Grains of Despair: Sand mining in India

In June 2011, Swami Nigamananda Saraswati died after a four month fast in protest of sand mining on the banks of Ganga.   His death is a warning. If reckless sand mining continues, the Ganga and the people whose lives and livelihoods are fueled by it will face serious consequences. (See Down To Earth article, A swami and sand mafia,

The construction industry requires massive amounts of sand for its projects.  Despite some legal framework prohibiting sand mining in most states, the industry gets most of the sand by dredging rivers’ earthen materials beyond a safe capacity.   In almost every river where it is viable, the ‘sand mafia’ purge the depths for profitable sand, amounting to an illegal yearly turnover of Rs. 1000 crore.       Despite its illegality, sand mining is perpetuated by various social and economic dilemmas.  First, it brings revenue to state government and panchayats, which paves the way for corruption and conflict.   Thus, relationships between local politicians, contractors, and bureaucrats emerge to create a power nexus capable of deterring community-based resistance.   The players in this nexus are infamously termed the’ sand mafia,’ by the media. 

The case of Maharashtra epitomizes this phenomenon.   In September 2010, the Bombay High Court banned the extraction of sand, due to its adverse environmental effects and detriment to water supply.  If this ruling had stuck, the real estate industry would have suffered a loss of Rs. 2,000 crore.   The High Court asked the government to come up with a new policy on sand mining after the court appointed Indian Institute of Technology submitted a report. On 20 Oct 2010, State cabinet approved a new sand mining policy that empowers communities to have a say on sand mining in their localities. The policy also bans use of suction pumps in dredging but fails to ban mechanized dredging. Moreover, the High Court directed the Maharashtra government not to award any contract or allow any sand excavation to commence across the state "until and unless" it first obtained environmental clearance as contemplated in its latest policy decision. In October 2010, just a month later, the ban was lifted although many key issues have not been resolved.

The environmental reasons for this ban and others across India are numerous. Sand acts as an aquifer, and as a natural carpet on the bottom of the river.  Stripping this layer leads to downstream erosion, causing changes in channel bed and habitat type, as well as the deepening of rivers and estuaries, and the enlargement of river mouths.    As the river system lowers, local groundwater is affected, which leads to water scarcities aggravating agriculture and local livelihoods.  In terms of legal measures, ground water shortages have been noted as the patent problem with river sand mining.  Less considered in legal action, but centrally relevant, experts also note substantial habitat and ecological problems, which include “direct loss of stream reserve habitat, disturbances of species attached to streambed deposits, reduced light penetration, reduced primary production, and reduced feeding opportunities”.

The rivers in Kerala have been subject to significant such degradation, and serve as a good overview of the aforementioned problems.  Major rivers such as the Pampa, Manimala, and Achankovil have been subject to such nondiscretionary dredging that there has been a sharp fall in ground water table levels.  According to one study, indiscriminate mining has lowered the Pampa an average of three to four metres, and up to six metres in some areas.    This has serious implications on water availability.  By 2050, if sand mining persists, usable water in the Pampa would drop 2,537 cubic meters, water in the Achankovil would drop 459 cubic metres, and the Manimala would drop 398 cubic metres.  This constitutes a serious problem for a state that has already seen climate shifts adversely affecting water abundance due to monsoon timings.

Dishearteningly, similar scenarios are evident in nearly every Indian state, irrespective of climate and ecology.  Experts, activists, and many politicians realize the environmental problems rooted in sand mining, which results in legislation preventing mining.  But despite legal barriers on exploitative sand mining, institutional framework and enforcement mechanisms are insufficient and mining persists. In Tamil Nadu, both the media and government vigorously attack illegal miners. According to the Chennai India times, a state-run inspection revealed a complex, organized, and efficient network, enacting mining in Kerala and Tamil Nadu.   This network operates so far outside the legal boundaries that in the last ten years there have been numerous reports of the blatant murders of revenue officers.  This type of organized, indiscriminate mining could be the death note not just for revenue officers, but also for ecological systems, habitats, and livelihoods. In Karnataka, upright government officers who had come down heavily on sand mining were soon shunted out.

In December 2010, the Madaras High Court, acting on a bunch of PILs filed on the issue of illegal sand mining in the state of Tamil Nadu ordered the formation of a high powered monitoring committee to curb illegal sand quarrying and ensure proper and skilful quarrying of sand from the river beds. The state government submitted to the Court that it had formed such a Committee  in March 2011. The Court further ordered that the government must equip this Committee with staff and other facilities so that the Committee can hear petitions from people across the state on illegal sand mining. The Committee has been set up for a period of two years. 

In Andhra Pradesh, despite the provisions in the Andhra Pradesh Water, Land and Tree Act, 2002, which aims to promote tree cover and regulate the exploitation and use of ground and surface water, sand mining has grown explosively. In 2006, the state announced a new policy that allows only manual labour and bullocks to mine sand in riverbeds.  Administratively this activity was transferred to the Mines and Geology department from the panchayat department.

