The Dark Side of Economic Boom: Vanishing Waterbodies and Rising Sand Mafias

The clock strikes midnight. After grazing your cows one fine evening, giving them water by taking them to the nearby pond, you manage to finally capture a good sleep. The next morning is business as usual. You finish your meal, drive across to the nearest shop for a cup of tea and overhear something very unusual. The SHO of your district’s police station was crushed to death by a tractor. 

Laughing it off as sheer rumours, you return home to take your cows grazing. It’s a routine walk. Starting from home, you let them graze until you reach the pond,  give them a few minutes to drink water before commencing the journey back home. The walk goes without a scratch. However, as you reach the pond something sets you off. The pond is gone! What’s left of the pond, is just dry land with a hastily built hut right in the centre. Such is the efficacy of the mafias of India. In particular, the Sand Mafias. 

We Indians, proudly boast the world’s fastest-growing economy, averaging 6-8% every year over the past decade. However, this rapid growth seems to have also brought along with it a couple of uninvited visitors. Pegged as the third-largest mafia organization in the world, the illegal sand mafias of Bihar and West Bengal seem to grow proactively along with our economy. With illegal sand demand tripling over the past two decades, mining  ‘pila sona’ – yellow gold has become a regular occurrence on the banks of Son, one of Ganga’s tributaries. 

Sand Mafias and its illegal business seem to be confusing for two main reasons related to sand’s property itself, isn’t it? First, it’s sheer abundance. You look anywhere, and you’re bound to find some of it. Take a trip to Rajasthan and you find the majestic Thar and her dunes as far as the eye can see.  Sand is nearly everywhere. Why do you need to steal it? The second is the need for it. Where do you use sand, how does it provide any value? I don’t find sand actively being used anywhere, then why is it stolen? 

Pegged as the third-largest mafia organization in the world, the illegal sand mafias of Bihar and West Bengal seem to grow proactively along with our economy.

Well, appearances can be deceptive. Take a look at the device you’re reading this article on in the middle of traffic, or maybe the chip which powers your electric car to take you to work. Or the windows of your boss’s office out of which you can stare as he asks you for an update on that client’s meeting you held last Thursday. All of them are just different combinations of gravel and sand, combined at different temperatures, pressures and quantities. It’s this surged demand that we find our sand mafias catering to. 

Desert sand, the type of sand that you find yourself thinking about is useless. Round, soft and extremely fine these morsels of sand are highly alkaline which results in a rather weaker slurry of concrete posing a significant threat to construction. And with seemingly no alternatives to our construction problem, we humans rely on what we do best. Destroy whatever nature provides us! 

With a rapidly growing population base in India all of whom are flooding into the metropolises across India, we find ourselves asking for more and more sand. The significant infrastructure push put forth by the government results in us consuming roughly 20,000 tons of sand for a kilometre of a highway. Couple this with the demands of multiple skyscrapers spread across Hyderabad, Bangalore, Mumbai and Delhi the increased demand seems to increase the price of sand relentlessly. 

It’s this exorbitant price of sand that redirects most builders instead towards relying on procuring this sand illegally. For a mere cost of 400 rupees per day, these mafiosos hire day labourers who toil their day away mining sand for billionaire builders off the coast of the Arabian Sea. 

A report from Le Monde highlights the affordable prices of illegal smuggling. For roughly 1,500 rupees one might find himself a tractor-load of grey sand, and if your wallet is a little flexible then for 4,000 rupees you’d go home with a tractor-load of pila sona. All of which, of course, could be resold for a higher price. And don’t worry this 4,000 rupees price in all bribes, allowances and any spare change for your safe travel. Ah, the freedom of the free market.

And this is not a problem endemic to India. Where in the case of India, we have illegal procurement of sand driven by the need to accommodate rapid growth and urbanization that the country finds itself  In stark contrast, countries like Singapore now actively endorse such behaviour (albeit indirectly). 

Famed for its regular reclamation projections, Singapore has actively pursued a policy of expansion by way of adding artificial land to accommodate its burgeoning population. The backbone of this project is the Mekong Delta and Malaysia. 

It’s akin to a war at this point in Singapore, with the possibility of the loss of pristine beaches off the South China Sea coast to greedy corporations. 

For years, one observes that Singapore land reclamation projects have been driven by sand imported from the Philippines, Malaysia Vietnam and Cambodia. It’s odd, however, as one notes that Malaysia had banned the trading of sand back in 2000. Despite this blanket ban, one finds that over 133 tons were exported between 2000-2010. What for one might ask. Well, most of this sand was put to use to build  Singapore’s famed Marina Bay Sands project comprising casinos and hotels all built on reclaimed land. A cruel irony, if one could spot one. 

It’s akin to a war at this point in Singapore, with the possibility of the loss of pristine beaches off the South China Sea coast to greedy corporations. Added to this is the endorsement by a state whose resources outnumber all its neighbours, and actively deploys them to serve its need for expansion. Providing a free reign of the waters, sand smugglers moved in the cover of night, delivering sand by the boatloads. All to serve the aspirations of expansion to accommodate further engines of growth. There must be a cost associated with this, and if so what is it? 

Well, for starters. river redistribution. The Mekong Delta, an extremely fertile delta situated in Vietnam called home to around  17 million people, serves as a source of both food and livelihood for Vietnam. However, the Mekong Delta now seems to be shrinking. Losing large stretches of fertile agricultural land, of the proportions of roughly 1.5 football pitches a day, the Mekong Delta seems to exhaust all its reserves. Further, With an increase in the size of the basins with some parts stretching up to 3 metres deeper.

In India, off the coast of the Ganges, relentless mining seems to contribute towards the continuous depletion of the topsoil, leading to soil erosion coupled with a depleting groundwater table.

How do we resolve this?  

From a policy standpoint, it seems to be difficult. However, not impossible. For starters, in India an optimal route would be to first classify sand as a major mineral, shifting the regulatory focus to mainly the central government. Further, instituting these rivers as protected areas can lead to more stringent governance and prudent decision-making.

However, we must realize that as long as people are not provided ample opportunity to compete in the Indian organized sectors, i.e. through educating and upskilling them,  they will be bound to look towards illegal means, driven by low barriers to entry to organised crime. 

(Divith Narendra is a student of data science, economics, and business with a passion for integrating data and statistics. He writes extensively on industry trends and geopolitics. His works were featured at the G20 and published by Cambridge Union Press. Views expressed are the author’s own)

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One thought on “The Dark Side of Economic Boom: Vanishing Waterbodies and Rising Sand Mafias”
  1. Timely piece. Sand mining is a global issue, and this has been well established in the article. The Singapore development model cannot be emulated by all. Countries like India with huge population must balance nature and development. Over exploitation of any natural resources will only harm us all in the long term.

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