-by Shaun Grega
From construction to cosmetics, society uses sand in unexpected ways, and quite literally, is built on it. In India, for example, the infrastructure sector is one of the country’s largest economic drivers. Backed by government initiatives and regulation that underlie the construction market, India’s sand demands pose a difficult market to target. In fact, politicians and businesses shadily work hand in hand to exploit the country’s unabated construction boom. As a seemingly abundant commodity and its difficulty to regulate, sand stands susceptible to a lucrative, illicit trade. The insatiable demand for sand in India spawns a thriving sand black market that exerts control and influence through violence, threats, and bribes. Recently, these illegal operations spurred the creation of the Sand Mafia, India’s strongest organized criminal syndicate, an inclusive term of illicit sand operations across the nation. The unbridled demand for sand leaves India devastated by extensive and unsustainable mining practices and promotes illegal operations in other districts and countries. Expected shortages of sand only spike the need for illegal mining activities. As India’s infrastructure sector matures and incentives remain, current enforcement of India cannot sustain the present demand of inexpensive sand without generating physical, ecological, and social consequences to marine life and local communities.
A country with abundant resources and a high and rapidly growing population, India defies logic, turning a simple material into virtually a luxury commodity. Highlighting a reoccurring theme of black markets, licit markets fail to match demand that forces construction businesses to buy sand from any willing supplier. As a result, India’s organized criminal syndicate elusively steals sand from local, protected sources. Despite swelling desertification across the globe, only a specific type of sand provides constructional stability. As opposed to desert sand, marine sand is ideal for construction due to its strong, interlocking abilities.[i] Marine sand deposits on beaches and rivers in locations in closer proximity to urban centers where demand remains unbridled.[ii] In contrast, legal, suitable sand used in industrial purposes remains in deposits far from developing construction centers, dictating higher costs. In short, unfortunately the wrong kind of sand dominates current licit supplies, constraining corporations to resort to illicit means of retrieval.
Preferred sources of sand rely on one common theme: price. Although more expensive, many countries rely on outsourced sand to meet demand. However, in the rapidly urbanizing climate of India, these supplies prove too expensive quickly. By relying on local rivers and beaches for sand extraction, shipping expenses are minimized. Most notably, river and coasts provide an accessible supply of readily available sand as opposed to alternative outsourced supplies. Importantly, demand is primarily focused in large, growing cities situated on or near coasts and rivers. Because sand is heavy and troublesome to transport, the final price exceeds nearly four times the original cost. Increases to marginal profits are also seen through mining accessibility. Sediment primarily lies on the surface and is sorted by grain size, allowing anyone to extract it through primitive and cheap mining techniques. Because sand is easy to mine, operations do not need expensive mining equipment. According to Debi Goenka of Mumbai’s Conservation Action Trust, “All you need is a truck, laborers, a driver, and a place to go and mine.” She continues, “A portion of the profits keeps the police happy.”[iii] The benefits of inexpensive river and coastal sand are evident; however, effects to environments and its social consequences are less pronounced.
Although no official data shares the amount of sand mined illegally, the amount sufficiently thwarts state and district-level bodies attempts to reduce unlawful mining operations. This is partly due to inconsistent legislation among India’s states. According to Sibi Arasu, an investigative journalist interested in the issue, state and national governments possess the legislative power to regulate operations. However, actions against the operations are far from the source. Arasu raises, “Elective representatives, big landowners or those with great clout in the local community are inevitably involved in sand mining.” Arasu continues that there is a widespread fear of sand miners as a result of disastrous and fatal consequences from protests against them.[iv] Most countries, including India, regulate sand mining through environmental and national regulation, entrusting states to enforce laws and regulation. India is a union of states; there is a demarcation of power between union and state legislatures. The Mines and Minerals Act 1957 and the Mines Act 1952 are the major national statutes steering India’s mining sector. These acts provide power to state legislatures to frame legal outlines for the mining of minor minerals like that of sand.[v] Because of this, state and district laws differ regarding enforcement of mining procedures. In addition, state governments work counter-intuitively to combat markets by promoting government initiatives to grow the country’s infrastructure sector. Business allies and corrupt politicians in turn allow illegal trade to prosper in exchange for financial funding.[vi] With total revenue of sand mining reaching upwards to $250 million per year, politicians express little concern to stop it. India’s use of sand is bound to increase; on top of the estimated $180 billion annual real estate boom till 2020, sand mining is expected to grow to meet the demand of the government’s initiative to build 60 million new affordable homes by 2024.[vii] With India’s rapid growth of the middle-class, housing and commercial markets compete for sources of sand. The problem is not the lack of laws, but the enforcement and uniformity of state legislation along with sand’s unprecedented demand.
