Mining the lifelines

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Illegal sand mining is playing havoc with a major estuary near Mumbai. It is depleting and destroying this maginificent ecosystem at a dangerously fast rate. This is also a metaphor for the destruction of precious biodiversity reserves across the country. We need these resources today as never before, says Dr. Rajani Panchang.

I was coming back after a year and a half and I just couldn’t find the approach route to my sampling site.The dirt road I could identify as ‘mine’ from the past was in a pathetic state, deeply incised by high truck tyres. My attempts to take my Innova on that route were shot down by locals telling me “Madam, tya reti chya truck chya vaata aahet. Tumhaala naahi zaata yenaar”. (It’s the route taken by sand-laden trucks, not meant for you). Hearing this, I was desperate to see what else had befallen my beautiful mangrove bearing mudflats, since I had seen them last in February 2012.

A pristine estuary

My first trip to this huge estuary, south of Alibag held an itinerary of sampling the luxuriant mangrove bearing tidal flats of one of the most pristine estuaries of Maharashtra. Whilst estuaries are the finest nurseries and most productive breeding grounds in the world, the mangroves therein are the most diverse terrestrial ecosystems. These two ecosystems together form the most protected wetland ecosystems all over the world, in India classified under the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Act Category I. The importance of mangroves as natural coastal barriers from oceanic calamities went up manifold in India ever since the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. But their economical value for the enormous renewable natural resources they offer is humongous! They are habitat to some of the ecologically as well as economically important fish varieties. The most exotic fishes, crabs, prawns, lobsters, oysters and shell fish are harvested in the estuaries and associated tidal flats. Mangroves offer forest resources in timber for building and fuel, honey, wax etc. They accrete sediments and protect soil erosion. The tidal flats adsorb pollutants and cleanse the coastal waters of every kind of industrial or domestic effluents, especially heavy toxic metals. This also naturally protects reefs, algal banks and navigation channels from siltation. And what most are ignorant about is the fact that mangrove tidal flats are the biggest sinks of organic matter preservation, viz., the future sites of coal and fossil fuel!

When I had arrived at the jetty at the mouth of the estuary, the fishing community drying out small fish gave me a hostile look. A lady asked me, “Aata tumhaala kaay pahije aamchya potaavar paay devoon?” (Now what do you seek from us at the expense of our living?). When I explained to them I was there to study the relationship between climate change and its influence on fish resources, they complained about the drastic decline in fish catch. They said, “About 10-15 years ago, there was so much fish in the estuary that we all built homes for ourselves. Now the state is such that we do not find enough in the estuary to even suffice two square meals, forget selling fish! Big boats and trawlers go out into the sea; we cannot even afford the fuel to do so.” The estuary looked so vast and rich, that if I had not been witness to the meager haul that several fishing boats returned with, I would not have believed this lady! I spent the first 3-4 days wading across the densely vegetated mangrove flats in the lower and middle reaches of the estuary. But in the upper reaches, the story was different. I literally had to hunt for an intact tidal flat to sample. Most of the tidal flats had been dredged and mined!

Sand mining and the destruction it wreaks

As I approached the banks of the estuary, to my horror, I could see hundreds of sand bags stacked one above the other and a couple of trucks already loaded with thousands more! I was actually witness to sand being mined from tidal banks with the help of suction pumps. Gallons and gallons of slurry was being sucked into large diameter pipes and directed onto huge sand sieving nets we see at conventional construction sites. This sand is transported to different destinations for construction purposes. My local help and my husband signaled to me to desist from taking photographs (which I still did steal!) as the workers at the mining site looked uneasy at the arrival of unwelcome guests.

