Villagers say the rampant sand mining is depleting groundwater tables, increasing the risk of floods and ruining the quality of soil.
The situation in Narangi is typical. Despite numerous court orders, new state laws and village protests in recent years, India’s rivers and creeks continue to be ravaged for sand to fuel a boom in construction and a massive urban transition. The result, analysts warn, is an impending environmental disaster.
India has the world’s third-largest construction business, after China and the United States, accounting for 9 percent of its $2 trillion economy. Over the next five years, India plans to invest $500 billion in its woefully inadequate infrastructure, of which $500 million is earmarked for the construction industry alone.
“We will be building four new Indias in the next 20 years, but we are not sparing a thought on where the building materials will come from,” said Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of the Center for Science and Environment in New Delhi. “India does not have any regulatory and monitoring framework to excavate sand in a sustainable manner. Until now, people used to think sand is a low-value, minor mineral that is inexhaustible. But that will have to change now because the demand is too huge.”
The unprecedented scale of the mining of sand — needed to build offices, factories, malls, high-rise apartments, schools and highways — is beginning to take a toll on river systems and the environment.
Sand is a natural aquifer, and ecologists say unauthorized sand mining reduces the recharge of rivers and has depleted the groundwater table in many areas. It also increases the risk of flooding and harms coastal farm soil by making it saline.
Mangrove forests have begun shrinking as the sand dredgers cut through fragile creeks near Narangi, three hours north of Mumbai. Village activists use downloaded Google Earth images over the past seven years to show the disappearance of some mangrove patches. In many places across India, farmers complain that the river water has engulfed their rice farms because of excessive sand excavation. Fishermen say it is killing fish, and wells in riverside villages are drying up in many areas.
Rampant sand mining has also eroded the stability of road and railway bridges in many parts of India. Near Narangi, a bridge over the Vaitarna was closed for a week last year as officials repaired the damage to a column caused by sand mining. Last year, a Hindu holy man died after fasting for four months to protest illegal sand mining of the Ganges. Riverside residents have blocked highways in many areas to stop sand-laden trucks from moving.