Sand mining is a recurrent concern in India, but community research on the effects of sand mining remain small due to its elusive and hidden nature. Physical alteration is the most destructive effect of sand mining. Evidence does suggest that waterways are able to sustain sand extraction if within the extent of natural reasonable regeneration. But prior to the onset of monsoon season, mining operations starve coastal lines and riverbeds before the rainy season makes extraction exceptionally difficult. To profit as much as possible, operations extract sand to the fullest, leaving sites under immense pressure.
Given the high variability of river and coastal systems found in India, the pressure of extreme extraction presents several effects on mining sites. Of the impacts most commonly reported with in-stream mining, incision, or channel bed lowering by erosion, is notably the major consequence of sand removal. Sand excavation makes beds susceptible to the erosive capability of water flow. As a result, channel depth increases along with channel width. Furthermore, incision and channel widening are associated with increased braiding of river ways and the lowering of groundwater levels. Decreases in the groundwater table impact connected wetlands and tributaries in conjunction with communal sources of water. Disruptions to bed stability upset embedded pollutants throughout systems as well, exposing wildlife to potentially harmful contaminants.[viii] Unstable water beds weaken bridges along the path of mined rivers, causing them to collapse.[ix] Altogether, changes to morphology pose the most detrimental impact on surrounding life and agriculture. Extreme weather becomes more transformative while loss of farmland threatens food security. In India, changes to water morphology deplete or deluge agricultural plains dependent on primordial sources of water, destroying sources of food, vegetation, and fisheries. Subsequently, these effects compromise people who use the freshwater supply as a basic resource, causing communities to relocate.
Sand is also an essential biotic component of rivers, riverbeds, and beaches, providing habitat to aquatic and riparian life. Depletion of sand destabilizes rivers, leading to alterations in river morphology and thus biodiversity. Sand mining interferes with ecological processes including food web dynamics and aquatic movements.iii Drastic morphological changes to rivers reveal that mined waterways significantly interfere with fish migratory patterns and loss of spawning grounds. Turbulent waters exchanged by pooling water, furthermore, make systems susceptible to invasive species. As invasive species occupy new areas, they compete with native plants and animals for limited resources. As a result, local aquatic and fauna populations severely weaken. For example, unregulated mining in India led to the near extinction of gharials, a native species of crocodile in India. Like many other native species, gharials use high river banks for relaxation and for making nests. Without these sandy deposits, gharial populations decreased to a point of critical endangerment and forced their communities to relocate. The disruption of river morphology onsets alterations and destruction of these habitats, putting many species at risk of extinction.[x]
Predictably, violence shadows the scarcity of sand; mining is incredibly dangerous. Interconnected truck drivers, miners, and bosses use intimidation, and if that fails, violence and murder keep the supply chains unbroken. From shoveling and diving for twelve hours a day, the Sand Mafia employs over 75,000 of India’s most impoverished citizens. Deaths from labor often go unreported.[xi] Violence is often stated against protesters, journalists, and those who report illegal activities; individuals attempting to stop operations are often beaten and killed. For instance, journalist Sandhya Ravishankar received death threats and online abuse after exposing one of India’s largest mining firms, VV Minerals, through her illegal sand mining report on India’s beaches. Within a month of publishing her findings in an online magazine, VV Minerals accused her of defaming the company and owner, only to find out they leaked her phone number, stalked, and taped her. The current climate is unappetizing to report on. Hostilities between public informants and corporations limit greater public exposure. Ravishankar says, “I am so sick and tired of all this, I just want to get done with this and move on to another story.”[xii]
Without stern national and international enforcement of laws against infringing operations, illicit sand mining slips, often purposely, through the officials’ fingers. According the United Nations Environmental Program, “There is a need for regulating sand extraction.”[xiii] The Sand Mafia has a ubiquitous hold on India. Continued growth of the infrastructure sector promotes unregulated mining operations. Globally, urbanization and population growth are predicted to expand, necessitating further construction of housing and commercial infrastructure. In India, the need for construction is particularly heightened as India’s population is expected to surpass China’s within the next five to ten years.iii The indiscriminate extraction of sand parallels this predicted growth and development. Although sand mining provides both economic and social benefits, when left unregulated, sand mining reaches unprecedented epidemic levels of impact to the environment and public. Although India nationally set forth legislation to limit and regulate mining, district level enforcement and representatives are still hesitant to intervene despite the dire consequences caused by illicit mining operations. Instead of enforcing existing laws, the government overlooks enforcement to prevent interfering with construction initiatives, receiving generous campaign donations in return. A key basis of India’s construction policy is to accelerate the growth of its cities. Without national enforcement and sufficient legal supply of sand, an insatiable demand accelerates at an alarming rate and operations will continue to go unchecked in construction epicenters.
