Economy Aug 6, 2013
The essential element in yesterday's order of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) banning mining of sand from all rivers, nationwide is its timing. The country is agog about the involvement of the politicians in the promotion and sustaining of illegal mining, the focus being on Uttar Pradesh.
It sends the message that as far as it was concerned, the NGT will not countenance any nonsense. It has, while delivering the order, mentioned the huge losses to the exchequer by way of potential revenues via royalties, and the environmental damage it causes. These two are, however, not new concerns.
That the illegal, indiscriminate lifting of sand has been a long-standing practice despite these two significant concerns is what should agitate us. That state's instruments - read politicians, officials - have been conniving is patent from all anecdotal evidence, the orders by several high courts, and now the NGT's stand.
However, an NGT order is one thing. Ensuring compliance with it is yet another cup of tea, and quite prone to deliberate sabotage by the various actors in sand minig. The NGT will have to depend on the Union environment ministry which in turn relies on the various states. How well it is obeyed would be contingent to the integrity of the various states.
Various states are not necessarily, for the compulsions of local politics and need for venal funds in the system as is fostered, enthusiastic about going with the rule book on sand mining. The Andhra Pradesh High Court had, in 2012, said the state had "auctioned away" stretches of riverbeds" by "ignoring the environment impact assessment notification" of 2006.
This was "wanton exploitation" by both the state and the contractor of a vital resource which has a bearing on ecological aspects of a river system. If the court had not stepped in, "the state in all likelihood would continue to ignore the notification and would go ahead with its attitude." That applies to almost all states, one can easily surmise.
Even court orders are treated with contempt. According to DNA, suction pumps are being used despite a Bombay High Court order against mining along the Konkan beaches or close to them on the estuaries. It quotes a local: The pumps are extracting sand and he knows it is illegal. "But authorities are in collusion with the sand mafia, and keep ignoring our complaints."
An important point made by the AP High Court then was, "The reports of the ground water department are extremely perfunctory and they do not suggest the impact of sand quarrying on the environment or on the bio-diversity nor would they suggest any safeguards to minimize damage", it held. In sum, all rules and all expected probity were thrown to the winds.
The prevalent requirement is that environmental clearances are mandatory for all leases, including for even plots that under five hectares, for extracting minor minerals, sand being one of them. This implies enormous work. The environment ministry thinks it should, instead of itself dealing with thousands of clearances for small projects, let the States deal them under strict guidelines laid down by the Centre.
This is where the states have been lax and the AP High Court's view put in an order last year is an eloquent example of what is actually wrong. It is hard to expect that the States which from time to time have asked the Centre to find relief for them from this exacting task of complying with courts.
The Hindu, in a report explaining the background says how even statistics are suspect: "According to the Indian Bureau of Mines Year Book for 2011, the states gave a figure of 49.97 lakh tonnes for sand mining, which, environment ministry officials said off the record, was gross under-reporting (emphasis added). We don't if it is due to carelessness or attempts to hide the over exploitation of sand.
And yet, there is no way out except to put ones hopes on the states themselves to monitor and provide approvals while they are actually complicit in illegalities. Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan was quoted by Mint as saying it was extremely difficult to monitor such mining. "We need to rely on state machinery." Not that Centre is stringent, but here one suspects helplessness as well.
The crux is that laws have not been inadequate, but their enforcement, to put it mildly, has always been quite lax. It is like asking a thieving policeman to catch another thief - quite pointless. Or maybe, this one would be one of those sandstorms, maybe not so brief, mainly because of the political aspects of the suspension of Durga Shakti Nagpal.
If the Supreme Court orders of the past were adhered to, and ensured, perhaps the illegal mining by the sand mafia would not have been possible, and Nagpal would have been going about doing her normal duties without hitting the headlines. There are more mafias and fewer Nagpals and that tells the entire story.