We continued travelling west along the southern banks of the estuary, looking for an intact stretch of mudflats to sample. But the sight I had witnessed continued to haunt me. One of my local helpers, in his early 20s said to me, “Its normal! Even my younger brother goes to help on the sand dredge. It pays about 500 rupees a day, better than our fish catch. Anyway the fish catch in the estuary has reduced drastically”. When I asked him if fish got slaughtered in the suction dredge, he casually answered, “Oh yes they do!…. especially small fish and shrimps. But that’s normal.” He was so casual about it that I realised that the local denizens did not appreciate the importance and functioning of their own habitat. When I explained how benthic habitat mining was leading to the collapse of the entire ecosystem, I could see a slight guilt on his face about something he could do nothing to help.

In November 2013, I was once again trying to reach the same sampling location in the upper reaches. The sight of the badly battered approach road was disheartening, but could not hold me back. I literally coaxed my driver through the narrow lanes lined by typically small but beautiful Konkani homes, past reclaimed farmlands to reach the same site. The mangrove lined marsh-land fringing the estuary that existed 20 months ago, was no longer there! The entire area had been cordoned off. All the marsh-land had been reclaimed to create landings for several dredge vessels, stacking sand bags, loading trucks and to put up hutments of labourers involved in the trade! The easternmost end of this reclaimed landing had been converted into a semi-permanent jetty kind of a structure, housing at least a couple of cranes and winches for mechanised loading of sand into trucks. Within a minute of taking this view in, I knew it was safest for me to get back into my vehicle and leave.

The next day, I hired a motor boat upstream. The idea was to estimate the losses done. This estuary has a very wide span and houses dense mangroves. After travelling about 15 km inland, the peaceful picturesque ride was interrupted by 15 to 20 suction dredges operating right in-stream. With the extremely muddy waters drawing my attention, the implications to what I was witnessing started playing in my mind. These floating systems were using 2 to 50 horsepower motors to suck up sand and gravel from the river bottom, through an 8-10 inch hose pipe. The sand was being sieved onboard and the clay rich water was being released back into the river. I knew one dredging unit is capable of mining over a ton of sand each day and can continue working non-stop throughout the day. I was also aware that in-stream suction mining is now banned all over the world as its environmental consequences are well known. And the way the workers on the dredges looked at us alarmingly, I was sure even they knew that what they were doing was wrong. Suction dredging is known to convert mining areas into dead-zones and creates pits in the river bed, resembling opencast mines on land. Estuarine beds house life that forms the base of the food chain, and their destruction leads to the collapse of entire eco-systems. The list of environmental hazards associated with sand mining in river channels is exhaustive. Apart from the rise in suspended particulate levels, turbidity and other pollutants like oil, grease, etc., originating from vehicles used for the removal of sands, damage to/changes in breeding and spawning grounds and reduction in inland fishery resources is inevitable. Some of the associated equally grave challenges are erosion of river banks, river bank slumping, deepening of river channels, changes in river bed configuration, loss of placer mineral resources associated with alluvial sand and gravel, lack of replenishment of coastal beaches leading to coastal erosion and reduction in the supply of nutrient elements from terrestrial source, ponding of water and reduction in natural cleansing capacity of river water, lowering of ground water table in areas adjacent to mining sites, and damage to the fresh water aquifer system. As several PILs in different parts of the country continue to debate over correctness of sand mining, I could see the scientific truth being sucked out of the environmental equilibrium of this estuary, which was supposedly under protection!

As I reached about 24 km inland, I was sure my sampling location in the upper reaches was extinct! I could see that approximately 500 to 700 m of mud-swamps had been cleared and reclaimed. The landings I had seen the previous day were the site where all dredges came and off-loaded their mining loot. The locals know their habitat is being lost to the rich. But they do not know how they can help. All that they fear for is their life and deny help without an assurance of secrecy. One question haunting me ever since has been, ‘How can one industry be allowed to flourish at the cost of another? Can we in this way afford to lose our natural resources forever?’


Dr.-Rajani-Panchang

Dr. Rajani Panchang

The writer is trained as an oceanographer and obtained her PhD from the National Institute of Oceanography, Goa. She is a marine geologist, currently working as a DST Woman Scientist with the Agharkar Research Institute Pune. Her current interests are to delineate signatures of man and natural climate variability from marine archives.

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