11 Feb 2024  |   04:52am IST

‘sand mafia is taking complete control of illegal river sand mining’

‘sand mafia is taking complete  control of illegal river sand mining’

Rampant illegal sand mining is taking place in various parts of Goa along the river banks. This is an issue which is not just restricted to one part of the State. Despite the High Court orders to check and monitor the illegal sand mining activities, the State has failed in preventing the excavation of our riverbeds and seems to have turned a blind eye towards this menace despite media reports and court intervention.

This is taking a huge toll on Goa’s marine ecosystem. This is not just an environmental issue, this is also a criminal issue. The rampant illegalities that have been taking place with gay abandon with boats getting into our rivers, some of them in the interior forest areas like the Mhadei.

The sand mafia is taking complete control of these operations and where often one has seen that the administration and the police system has turned a blind eye or were forced to turn a blind eye due to political pressures.

All this would have been far worse and our entire ecosystem would have been completely destroyed in the riverine areas, if it had not been for the activists who constantly litigated and fought at various levels, especially in the High Court, which has brought about a semblance of relief in at least some of the areas where sand mining was rampantly going on.

But one can’t forget the extent to which this problem has spread like cancer. Even if sand mining is stopped in some places, it sprouts up in other places. There was even an incident of firing in South Goa a couple of years ago, which killed a labourer and grievously injured another.

In one of the ground level investigations done by O Heraldo reporter, who went deep and into the forests into the Mhadei forest and spent some time in villages, where it seemed there was absolutely no government presence, while illegal river sand mining was going on. This was happening in the Ponda taluka area also. Then it happened in Pernem, Chandor and Rachol, near the ferry point.

This scourge of illegal sand extraction continues, but not going unnoticed, due to the vigilant NGOs. One should be thankful to the various organisations that have fought legal battles to protect our marine ecosystem. The Sand Protectors Network has also done a lot of important work on this issue and got many favourable judgments, albeit after a lot of fighting.

But, the question is that how come in spite of all this, the NGT still had to take suo moto cognisance of this and is still worried or still concerned that this is still going on?

Claude Alvares, Director, Goa Foundation, said, “The newspaper reports keep getting published. If something comes in the national newspapers because there’s a correspondent here, then the NGT in Delhi wakes up and says that illegal sand mining is going on in Goa and then they issue notices. This is what happened last week. But we have also challenged the Environment Clearances given by the Goa government. There’s a contempt petition that is also going on before the High Court.”

“So, it’s a very serious thing that three different bodies are looking at what is happening in the State of Goa and why illegal mining continues despite all the various rules and regulations. Environmental limitations put by the Ministry of Environment, orders passed by the High Court, which issues a very detailed 30-page direction issued by the Inspector General of police, when Mr Shukla was here,” Alvares said.

“He had issued a very detailed directive to all police stations. Unfortunately he left Goa after retiring and that directive was not executed at all by any of the police stations. So this is sort of an issue which we have been bothered about for several reasons. One is that it damages the rivers, which is now very clearly established,” he said.

“If you look at the two District Survey Reports that have come up from the North Goa and the South Goa District Survey, they have documented very severe damages to the riverine ecosystem, that one thing is very clear,” Alvares said.

“We are also concerned about the fact that for two years not a single bit of revenue has come to the State from even one ton of sand and extracted from Goa’s rivers, which means that all official projects like Atal Setu, Zuari Bridge - all the Real Estate projects have been done in the last two years with illegal sand. Now this is a telling State of your economy that a major portion of it actually involves using illegally sourced materials. They’re not getting legal sand,” he said.

According to the veteran ecologist, the sand for such major construction activities is coming from people who go to the river with a suction pump and a truck and who are every time able to speed up their operations to deal with the inspection machinery.

“Earlier they used to take it out in buckets and put it on the river bank when the police started attaching the river bank supplies. Now they bring the truck. There they have a suction pump and they directly put it into the truck and the truck leaves. So, they have been moving very fast. Overall, right now we are still in a very fragile situation,” he said.

Alvares also informed that a proposal has been given by Goa Foundation to the State government on the lines of Telangana government that you (Government) should do all the sand extraction through contracts given to traditional extractors and further Goa government should allocate sand to each family.

“However this proposal has been on the shelf for the last four years and the Goa government for some reason does not want to do this,” he said.

Alvares said that there is an established procedure for doing sand mining. One has to get an environment clearance based on a District Survey report.

“We agree with everybody that sand is an essential requirement that it must be removed from the rivers. But the condition is it should not be done by destroying the river,” he said.

“What we are saying is that sand mining should be done only by traditional people. It cannot be done by the mafia, which brings labourers from outside. Places like Camurlim and others have good sand mining associations. However, they have all been thrown out of business,” he said, while demanding that the mafia practices have to stop.

“The public is suffering because of all this corruption. A tonne of sand costs Rs 2500 and you don’t know whether it is legal or not. In other places in Goa as well it never cost more than Rs 500 a tonne. All this illegality has put the cost of sand beyond the reach of everybody,” he said.

When it comes to police action against illegal sand miners, there are two things that come to the fore. The first one is a charitable explanation where the police have worked hard. In some areas, they’ve tried to crack down on the miscreants, they have seized boats, amongst others.

In many areas the majority view seems to be that even when the police try to do good work, they get phone calls from different political parties, local MLAs, powers that be people right on top. The cops are prevented from even going to the spot. If they go to the spot and actually make the seizures, they are asked to pull back.

The second category of cops are the ones who are doing a fearless work but are under pressure and third one is the absolute corrupt lot, who are hand-in-gloves with the illegal sand mining mafia.

