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Need environment police for tackling sand mafia: Sumaira Abdulali

Is it impossible to rein in the sand mafia?

Updated:August 12, 2013, 5:01 PM IST
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Need environment police for tackling sand mafia: Sumaira Abdulali
Is it impossible to rein in the sand mafia?

What can be done to prevent the great sand loot in India? Is illegal sand mining a direct consequence of a nexus between builders lobby and politicians? Should there be a single window system at the centre to deal with illegal sand mining? Awaaz Foundation's convenor Sumaira Abdulali joined IBNLive readers for an interaction on the issue.

Q. Alternate to Sand. Is there any information on this? If a cheaper substitute is available the rein-in sand will stop? Asked by: sundar1950in

A. We are looking at 'cheaper' alternatives which do not take into account the cost to the environment. Alternatives to sand do exist and can be scaled to a commercial scale but would have the additional cost of any manufactured material. Natural sand is 'free'' and cannot be compared to a manufactured produce. The ultimate cost to the environment, when it factors in loss of sweet water due to saline ingress, loss of land due to erosion etc would be very high and we would pay that price a few years down the line. Alternates such as slag from the metal industry, fly ash, quarry dust and recycled debris are available and can be further made available if there is a will. Natural sand prices should be at a par with such manufactured products.

Q. The politicians nexus in sand mining comes due to the very nature of the business where no efforts are put for manufacturing and you just carry the product from areas which are in the ownership of the Government? Do you expect political parties to move out of such a lucrative trade? Asked by: sundar1950in

A. Politicians would not move out from such a lucrative trade unless there are strong, effective and autonomous monitoring mechanisms. An audit of the amount of sand naturally occurring through siltation every year should precede any sand mining licenses. Powers to Pollution Control Board authorities who are trained to understand environmental issues should be similar to Customs authorities to take on the spot punitive action and the Environment Ministry should be strengthened as an independent autonomous body. if these things could happen at the Election Commission, I am hopeful that they could happen for environment as well.

Q. Should there be a single window system at the centre to deal with illegal sand mining? Asked by: Himanshu

A. Yes. It should be the Environment Ministry at Union level, since sand, although classified as a 'minor mineral' is actually driving much of the economic growth of this country and is one of the most major minerals of all. Loss of sand could threaten our water and land security, specially dangerous where mining is most intense, near our coastal cities.

Q. Is it impossible to rein-in the sand mafia? Asked by: Monty Sharma

No. Mafias have existed all over the world where opportunities for unregulated businesses exist. It is only through strict audits of the amount of sand, and monitoring on the ground, and checking of accounts of those with sand mining permissions that these mafias have been broken. The Chicago mafias were broken in the US through income tax raids.

Q. Is illegal sand mining a direct consequence of a nexus between builders lobby and politicians? Asked by: Honey

A. Construction is one of the major industries requiring sand but actually sand is also used for various other industrial applications including glass making, computers and many others. THe Maharashtra State Government notification on sand mining states for the first time that sand mining would be permitted to the extent required for construction. This does not coincide with the amount of sand sustainably available. So, it is 'necessary' for the government to look the other way while those most able to break the law and illegally mine sand do so. Politicians also control much of the building industry as well as sand mining. So, the nexus is easy to see.

Q. What can be done to prevent the great sand loot in India? Asked by: Harshita S

A. We need citizens to be aware of the harm sand mining is doing long term to our environment, recreational spaces and ultimately event o our economy. It is only when local people are vigilant that we can hope for changes in State and national level policies in sand mining. For example, when the film Sand Wars was premiered in Paris, it evoked a lot of reaction from citizens and the EU is now considering possible change in their sand mining laws.

Q. The Mafia in sand or for that matter in any business in India comes out of scope available to earn money without accounting. If the FM could get the Sale of sand, billed, accounted and taxed properly the mafia would have been tackled. Will the centre come on this? Asked by: sundar1950in

A. Mafias have been broken in other parts of the world by cracking down on accounting and billing procedures. In India, given the close political involvement in the business itself, it might be difficult to implement. Therefore, a trained environment police with suitable powers to take penal action on the spot might be an answer. Of course, ideally both should happen.

Q. What are the works of Awaaz Foundation? Asked by: Sourya

A. Awaaz Foundation has worked on coastal illegal sand mining and noise pollution for over a decade. Details are available on www.awaazfoundation.org. We also participated int he first international documentary film on coastal sand mining 'Sand Wars' and organized a side event with the BNHS at the Convention of Biodiversity hosted by India in October 2012, the first time coastal sand mining was raised in an International forum.

Q. Sand a natural resource, in high demand for constructions and infrastructure building. It is for the states concerned to ensure that sand mining is done with least damage to Environment and revenue thereof be raised in a judicious manner. Why is the role of centre and NGT becoming more,affecting the federal structure? Asked by: sundar1950in

A. The involvement of local politicians, some of whom own the sand mining businesses and also have involvement in the construction industry makes it difficult for State Government to play the regulatory role which is necessary. The Centre is more likely not to have direct vested interests and should be made more autonomous and be given stricter policing powers to be effective. In Maharashtra, we have had a sand trader become a politicians and who also became our Environment Minister while his family members still owned sand mining businesses.

Q. Madam, don't you think that the rampant corruption in the concerned govt. departments and lack of political will is responsible for the great sand loot in our country? Asked by: Shyam Vadalker

A. Yes, corruption is certainly contributing to the sand loot in our country. Lack of political will is also not the only factor, as politicians are actively blocking stricter sand mining regulations in many cases due to their own direct involvement in the businesses. THis is also the reason why activists, government and police officers who take action against the sand mafia are actively harmed, even murdered. This has happened all across the country for years, yet it is only now that the issue is highlighted. When I was attacked during a site inspection, politicians relatives were actively involved and the police did not take immediate action against them, even though I an the journalists with me were almost killed.

Q. Most PCB Chairmen are political appointees, you still think they would have punitive powers like customs has? Asked by: Chandru

A. I think the system of appointments has to change. But we do need a trained police force, and these are the only trained force available to us. The Police too are not autonomous. Therefore, we need an autonomous body such as the Election Commission to be in charge of this system (maybe the Environment Ministry itself)with appropriate powers under law.

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