In the Eastern Uttar-Pradesh, mechanized sand mining has resulted in soil erosion and turned thousands of acres of land infertile and sand mafias are in control of rivers like Chhoti Gandak, Gurra, Rapti and Ghaghara. In 2011, a petition was filed against the state government of Uttar Pradesh that it was “permitting and encouraging illegal mining activity in abuse of their statutory powers. Mining leases, it was pleaded, had been granted without any conditions and mining operations had commenced without obtaining prior environmental clearance, in contravention of the 2006 Notification of the Ministry of Environment and Forest of the Government of India under Section 3 of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986”. The Allahabad High Court held that the 2006 Notification would be applicable to the mining of sand and the state government would have to ensure that environmental clearances are obtained and that sand mining projects  satisfied other criteria laid down in the 2006 Notification . The Allahabad High Court has imposed a ban on the use of machines in sand mining on the riverbeds of Ganga and Yamuna in Allahabad and Kaushambi districts. Yet illegal sand mining continues.

In NOIDA, the administration established a “Special Mining Squad,” charged with the specific task of impeding and ultimately extricating Greater Noida from the sand mafia’s degradation. Though this method may prove effective in Noida, an affluent industrial area, it is less likely that smaller, rural, and less wealthy areas have the capacity to develop such a squad. Noida has been plagued by such infrastructure failures, but demonstrates grains of hope at both the enforcement and bureaucratic levels.
Coastal mining engages a similar dichotomy between economics and the environment.  Coastal sand mining destroys fisheries, disturbs coral, and has led to the near extinction of ghariyals, a crocodile species unique to India.  Legal boundaries demarking Coastal Regulation Zones (CRZ) have been implemented, but these are complicated for a number of reasons.  First, a lot of illegal mining takes place despite these zones.  And, smaller scale miners using traditional, less harmful, techniques complain that they have stopped, but the larger industrial projects have not. 

The growing number of court cases against sand mining show that the government must wake up to the reality for finding alternatives to river and sand mining. On the one hand, policy and legal measures to control sand mining must have more teeth and must be based on environmental concerns. On the other hand, we need to come up with alternative technologies to replace sand. 

Current rules and policies in operation

Kerala: Kerala Protection of River Banks and Regulation of Removal of Sand Act, 2001

Key features: To permit sand mining in select areas and each selected area or Kadavu will be managed by a Kadavu Committee which will decide on matters such as quantum of mining to be permitted, and to mobilise local people to oversee these operations and ensure protection of rivers and riverbanks.

Key rivers affected: Bharatapuzha,  Kuttiyadi river, Achankovil, Pampa and Manimala,  Periyar, Bhavani, Siruvani, Thuthapuzha, and Chitturpuzha, rivers in the catchments of Ashtamudi and Vembanad lakes

Tamil Nadu: Policy that ensures that quarrying of sand in Government poramboke lands and private patta lands will only be undertaken by the Government. Mechanised sand mining is prohibited. In 2008, this policy was countermanded by the government and private parties were given permits for mining.

Rivers affected: Cauvery, Vaigai, Palar, Cheyyar, Araniyar and Kosathalaiyar, Bhavani, Vellar , Vaigai Thamiraparani,  Kollidam. oastal districts of Nagapattinam, Tuticorin, Ramanatha-puram and Kanyakumari hill regions of Salem and Erode districts

Karnataka: The Uniform Sand Mining Policy does not allow sand mining in Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) area and prohibits the use of machineries to mine sand from river. High Court of Karnataka banned mechanised boats for sand mining in the state from April 2011.

From September 2011, according to Karnataka Minor Mineral Concession (Amendment) Rules 2011,the responsibility of oversight of sand mining has been transferred to the Public Works, Ports and Inland Water Transport Department.

Rivers affected: Cauvery, Lakshmanateerta, Harangi, Hemavathi, Nethravatai, Papagani

Andhra Pradesh: In 2006, the government brought in a new policy that allows only manual labour and bullocks to mine sand in riverbeds. Bullock carts, mules and other animals would be exempted from any mining tax. Contractors will be allotted sand through open bidding by a committee headed by district joint collectors. Sand can be sold only if it has a maximum retail price tag, otherwise there will be a penalty. Use of poclaines has been banned entirely, and mining will be disallowed below three metres.

Rivers affected: Godavari, Tungabhadra, Vamsadhara, Nagavali, Bahuda and Mahendratanaya

Maharashtra: New policy announced in October, 2010, under which It is compulsory for contractors to obtain permission from the Gramsabha, for sand mining. Ban on use of suction pumps in dredging and sand mining licences  can be given only through a bidding process. Also sand mining projects have to obtain environmental clearances.

Rivers affected: creeks at Thane, Navi Mumbai, Raigad and Ratnagiri


  • Viju, B. "Raiding the River." The Times of India [New Delhi] 19 June 2011. Print.

  • Sand Mining Ban Causes Concern." Dredging Today. Rediff, 5 Oct. 2010. Web.

  • "Sand Mining Facts." Three Issues of Sustainable Management in the Ojos Negros Valley, Baja California, Mexico, Victor Miguel Ponce, Coquillo, Drought, Sand Mining. Ojos Negros Research Group, 02 Nov. 2004. Web.

  • ‘Sand Mining Facts’

  • Nair, G.K. "Indiscriminate Sand Mining Creates Water Shortage in Kerala." The Hindu Business Line. 1 Feb. 2011. Web.

  • Karthick S. "As Sand Slips Away, Govt Zeroes on Kingpins." The Times of India [Chennai] 23 June 2011. Print.

  • Illangovan, R. "Government Cracks the Whip on Sand Mafia." The Hindu [Chennai] 16 Dec. 2004. Print.

  • Anon, PTI, August 18 2011 as quoted in Governance Now. Com, accessed from

  • Vipul Kharbanda, No sand mining without clearance,, October 01, 2011, accessed from