Giving his views on these observations, Former Deputy Superintendent of Police (DySP), C L Patil said, “Basically, regarding sand mining, the government has formed some squads, which include people from the Mines department, police and River Navigation Department. So, all these three departments work together. But, I don’t think there is proper coordination between them.”

“Every time the call reaches the police first, which then activates its sources. So, when the police reach the spot, then they have to wait for the mamlatdar and officials from the Mines Department to do the panchnama. Normally they conduct it,” he said.

“But, it is not possible for the police to cover all the river banks every time. So these people, who are involved in running a syndicate, work very meticulously. If you catch them at one place, then they will find another spot. So by the time police and other agencies come to know, they change their guard and they go to another place. So this is happening on the ground,” the former DySP said.

“There may be pressure on the police also or other departments. Sand is the need of the people and therefore the government has to go ahead with such licenses by which they can get some revenue as the government is losing a lot of revenue on sand,” he added.

However, it is also believed that there are MLAs and ministers are not only protecting those involved in illegal sand mining, but are also involved in this business.

“I’m not aware of it. Political involvement may be there. However, I never got any phone calls from anywhere during my tenure as DySP to stop action against the sand mafia. I had to deal with this issue as I had to go to court in connection with the petition on this matter. Once after getting a call at midnight, I went directly with my driver only and then I saw that the area was full of labourers brought from different places like Odisha and north India. They are experts in running away from the spot. These mafia members have such a strong network that they come to know the moment police leave from the police station,” he said.

Now the issue is, we are seeing illegal mining in Tiracol River in the North and Ugem River in the South and various other places like Rachol. Now, if we recall, the High Court of Bombay at Goa had very clearly asked the DGP to file a proper report by December 12 last year, outlining all the steps that they were going to take to prevent and control illegal sand mining. Former Director General of Goa Police Indra Dev Shukla had put out a standing order to curb illegal river sand mining. Has that order been implemented? How did the State respond to the December 12 deadline given by the High Court?

Viraj Bakre, Member, Goa River Sand Protectors Network said that the contempt petition has been going on for the last two years in the Court.

“The illegal mining stops for some time and again it restarts rampantly after the rainy season. In fact, we showed the Court that every time the officials file an affidavit saying that they have stopped illegal sand mining and are taking action and filing FIRs, but in our area, we see that there are around 10 to 15 boats with nearly a 100 people extracting sand. So nothing is happening,” Bakre said.

“In December last year, just a day before the hearing, we took the photographs at different places and produced them in the Court and the judge was shocked to see that such a big scale extraction was going on. The Court then told the Advocate General to ensure that the DGP came to the court and depose before it regarding what action had been taken,” he said.

After that, the police machinery got its act together. The Court also directed the Chief Secretary to convene a meeting and give a report on what the government is going to do in this regard.

“We (the Goa River Sand Protectors Network) gave the police details of 10 places where the sand extraction was going on rampantly. So, all the PIs of those police stations which came under these 10 places, were transferred. The Mines Department geologist was transferred and the new persons were instructed to ensure that the illegal mining was totally stopped and 24x7 patrolling was undertaken,” Bakre said.

The concerned officials were warned of action against them if any violation of the orders were observed. After this only it has stopped,” he added.

One of the comments made by the Court in one of its hearings is that “it almost seems that the authorities are not even bothered or prepared to see where the illegalities are. Forget trying to solve it, they’re looking the other way. When asked about his experience, especially in the South Goa area, where he had agitated, Luel Fernandes, anti-sand mining activist from Chandor-Cavorim, said that the ground reality at his place as of now there’s not much sand mining happening.

“But the illegal constructions are going on, which require sand. In the newspapers every second day, we find demolition order issued for blocks after blocks. The government process itself is wrong. It is allocating house numbers, giving power supplies and other amenities. This way, it is encouraging illegal constructions, which stem out from illegal sand. Demand will have to be met with supply,” he said.

From every discussion, there is always a good takeaway and a bad takeaway. The good takeaway is that yes, some action has indeed been done.

The standing order of DGP Shukla plus the work done by the River Sand Protectors Network has borne fruit. The unfortunate fallout of this is that large parts of Goa and riverbeds in most areas have suffered permanent damage, which will not get restored in a hurry or at all in many places. So somebody has to pay for this.

It is not just enough to say that illegal river sand mining has been stopped in different areas. That statement also is not absolutely complete because there are different other areas that are now coming up, because greed never seems to end.

And to fuel this whole business of construction illegal constructions, greed has played a big part and also what we learned in this discussion is that it’s an absolute myth that if you stop illegal sand mining, illegal construction will also stop.

As Calude Alvares very rightly laid out extensively on how rightly this can actually be done, let the government control it. Let the locals manning associations take charge of it and let the sand be sold properly. Everybody gets a quota. Whoever does not need it, gives it to others. There should be distribution of sand within the community and all of this can be done properly.

Prices can also be controlled because apart from the environmental damage, the whole cost of real estate is also going up because illegally extracted sand is being sold rampantly at such high prices. But it’s an issue that needs to be done and discussion needs to go on, because the overall damage is far too intense.

No commercial activity can take place at the cost of the environment. Even legally done actions are showing its impact on the ecology. For those who are giving greed more priority over the environment, should know that no amount of money will come handy to anyone, once the balance of nature is disturbed.

The impact of destroying the environment is there for everyone to see and feel. This damage is irreversible. Instead of having myopic vision of making immediate money through illegal means, it will make much more sense to see the big picture and that is destruction of the entire ecology and the cost we have to pay for it.


IDhar UDHAR

Idhar Udhar