[i] Koehnken, Lois. “Impacts of Sand Mining on Ecosystem Structure, Process & Biodiversity in Rivers” (Report, World Wildlife Foundation, Accessed October 9, 2018).
[ii] Beiser, Vince. “The Deadly Global War for Sand,” (Article, Wired, Wired, July 19, 2018).
[iii] Joanna Sugden, “Why India Has a ‘Sand Mafia’,” (Article, The Wall Street Journal, August 6, 2013).
[iv] Alexandra Popescu, “Inside the Ecologically Damaging Practice of Illegal Sand Mining,” (Article, Pacific Standard, February 16, 2018).
[v] D. Padmalal and K. Maya, SAND MINING: Environmental Impacts and Selected Case Studies (SPRINGER, 2016), 128.
[vi] Vince Beiser, “The Story Of Sand In ‘The World In A Grain’,” (Interview, National Public Radio, August 5, 2018).
[vii] Samantha Hawley, “The ‘sand Mafia’ Fuelling India’s $120 Billion Building Boom,” (Article, ABC News, March 27, 2017).
[viii] T. Nasrabadi et al., “Using Total Suspended Solids (TSS) and Turbidity as Proxies for Evaluation of Metal Transport in River Water,” (Report, Applied Geochemistry 68, 2016).
[ix] Michael Safi, “Villagers Pay Tragic Price as Indian Building Boom Drives Demand for Sand,” (Article, The Guardian, December 30, 2017).
[x] D. Padmalal and K. Maya, SAND MINING: Environmental Impacts and Selected Case Studies (SPRINGER, 2016).
[xi] Vince Beiser, The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization (Print, New York: Riverhead Books, 2018).
[xii] Vinita Govindarajan, “For a Month Now, a Chennai Reporter Who Exposed Illegal Sand-mining Has Been Receiving Threats,” (Article, Scroll.in, March 23, 2017).
[xiii] “Sand, Rarer than One Thinks,” Report, UNEP Global Environmental Alert Service (GEAS), March 2014).
Alexandra Popescu, “Inside the Ecologically Damaging Practice of Illegal Sand Mining,” Pacific Standard, February 16, 2018, accessed October 12, 2018, https://psmag.com/environment/people-are-stealing-sand.
D. PADMALAL and K. MAYA, SAND MINING: Environmental Impacts and Selected Case Studies (SPRINGER, 2016), 128.
Joanna Sugden, “Why India Has a ‘Sand Mafia’,” The Wall Street Journal, August 06, 2013, accessed October 12, 2018, https://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2013/08/06/why-india-has-a-sand-mafia/.
Lois Koehnken, “Impacts of Sand Mining on Ecosystem Structure,” Process & Biodiversity in Rivers, July 2018, accessed October 9, 2018.
Michael Safi, “Villagers Pay Tragic Price as Indian Building Boom Drives Demand for Sand,” The Guardian, December 30, 2017, accessed October 11, 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/dec/30/india-sand-mining-conflict-deaths-building-boom-environmental-damage.
Samantha Hawley, “The ‘sand Mafia’ Fuelling India’s $120 Billion Building Boom,” ABC News, March 27, 2017, , accessed October 8, 2018, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-28/the-great-sand-heist-fuelling-india-120-billion-building/8390984.
“Sand, Rarer than One Thinks,” UNEP Global Environmental Alert Service (GEAS), March 2014, accessed October 15, 2018, 9.
T. Nasrabadi et al., “Using Total Suspended Solids (TSS) and Turbidity as Proxies for Evaluation of Metal Transport in River Water,” Applied Geochemistry 68 (2016): doi:10.1016/j.apgeochem.2016.03.003.
Vince Beiser, “The Deadly Global War for Sand,” Wired, July 19, 2018, accessed October 10, 2018, https://www.wired.com/2015/03/illegal-sand-mining/.
Vince Beiser, “The Story Of Sand In ‘The World In A Grain’,” interview by Lulu Garcia-Navarro, National Public Radio, August 5, 2018, accessed October 10, 2018.
Vince Beiser, The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization (New York: Riverhead Books, 2018).
Vinita Govindarajan, “For a Month Now, a Chennai Reporter Who Exposed Illegal Sand-mining Has Been Receiving Threats,” Scroll.in, March 23, 2017, accessed October 8, 2018, https://scroll.in/article/832422/for-a-month-now-a-chennai-reporter-who-exposed-illegal-sand-mining-has-been-receiving-threats.