Correction: An earlier version of the story said India plans to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure over the next five years, of which $500 million will be in construction. The correct figure is $500 billion.
Dozens of dredging boats scour the bottom of the Vaitarna creek all day as workers build pyramids of excavated sand in the villages along its banks. By night, thousands of trucks clog a narrow highway to deliver the sand to construction sites in the sprawling commercial hub of Mumbai nearby.
The fishing village of Narangi in western India and the sand-mining frenzy there illustrate one of the most important questions India faces in its march to become a 21st-century economic powerhouse: Can this nation of 1.2 billion people pursue economic growth without destroying its environment?
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.
Some activists have also been attacked by what the Indian media call the “sand mafia.”
In February, a policeman was run over and killed by a sand truck when he tried to block its way in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Last week, the crew of a sand truck tried to run over and shoot at another policeman in the same region, but the officer escaped unhurt.
“It is a very powerful nexus between builders, local politicians and muscle men,” said Sumaira Abdulali, a whistleblower and activist who has been attacked twice by sand miners. “They violate rules, and the officials turn the other way.”
The construction boom and the spiraling demand for sand have taken the government, builders and environmentalists by surprise. Officially, India uses more than 400 million tons of sand for construction in a year, but environmental activists say the illegal mining pushes the real figure over a billion tons.
The construction industry concedes that the situation is untenable.
“Given the sheer number of our people, their rising aspirations and the government’s plans for infrastructure, the construction industry will have to grow by 250 percent in five years,” said Priya Ranjan Swarup, director general of the Construction Industry Development Council in New Delhi. “Where will the sand come from?”
“People call us the devil’s workshop,” he said. “When we have mined and exhausted one place, we just move to the next spot in the stream. There is no blueprint on how the country will generate the building material. It’s absolute bedlam.”
In Narangi, the villagers take their fishing boats out to the Vaitarna creek every morning. Laborers perch precariously on wooden planks, hanging over the water and pulling out buckets of sand by hand. In a neighboring village, laborers dive deep into the river to bring out the sand.
But not far away is the bigger menace. Rows of boats have dug mechanized suction pumps into the creek to pull out the sand more quickly.
“When you use big machines, you don’t give nature time to recover and replenish,” said Tukaram Mangela, 35, a manual sand miner in Narangi. “In two to three years, all the sand in our creek and river here will be finished.”
Environmentalists are divided on how to resolve the issue. Some say the ban should be enforced strictly, while others advocate giving more power to village councils to monitor mining and collect fees.
In February, the Indian supreme court ruled that sand miners must seek permission from the environment ministry.
But Ganesh Bhoir, a building-material supplier near Mumbai, said the ruling would not stop illegal mining. “It will only add one more layer of bribe-giving,” he said.