Sand mining in the rivers of West Champaran is causing unmitigated floods in the region, year after year. Why is the government not responding?
West Champaran district is in the news for floods every monsoon, as is most of northern Bihar. But the district also sees many floods in the non-monsoon months, many of which go unreported, and often, ignored by flood-relief schemes as well. The natural explanation for the flash floods is that the region is at the foothills and rivers from the hills of bordering Nepal flow through it. But the floods are not entirely a result of natural phenomena. Over the years, excessive sand mining in the river beds has led to ecological imbalances, making rivers and streams flood and even change their course, wreaking havoc in the villages along their banks.
“We can’t sleep or cook in the house, there is so much water. And the water sweeps away all our belongings. How do we survive?”, asks a resident of Bakhri, a village by the Kataiya river.
Kataiya river is one of the sites identified under the 2015-2020 Sand Mining Project in West Champaran. The district has a mining lease area of 90.67 hectares. With that figure, Champaran is also one of the top five districts in the state with the maximum sand mining sites. An Al Jazeera report in 2017 called sand almost as valuable a mineral as gold in India because of the boom that the construction sector is expected to see. Presently, sand is the fourth most mined mineral in the country according to the Indian Bureau of Mines. The question to be asked is-- how much sand mining is taking place above and beyond this, illegally?
Community Correspondent Tanju Devi says that it is difficult to tell. “The lease has been given out to private contractors, and the village residents don’t know whether the extent of mining is legal or not”, she says. Residents of Bakhri and nearby villages tried approaching the contractors but were threatened by them who said that it’s their job to extract sand under their agreement with the government.
Sithi ghat, the mining site close to Bakhri, does have environmental clearance (EC) for sand mining. However, the EC given to the project is of the B2 type, which means that it does not require an Environment Impact Assessment report. As a result, unrestricted mining activity continues, and villages along the river bear the brunt.
“Earlier, the river used to flow closer to the forest, and there were no floods. As the mining increases, so does the erosion, so naturally, there will be floods. Even now, if an embankment is built, we will not be troubled by the floods.”, says Omprakash Chaurasia, another resident. Excessive mechanised sand mining has also affected existing embankments in Champaran and citizens’ groups have taken the matter to the police and the courts.
Tanju says that, ideally, the mining activity should be restrained, but the residents are primarily demanding proper embankment. Last month, she approached the District Magistrate with a written application. “He said that he will look into the construction of an embankment after the monsoon and suggested that the village residents and I try to speak to the mining contractors. I told him that things will change only if a senior government official from the district headquarters speaks to them.” She intends to visit the official with the community for a follow-up later this month.
While sand mining contributed to the highest revenue collected by the Mining Department of Bihar in 2016-17, as well as in the preceding years, a Down to Earth study published in 2015 found that “in the past one decade, over 300 labourers have been killed in the fights to control sand mining.” In East Champaran and West Champaran, sand mining is a known menace, not only flattening homes and fields but also lives.
The Bihar government imposed a complete ban on mining operations across several districts in 2017. However, the sudden crackdown rendered many MNREGA workers employed in the sand mining projects jobless. It also reportedly stalled development projects like the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana. Taking away the leases of around 170 ghats, the state government introduced a new sand mining policy in July 2017 which was subsequently stayed by the Patna High Court. Earlier this year, the government reverted to the old policy, e-auctioning the leases, claiming that illegal operations would be curbed under the new process.
The environmental damage, and the consequent destruction of property and livelihoods, however, seems to have gone unaccounted for. To join Tanju and the community in their demand for an embankment and a curb on mining in the area, call the District Magistrate of West Champaran at +91-9473191298, apprising him of the crisis and urging him to take immediate action.
Video by Community Correspondent Tanju Devi
Article by Alankrita Anand, a member of the VV Editorial Team
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