central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district is under serious setback. Known for its fine quality, the sand from Ganderbal is being mining illegally on a large scale. On a long stretch in Nallah Sindh from Wayil to Sonamarg, scores of labourers could be seen extracting sand from the river and loading it in trucks.

Of late, fisheries experts are saying that the trout fish production of Nallah Sindh is under a “serious” threat due to illegal mining. “But fisheries department and other concerned department are involved in illegal extraction and transportation of sand,” alleges Showkat Hassan, a science graduate from the main market Ganderbal.

Meanwhile, environment experts maintain that revenue loss to the exchequer is seemingly the only tangible cost of illegally mined sand, but the impact that it has on environment and ecology is far greater and far graver.

“Sand is important for ground water recharge. On a riverbed, it acts as a link between the flowing river and the water table and is part of the aquifer,” A R Yousuf, a noted environment expert, said. “Illegally dredged sand is equivalent to robbing water. Sand holds a lot of water, and when it is mindlessly mined and laden on to trucks, large quantities of water is lost in transit.”

Prof Yousuf says that there is a perception that sand is useless and rivers have a lot of sand. “This is incorrect, because sand is crucial for the sustained existence of the river and it performs many functions.”

“We have seen the impact of tampering with the rivers and their resources in the recent Uttarakhand floods,” warns Prof Yousuf.

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