In 2010, the Department of Irrigation and Flood Control sent a report to Union Water Resource Ministry warning of “massive flood [that] may engulf” Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) in next five years.

Unaware of it, in the couple of years to come, Manzoor Ahmad Sheikh would wake up every morning to park his tractor amidst a water-stream to extract raw material, including sand, gravels, and boulders, used in construction, to earn his living. 

The department had also sent a project report worth 2,200 crore rupees to develop infrastructure to deal with the floods. Nonetheless, in 2014, the flood struck J-K – leaving nearly 200 people dead and damaged property of multi-crore rupees.

“After the floods, I became the target of neighbours and police,” says Mr. Sheikh, a 43-year-old resident of Tral, south Kashmir. In the flood’s aftermath, the local tractor owners were blamed for resorting to ruthless extraction in tributaries. “We were regularly heckled and charged with penalties by different government departments only because we were doing the extraction in the stream,” recalls Mr. Sheikh. “People blamed us for the damage occurred in the area due to flash floods.”

Small-time sand and boulder miners usually work with a carrier-vehicle and a handful of labourers laden with gravels. So was Mr. Sheikh. After completing post-graduation in 2012, when he couldn’t secure a job, he sat behind the tractor-wheels. His place was merely three kilometres away from Watal Ara, a famous stream in south Kashmir.

But, the prospects of his business, he says, hit rock bottom in August 2019; the Central government stripped J-K’s special-status barring non-locals to avail government services and acquiring lands. The constitutional exclusivity also stopped a non-local company to operate in the region unless the government desired so, through lease agreements. 

In a first, this year bidding for mining of mineral blocks in Jehlum River and its tributaries was opened for non-local bidders. But, in the heated mining wars – the environment is at stake; given the players and shifted powers, the subsequent steps can expose Kashmir back to 2014 Flood Horror.

Concerned Populace

A senior geologist in the Department of Geology and Mining J-K, who does not wish to be named, notes that there are about 500 mineral blocks in J-K, of which 250 – each of which measures a maximum of ten hectares – belong to ten districts of the Valley. A considerable number of the mineral blocks are situated along the banks of river Jhelum,” he says.

And the mining and extraction industry is booming too. Professor of Economics at University of Kashmir, Nisar Ali, says that in 1940-50 the industrial sector was generating ten per cent of Gross State Development Production (GSDP). Today, Mr. Ali says, it is just five per cent. “Constructing industry has mounted to nineteen per cent because of the rapid housing construction during last three decades.”

However, Mr. Sheikh worries that wherein the local small-time miners employed manual labourers for extractions, the non-local firms “would use heavy extraction machines and will dig up the entire portion in the tributary.”

“This not only snatches our livelihood but also damages the environment,” says Mr. Sheikh.

For residents settled around Jehlum River, though, the miner’s ethnicity isn’t a concern – the act of mining is.

“We have been resisting the mining from the first day because it has already wreaked havoc in our area,” says Abdul Majeed Bhat, a resident of Kakapora, Pulwama. “On and off, we were motivating local administration to halt the mining but dealing with the outsiders will be a difficult task.” 

For instance, Mr. Majeed notices how the digging has caused destruction to the protection walls. The walls were constructed by the government after 2014 floods to protect the river from eroding the embankment and minimize chances of a breach.

People also fear about the noise pollution by heavy machinery movement used for extraction and transportation of sand. They now lamented the involvement of non-local firms would prove costlier to their local resources, with the embankments protecting paddy fields and orchards would also face the brunt of heavy mining. 

While a few others in south Kashmir fear the heavy load carriers, which might be used to transport the mined sand, on temporary roads cut through river embankments. “It has already damaged the banks and puts the entire region vulnerable to inundation,” says Nazir Ahmad, a resident of Lethpora, Pulwama. “The uncontrolled plunder of sand in the river Jehlum has already overburdened the embankments.” The digging by local firms has already created huge craters on the embankments, he believes, and now the introduction of non-local firms could completely destroy the embankments.

A research report published on the website of Environmental Information System (ENVIS), a centre at Centre of Mining Environment (CME), Indian School of Mines (ISM), excessive instream sand-and-gravel mining causes the degradation of rivers. Instream mining lowers the stream bottom, which may lead to bank erosion. 

“Depletion of sand in the streambed and along coastal areas causes the deepening of rivers and estuaries, and the enlargement of river mouths and coastal inlets. It may also lead to saline-water intrusion from the nearby sea,” reads the report. “The effect of mining is compounded by the effect of sea level rise. Any volume of sand exported from streambeds and coastal areas is a loss to the system.”

“Excessive instream sand mining is a threat to bridges, river banks and nearby structures, the report explains. Sand mining also affects the adjoining groundwater system and the uses that local people make of the river. Instream sand mining results in the destruction of aquatic and riparian habitat through large changes in the channel morphology,” explains report. “Impacts include bed degradation, bed coarsening, lowered water tables near the streambed, and channel instability. These physical impacts cause degradation of riparian and aquatic biota and may lead to the undermining of bridges and other structures. Continued extraction may also cause the entire streambed to degrade to the depth of excavation.”

Sand mining, the research reveals, generates extra vehicle traffic, which negatively impacts the environment. Where access roads cross riparian areas, the local environment may be impacted.

Now that 250 blocks are being formally thrown open for mining of minerals in Valley, there are apprehensions that large scale mining for sand and other minerals from river Jehlum and its tributaries can lead to severe environmental consequences.

Government’s claims on mining

Though, the government claims that before beginning their operations, both local as well as non-local firms, will have to seek environmental clearances from pollution board, Department of Fisheries and Irrigation, and Flood Control Department.

But, Deputy Director of Department of Geology and Mining, Dr. Amarjeet Singh Sodhi, says that the mining can leave no scope for environmental degradation in J-K. “All the firms are bound to get Non-Objection Certificates (NOC) from all the departments falling under ministry of environment, forest, ecology and environment,” he says. “Mining sites will be properly checked and [then] will be handed over to the firms. The amount received from the firms will go to the government exchequer.”

A senior engineer of Department of Irrigation and Flood Control, who does not wish to be named, argued that due to entrance of non-local firms there are mounting apprehensions of floods, especially in the areas lying close to rivers and streams. 

“The continuous mining and extraction could increase the velocity of river flow leading to instant flooding and over siltation in water bodies,” says the south Kashmir based senior engineer. “When firms mine heavily in tributaries, it will definitely have an effect on ecology and flood management in Kashmir.”

A retired executive engineer in Department of Irrigation and Flood Control, Sartaj Singh, agrees too that giving mining rights to non-local firms could prove devastating for the Valley. “As per Flood and Water Management Act 2010, no activity could be performed in any tributary unless permitted by IFC [Irrigation and Flood Control] Department,” he says. “The government however bypassed the department and issued the mining rights to non-local firms.” 

However, despite the government provided regulations and multiple checkpoints-cum-departments’ issuance of certificates, the reality for a senior Environmental Science professor at University of Jammu is that the implementation process falls flat in developing countries like India. 

“We know how people, including these firms, easily manage to get NOCs from different departments,” he says. “The corruption can easily throw unscrupulous elements into the competition that would destroy the ecology of J-K.”

Irfan Amin Malik is a Reporting Fellow at The Kashmir Walla.

The story appeared in our 17-23 February 2020 print edition.

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