Srinagar: Illegal riverbed mining coupled with haphazard extraction of mineral resources with heavy machines is taking a heavy toll on Kashmir’s fragile river ecosystem.
Kashmir is blessed with abundant deposits of minor mineral resources, masonry stones, sand, boulder, bajri and clay. The perennial left and right bank tributaries of Jhelum basin have rich deposits of minor minerals like boulders, which are extracted for construction purposes.
However, in absence of proper regulations by the 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.
“Organised mining mafia is devastating Jhelum and its major tributaries like Doodh Ganga, Vaishav, Rambiara, Shali Ganga and other streams. Despite ban, heavy machines like JCBs, L&Ts and Poclain cranes are being openly used to excavate riverbed material,” said Raja Muzaffar Bhat, a social activist who has been fighting for protection of Kashmir’s natural resources for last many years.
On Bhat’s petition, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on September 28, 2022, ordered mining operations at the Shali Ganga Nallah in Budgam district of the Kashmir to halt, calling into question the Environmental Clearances (EC) given for the operations.
Bhat had challenged the validity of the ECs given to three mining blocks in the area. In October last year, NGT came up with a 212-page order exposing use of JCBs and other machines for riverbed mining.
The Supreme Court temporarily vacated the stay order last month and now the case is listed for next hearing on January 13, 2023.
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.
Rule 4 of the J&K Mining Rules, 2016, is being violated as it prohibits mining within 25 meters from the embankments.
“Since the widths of Doodh Ganga and Shali Ganga streams are no more than 40 meters on an average, it seems that no verification of the width of the streams was made on ground. Thus, it is illegal to allow mining in their riverbeds. This width has now been reduced to 10 meters by the Government I have been told, but how they did this is questionable? Already, brick kilns have destroyed Kashmir’s paddy land and almond orchards in karewa land (elevated table land) have been wasted due to clay mining. Rivers and streams are unscrupulous contractors’ next target clandestinely backed by unscrupulous officials,” he said. “Haphazard extraction by JCBs will lead to ecological disaster.”
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.
The Wildlife Department last year even shot a letter to District Mineral Officer Budgam to stop illegal mining in Doodh Ganga but the Mining department failed to act.
As per the experts, illegal mining has led to decline in the population of exotic fish including trout.
As per Section 23 C of the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act 1957, powers have been delegated to state and union territory governments to frame rules to curb illegal mining, transportation, and storage of illegally mined minerals.
Bhat said on an average a riverbed mineral block is auctioned for mere Rs 1.30 crores for five years.
“The contractors want to earn crores in months. They are openly involved in unfair trade by excavating minerals at nighttime, using JCBs, and selling material at exorbitant rates. The idea behind allocation of these contracts was to give employment to local people. This is mentioned in Mining Rules 2016 and SEIAA guidelines as well, but it is simply a loot and plunder,” Bhat said.
All rivers and streams have a stable hydraulic regime, which governs course and parameters such as bed slope, width, depth of flow. 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.
“This is to be based on EIA to avoid any damage to aquatic ecology of the stream and its biotic life. If this is not done in above consideration it will adversely affect the hydraulic parameters and aquatic ecology of the river or stream which can cause erosion of sides during floods and even result in changing the course of river at the cost of flooding living habitats on its banks or even washing away the same which come in the alignment of redefined course,” said Ajaz Rasool, a hydraulic engineer and environmentalist.
He said that in Kashmir contractors who have been allotted mining contracts for minor minerals are over doing the specified contracted quantities as also some resort to illegal mining due to greed.
“Quantities specified for five years are mined right in the first year. Dual control of mining by the Geological Department and Irrigation and Flood Control Department aggravates the destruction on this count. The result is degradation to the hydraulic regime of the river or stream and its aquatic ecology,” Ajaz said. “Though vehicles, tractors and JCBs of contractors indulging in illegal mining or doing it in night cover have been seized by authorities but this deterrent has not solved the problem and instances of illegal mining activities still continue to be reported. There is a need for additional strong action such as cancellation of contract or even heavy fines to be imposed on defaulters.”
Rakesh Kumar, who is member secretary of J&K Environment Impact Assessment Authority said, “Our job is to grant Environment Clearance for a mining project. It is the prerogative of the Mining department to check that all norms are adhered to.”
Secretary Mining Department, Amit Sharma told Greater Kashmir that strict action would be taken against the violators.
“We will act strictly against those who violate the mining rules,” Sharma said.
Acting on complaints of illegal mining, last month, Sharma said he had made extensive spot visits to various areas in Baramulla, Budgam, Srinagar, and Bandipora districts over the last couple of days.
“I have directed that heavy penalties should be imposed upon the defaulters including lessees, crusher holders and other stakeholders who conduct this wilful act of extracting excessive material in an illegal manner which results in environmental degradation,” he said.