A fistful of sand

MoEF and green tribunal tighten the grip on sand mining, create opportunities for illegal mining

Reacting to headlines about IAS officer Durga Shakti Nagpal and her campaign against illegal sand mining, the avengers of the environment have snapped into action. The ministry of environment and forests created a panel to investigate sand mining along the Yamuna in Uttar Pradesh, which found evidence of rampant illegality and recommended more compliance hoops to jump through. The National Green Tribunal took up the matter and banned all sand mining in riverbeds, even on small patches, without permission from the MoEF or state environment impact assessment authorities. Instead of balancing the legitimate needs of the economy and the environment, and seeking effective local monitoring of mining activity, the dominant impulse has been to tighten the grip on approvals.

Removing certain amounts of sand and boulders prevents riverbed aggradation, which can worsen the impact of floods but the zealous green tribunal has ignored that logic. This is action replay of the Supreme Court's disastrous decision in February 2012 to freeze all mining without elaborate permissions, including minor minerals like earth, sand, gravel and other stones. Apart from the small businesses shut down and livelihoods lost, effects of that ban cascaded across the economy, as the price of construction raw material shot up. Material that was in plentiful supply now began to be hoarded, distorting the market further.

While illegal sand mining must be tackled, making regulation cumbersome and centralised will only deter legal mining, an activity that underpins construction and has a direct impact on infrastructure creation and growth. Withholding leases beyond a point for a necessary economic activity, only encourages illegal mining. Many politicians and officials profit from this gap between demand and supply, and the courts have given greater weight to this counterproductive approach. This only encourages more indiscriminate and environmentally unsafe mining practices, through furtive arrangements between local people, middlemen and businesses. Demonising mining as shady business, as the courts have tended to do, is destructive to the economy. To effectively tackle illegal mining, the MoEF must first undo its own clutch on permissions, and create a professional environmental protection apparatus with the resources and expertise to judge these matters at the local level.

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