The outrage over the suspension of Durga Shakti Nagpal, an IAS officer who was simply doing her job by checking illegal mining of sand along the rivers of Uttar Pradesh, has highlighted a crucial issue. It is now evident that illegal mining of sand from rivers and beaches is rampant and the underbelly of this industry (I'm calling it "industry" for want of a better word) is powerful. Worse still, all this is happening in violation of the orders of the country's apex court. Before this brouhaha dies down, we need to find a way to control this business, which is operated on a small scale in scattered locations and is managed by local goons and thugs. It is not an industry that makes for easy regulation. But regulation is a must. Sand removal has always been done to de-silt rivers and channel their flow, but it has never taken place in this rapacious manner - the river is literally wiped clean from the bottom. As a result, the crucial recharge zone - think of it as a sponge that holds water and allows it to slowly seep into the surrounding soil for use - is destroyed. The river is hollowed out, its ecology disturbed and fish habitats damaged. The removal of sand, therefore, needs to be assessed for environmental damage, restricted and carefully regulated. But sand has slipped through the cracks in the regulatory system for many years - all till the construction industry boomed and extraction increased hugely. Sand, gravel and stone are the raw materials that drive this sector, which registers 10 per cent growth annually. We do not realise that the concrete house we build is two parts sand, four parts stone and gravel, and only one part cement. Not surprisingly, there is no estimate of the amount of the natural material required. Everyone plans for cement, but forgets that it is only a binder. The river pays the cost. Sand is classified as a minor mineral, which means state governments are allowed to set rules and auction this resource. The Environmental Impact Assessment Rules do not categorise minerals as minor or major; they just stipulate that environmental clearance is needed only for mining leases over five hectares. So sand mining thrived unchecked. In February 2012, while listening to the case of auction of leases in rivers across Haryana, the Supreme Court set the matter right. It asked state governments to amend rules to regulate mining of minor minerals and to ensure environmental management. Till this was done, it directed, all minor minerals would require environmental clearance from the ministry of environment and forests.
By May 2012, the ministry of environment and forests had washed its hands of the responsibility by devolving it to state environment impact assessment authorities. Two issues further complicated this decision. One, in 2000, the ministry of mines had classified "ordinary earth" as a minor mineral. This meant all earth needed for road construction and brick kilns would come within the ambit of this decision. Two, Environmental Impact Assessment Rules stipulate that if any activity is within 10 kilometres of a notified sanctuary or a national park, then the environmental clearance will be given by the central government. The states passed the buck back to the ministry of environment and forests in many cases. Nobody tried to put in place a system for clearance of the scattered, small leases. So either mining continues as before - only this time with the stamp of clearance from state environment impact assessment authorities - or it moves to the illegal dark side. So, what needs to be done? First, illegal mining must be stopped. It is for this reason that the Nagpal case is so critical. Second, rules for legal and regulated mining of such minerals should be treated as critical. Plan the mining areas as clusters. Give clearance to certain minimum plot sizes and, most importantly, carry out cumulative and regional-level environmental impact assessments to estimate the hydro-geology of the stretch and the amount of sand that can be extracted from it sustainably. These extraction zones should be geo-referenced and carefully monitored. But again, all this will remain on paper if enforcement is not strengthened and officials are not allowed to do their work. Third, we need alternatives for sand and other natural aggregates in construction. If concrete is the second most consumed material after water - as is said - and Indians still use much less than the global average, then we will only need more. If our rivers are already crying for help, think of what will happen when more houses, flyovers, roads and malls are built. Now when I see a building, I think of a river. We need new solutions. But the Bureau of Indian Standards, which is required to be heeded by all new construction, stipulates that concrete can be made only with "naturally accessed material". This rules out the use of recycled material such as copper slag and construction waste, which are widely used in other parts of the world as aggregates. This will have to change. Otherwise there will be no rivers but sand, only sand.