How the sand mafia is killing our rivers
In his paper, titled "Sand and the politics of plunder in Tamil Nadu, India," Indian economist Dr J Jeyaranjan describes how the sand mafia has been plundering the common property resource in Tamil Nadu with the support of political patronage since the late 1980s, at the onset of a real estate boom. The state's public works department justifies sand extraction in the name of removing excess sand deposits from riverbeds to ensure unhindered river flow. But indiscriminate sand mining and transportation leads to enormous ecological and social problems at riverbed quarries where water tables are depleted, irrigation is affected, and agricultural production is affected.
In Bangladesh, too, illegal and indiscriminate sand extraction from the rivers is rising alongside growing urbanisation, with the backing of ruling party politicians, causing massive erosion of riverbanks and destruction of rural settlements and farmlands. Every year, certain areas of different rivers are officially declared as balumohal (sand estate), and lease is given out for sand lifting through open tenders. In some cases, sand is extracted from outside the defined boundaries of a balumohal, in violation of lease terms. In other cases, sand is extracted from the rivers without taking a lease.
As per the Balumohal and Soil Management Act, 2010 (amended in 2023), sand mining is banned within one kilometre of bridges, culverts, dams, barrages, roads, highways, forests, railway lines, and other important public and private infrastructures or residential areas. Moreover, if a river faces the risk of damage to its ecosystem or riverbank erosion, sand cannot be mined from it. In practice, however, political influentials ignore these restrictions, which aids rampant sand lifting from the rivers leading to massive erosion of riverbanks and the subsequent destruction of various structures, settlements, and agricultural land.
For example, according to reports published in The Daily Star and Prothom Alo, ruling party men are killing the Someshwari River, which flows through Netrakona district, by extracting sand from it indiscriminately. They took lease for five balumohal, covering an area of only 1,914 acres, but are extracting sand from a 22-kilometre stretch of the river illegally. Also, instead of using cutter suction dredgers, which are capable of extracting sand in a uniform way from the riverbed, the AL men are using "Bangla pump dredger," which extracts sand by digging deep holes in the riverbed. This illegal and unscientific method of sand extraction damages the river's ecosystem and accelerates riverbank erosion.
What's more, the sand miners have blocked the mouth of Atrakhali River, a tributary of Someshwari, by dumping sand to facilitate transportation of the extracted sand by lorries. As a result, Someshwari's water cannot flow to Atrakhali, causing it to dry up. Thus, aggressive and unregulated sand extraction from the Someshwari River is destroying plant and fish habitats, depriving fishermen of their livelihoods and decimating the riverbanks.
The case of Selim Khan, known as balukheko (sand-eater) chairman from a Chandpur union parishad, is perhaps the biggest example of sand mafia, looting thousands of crores of taka by extracting sand illegally under the administration's nose with political patronage, destroying the river ecosystem in the process. For eight years, Selim has illegally mined sand from the Meghna River in Chandpur with 200 dredgers, using the pretext of improving the river's navigability.
An investigation by The Daily Star indicates that Selim Khan could not have run his illegal sand business without the support of Education Minister Dipu Moni, who wrote at least 15 demi official letters, known as DO letters, between 2015 and 2021, to various government offices so that Selim and his family members could expand their sand business. Between 2018 and 2022 alone, he lifted more than 668 crore cubic feet of sand, which is worth at least Tk 1,337 crore, but did not pay a single taka to the government exchequer. As a result, the government has been deprived of a huge amount of revenue. Additionally, due to indiscriminate sand extraction, riverbank erosion has increased at the Meghna, the dam to protect Chandpur city has been damaged at several places, and hilsa breeding has been endangered.
The extent of political patronage that illegal sand miners get became more evident when the government scrapped the appointment of Manjur Ahmed Chowdhury as the chairman of National River Conservation Commission (NRCC) in October, less than a month after he said a "female minister from Chandpur" was lending support to a syndicate extracting sand from the Meghna River.
Illegal sand extraction under political patronage is so rampant that sometimes the sand mafia does not even feel the need to officially take a lease out on the balumohal. Tenders were called seven times from March 12 to September 4 this year for the lease of 53 balumohal in 36 rivers and canals in Chattogram, but no one responded. The sand mafia, however, did not stop extracting thousands of tonnes of sand from Feni, Dolu, and Karnaphuli rivers and endangering the rivers and nearby roads and bridges every day. According to a study conducted by the River and Delta Research Centre (RDRC) this year, at least 265 people are illegally extracting sand from 132 unauthorised sites in 77 rivers. And out of the 265 individuals, at least 54 are local public representatives, 193 are influentials, 12 are dredger owners, and six are businessmen.
Not only are the rivers and their ecosystems damaged due to illegal sand mining, but thousands of people also lose their land and homes due to river erosion every year. This process of killing the rivers and pauperising the rural population, while supplying sand for housing and infrastructure construction for the urban people must be stopped immediately. It is not enough to seize the dredger machines and fine the sand lifters through occasional mobile court drives. Those who extract sand illegally and their political patronisers must be punished as well. If sand is mined illegally from any river, officials of the concerned local administration should be brought under accountability. In addition, the annual demand of sand in the country should be determined, and the places from where sand can be extracted should be fixed in a scientific manner. Participation of the local people should also be ensured in the supervision of sand mining activities.
Kallol Mustafa is an engineer and writer who focuses on power, energy, environment and development economics.
Views expressed in this article are the author's own.
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