The crores in the river

The most destructive among the relaxations granted is the permission to mine the Gaula riverbed in the monsoon month of June, even though the state was allowed to mine the river only from October 1 to May 31 according to the forest clearance given to it.

“During the monsoon, the flow of the river increases and runs on a specific course. But if mining is happening and the course is disturbed then the river can change its path and wreak havoc along the way,” Bhim Singh Rawat, associate coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), explained.

Prohibition of riverbed mining in the monsoon has been reiterated by the environment ministry through its guidelines, and also by the courts. As per the Sustainable Sand Mining Guidelines, 2016, and the Enforcement and Monitoring Guidelines for Sand Mining, 2020, riverbed mining shouldn’t be permitted in the rainy season. For Uttarakhand, the 2016 guidelines earmark monsoon from June 15 to October 1.

But the state wanted to squeeze in more months into the mining calendar because, in its own words, mining in June meant an additional profit of Rs 50 crore.

In September 2015, the National Green Tribunal had directed that no mining be allowed in the rivers of north India during the rainy season. It instructed the environment and forest ministry to incorporate the condition while giving clearances. More recently, in May 2021, the Karnataka High Court cited the 2016 sand mining guidelines to disallow riverbed mining during the monsoon.

Since it started mining the river, Uttarakhand was allowed to collect 11.7 million tonnes of minor minerals from the river every year. Initially the state was only allowed to mine the middle half of the river, while preserving “one-fourth of the width of the riverbed along each bank”. In the new proposal seeking to extend the mining lease on forest land, the state government indicated plans to mine 70 per cent of the riverbed’s width, surpassing the 50 per cent it was allowed to.

The state had been instructed to limit the depth of mining to a maximum of 3 metres at the river’s centre. This depth should gradually decrease as the mining moves away from the river’s midpoint. But reports indicate that workers involved in river mining were unaware of this regulation.

In January 2016, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) imposed a ban on river mining in Gaula, in accordance with an earlier order that prohibited mining within 100 metres of either side of the Ganga and its tributaries. Several months later, Uttarakhand Forest Development Corporation faced a contempt case for illegal mining on the riverbed in violation of the NGT’s ban and was fined over Rs 10 crore.

“The Gaula’s health, ecology, fish life, whatever you want to call it, has been totally decimated. The labour rights of miners are violated. The river is mined excessively and it’s considered only a goldmine for the state that has totally given up on the river’s protection,” Rawat of SANDRP opined.

“It is not a river any more, it has just become a mining site,” he said.

(Courtesy: The Reporters’ Collective)

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