Regulate Mining, Protect Environment

How wanton extraction of minerals lacerates J&K’s fragile eco-system
"In Kashmir Valley, about 12 cement plants, eight POP units, 297 brick kilns and 416 crusher/hot wet mix plants are sustaining on locally available major as well as minor minerals."
"In Kashmir Valley, about 12 cement plants, eight POP units, 297 brick kilns and 416 crusher/hot wet mix plants are sustaining on locally available major as well as minor minerals."GK Layout Desk

Jammu and Kashmir is blessed with abundant deposits of minor mineral resources. Minerals constitute one of the most important natural resources that govern industrial and economic development of a region. However, due to massive demand for masonry stones, sand, boulder, bajri and clay in developmental projects and other construction activities, there is a manifold increase in illegal mining.

Kashmir valley constitutes an important place in the Geology and Geotectonics of the Himalayas. It is a Nappe Zone representing a tectonic depression bounded by two linear mountain ranges - the Pir Panjal and the Zanaskar containing one of the finest developments of the stratigraphic succession right from Proterozoic.

Having a versatile geological set up, Kashmir gives rise to availability of a number of important major as well as minor minerals. It has huge deposits of limestone of different grades and large reserves of good quality gypsum besides non-metallic and metallic ores.

Perennial left and right bank tributaries of Jhelum basin have rich deposits of minor minerals like boulders which are extracted for construction purposes.

Jammu is covered by the three formations - Siwalik, Kandi and Sirowal. Siwalik comprises cemented Sandstone, clay boulders, gravels, pebbles. Kandi belt has abundant mineral resources like boulders, cobbles, pebbles, granule and coarse sand associated with clays.

Sirowals constitute basically clay with less amount of coarse material. The river bed mining is sporadically conducted in Ramban, Doda and Kishtwar districts because of non occurrences of the flood plains and limited width of rivers and streams. The Chenab River forms the major river in these districts.

The Department of Geology & Mining, Kashmir has established about 3,500 million tonne reserves of various minerals including Limestone (major), Gypsum, Marble, Lignite, Slate, Quartzite, and Graphite. The establishment of these industrial minerals enabled the Government to grant about 51 captive and non-captive Mining leases to private and public sector undertakings.

In Kashmir Valley, about 12 cement plants, eight POP units, 297 brick kilns and 416 crusher/hot wet mix plants are sustaining on locally available major as well as minor minerals. During the financial year 2021-22, the Kashmir Valley registered mineral production to the tune of about Rs 60 lakh metric tonnes with a collection of Rs 66.43 crore as revenue.

Now the question arises where does the problem arise? Rising demand for minerals has resulted in illegal extraction of minerals. This not only hits revenue generation of the Government but takes a toll on J&K’s fragile ecosystem.

The extraction of river bed material from river Jhelum and its tributaries was previously being allowed through Short Term Permits on advance payment of royalty for specific quantities. With notification of The J&K Minor Mineral Concession, Storage, Transportation and Prevention of Illegal Mining Rules, 2016 , main mode of grant of mining leases for minor minerals is through e-auction now.

With an objective for sustainable mining, e-auctioned minor mineral blocks are granted on lease to highest bidders only after completion of statutory formalities including Approved Mining Plan, Environmental Clearance, Consent To Operate from the competent authorities and No Objection Certificates from all stake holding Departments.

J&K Environment Impact Assessment Authority (JKEIAA), which works under the Union Ministry of Environment Forests and Climate Change, grants Environmental Clearance after the applicant fulfills requisite standard and specific conditions including prohibition of the use of heavy machinery in mining operations, a provision to sell the excavated material from the riverbed locally at a discount of 50 percent and the use of CCTVs on the site.

However, in absence of proper regulations by authorities, illegal mining is in full swing in various areas of Kashmir including Pulwama, Anantnag, Shopian, and Kulgam districts in south Kashmir. Budgam district in central Kashmir is a hotbed of illegal mining. In many cases, quantities for mineral extraction specified for five years are mined right in the first year.

 The guidelines of Minor Mineral Rules 2016 and State Environmental Impact Assessment Authority are clear that heavy machines JCBs and mechanised machines cannot be used during riverbed mining. In absence of monitoring, heavy machines like JCBs, L&T, and Kobelco cranes are destroying streams, particularity in Kashmir.

Experts state that mining must be strictly based on EIA to avoid any damage to aquatic ecology. Otherwise, it will adversely affect the hydraulic parameters and aquatic ecology of the river or stream which can cause erosion of sides during floods. This can even result in changing the course of the river at the cost of flooding living habitats on its banks.            

Originating from Pir Panjal glaciers, Doodh Ganga is one of the tributaries of River Jhelum. Blessed with crystal clear water, the canal passes through several areas and merges into Hokersar Wetland in Srinagar and subsequently reaches Jhelum. Due to haphazard extraction of minerals, the Doodh Ganga water has turned muddy.

Ironically the same water is supplied to five lakh people in uptown Srinagar. Illegal mining is fast silting up Hokersar wetland as Doodh Ganga passes through this wetland, which is a designated Ramsar site. Flow of silt has also converted a vast chunk of Hokersar wetland into marsh, disturbing the habitat of lakhs of migratory birds.

Illegal mining has led to decline in the population of exotic fish including trout.

Organised mining mafia is devastating Jhelum and its major tributaries like Doodh Ganga, Vaishav, Rambiara, Shali Ganga and other streams. Despite the ban, heavy machines like JCBs, L&Ts and Poclain cranes are being openly used to excavate riverbed material. On the petition of a social activist Raja Muzaffar Bhat, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) last year had ordered closure of mining operations at the Shali Ganga Nallah in Budgam district of the Kashmir, calling into question the Environmental Clearances (EC) given for the operations. The NGT came up with a 212-page order exposing use of JCBs and other machines for riverbed mining. On October 7, 2022, NGT imposed a penalty of Rs 35 Crores on J&K Government for constantly polluting  Doodh Ganga. Earlier. In March, 2022, the NGT had slapped a Rs three crore penalty on the Government for illegal dumping of solid waste , liquid waste and undertaking of illegal mining. 

Rivers and streams have a stable hydraulic regime, which governs course and parameters such as bed slope, width, depth of flow. Experts state that any mining of minor minerals boulder, gravel and sand has to be done in consideration of the entire regime of the river and its regenerative capacity of minor minerals.

Haphazard extraction by heavy machines will lead to ecological disaster. Though authorities frequently seize vehicles, tractors and JCBs, there is no let up in illegal mining. Government must rise before it is too late. There is a need for strong action such as cancellation of contracts, lease or even imposition of heavy fines on defaulters and violators. Stakeholders should be roped in to aware them about ill-effects of illegal mining. We must remember that damage caused to our fragile riverbed system by illegal mining is irreparable.

Author is Executive Editor, Greater Kashmir

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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