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Sand mafia-forester nexus

With the blessings of a section of politicians and active collusion by corrupt foresters, the sand mafia is having a free run in rivers across Assam. The sand mining scam in Doigrong river area of Golaghat district is presently in the headlines, with top officials in the zonal forest office at the district headquarters going missing. Officials of the ranks of district forest officer (DFO), assistant conservator of forest (ACF), ranger etc from the same office, are all on leave of absence and totally incommunicado. Sleuths of Bureau of Investigation of Economic Offences (BIEO) are hot on their trail in other districts and in Nagaland. While search operations are being conducted at their residences, the DFO has reportedly moved court to quash the case registered by the BIEO. A forest range officer recently surrendered to Golaghat police and was later handed over to a BIEO team from Guwahati — he has been charged with issuing bogus stock depot challan and transit permit for illegal mining of sand. Across the State, sand mafias are illegally digging up riverbeds, playing havoc with natural water flows, upsetting river channel equilibrium, sediment mass balance and sediment transport. Such activities aggravate the twin menace of flood and erosion, posing grave risk to human habitations that are clustered mostly near riverbanks. This besides, river ecosystems are destroyed and groundwater recharge adversely impacted. Sand mafias are a rough and ready lot in guarding their turfs — and they have corrupt foresters, cops and other administrative officials eating out of their hands. This is because in a country where housing lags far behind population, where big money is being pumped into road and other infrastructure, the construction industry is a major driver of the economy. Its demand for sand is insatiable, which happens to be classified as a minor mineral under the jurisdiction of State government, as per Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957. But till date, leave alone State governments, even the Central government has not bothered to find out exactly how much sand is being annually mined in the country. There have been well publicised cases of government officials, activists and journalists meeting bloody ends at the hands of sand mafias in several States. Nevertheless, a few brave souls have filed PILs in court, and in 2012, the Supreme Court acknowledged the dangers even small-scale sand mining (of less than 5 hectares area) poses to rivers. This prompted the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change in March 2016 to come out with guidelines for sustainable sand mining, make environmental impact clearance mandatory for small-scale sand mines, and draw up plans for district level assessment of such activities. But due to the lack of any comprehensive countrywide study of the problem, State governments still do not have the foggiest estimate of what is the ‘sustainable level’ of sand mining at any given location. Environmental experts despair that due to the district level mechanism being ineffective so far in collecting reliable data about the regeneration rate of sand in rivers, any talk of issuing compact mining leases and ensure sustainable sand extraction practices is meaningless. As governments in State after State have discovered, the demand for sand is such that its shortage is an open invitation for illegal sand miners to get into the act. A State like Kerala showed the gumption to ban sand mining in six rivers in 2015 after extensive degradation of river channels, but the ban has hardly proved effective. Governments in Assam have failed to come to grips with this menace, or display any inclination whatsoever to do so. This apathy has allowed sand mafias to extend their clout in the corridors of power at Dispur. The BIEO drive against foresters hand-in-glove with sand mafias is thus welcome, but the net should be cast more widely to catch the bigger fish.

Cherishing the pollinators

Assam with the rest of India observed on May 20 last the first ever World Honey Bee Day, as did all other countries at the initiative of the United Nations and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This was done to spread awareness about bees as the largest group of pollinators who contribute so much to ensure mankind’s food security. But the situation is worrying, with anecdotal evidence coming in from farmers about declining numbers of honey bees visiting their fields in past years. This trend has been witnessed worldwide for well over a decade; the phenomenon has been ascribed to several factors, ranging from the wide use of insecticides of neonicotinoid class, declining food diversity and supply to global climate change. Honey bees are particularly effective in pollinating monocultures or single-crop fields, as they have been in the western world. Farmers in India too value various local species of bees, which are vital in pollinating a wide range of fruits and vegetables. But the intensive agricultural practices being increasingly followed across the country could pose danger for bees over the long term; well meaning government efforts like bringing in exotic bee species from outside may also wipe out the hitherto hardy local bee populations. There could be beneficial spinoffs from organic farming for bees, so a State like Sikkim will bear watching on this front. Growing urbanisation is also wiping out bee habitats, for they are forest dwelling insects. Still, there is inspiration aplenty from a country like Germany, where cities are vying to encourage large bee colonies on rooftops of high-rises, and even the legislature and ministry buildings at Berlin; to ensure food the bees like, city municipalities there have carried out social plantations of flowering trees. ‘Bee-friendly gardening’ is now a serious topic for research and commercial activities in several European countries. It is our fervent hope that befriending honey bees becomes a buzzword soon, and the fruits of such awareness should rub off on other pollinators like bumble bees, butterflies and moths. In their absence, productivity might decline as much as 80 percent for many plant species, experts warn.

About the author

Ankur Kalita