The new &TV drama ‘Begusarai’ explores the peculiar world of India’s ‘Sand Mafia’ – the vast and well-organized criminal groups that conduct illegal sand mining.
But what exactly does it entail?
The power of India’s Sand Mafia came into sharp focus in March when a respected Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer named D K Ravi was found dead inside his home in Bangalore.
Mr Ravi had made a reputation for himself for standing up to the Mafia which provides crucial raw materials to India’s booming construction industry. The reason sand mining is illegal is due to the often catastrophic damage dredging for sand from rivers and streams causes to the environment.
Illegal sand mining has been directly blamed for weakening the banks of the Jhelum river in Kashmir, leading to the devastating floods that left hundreds dead in the state capital Srinagar.
Sand mining is so widespread along the Ganges that some experts claim it has led to the holy river changing its course in parts of Bihar – where ‘Begusarai’ is set.
Sand Mining is astonishing in its geographic spread across India, fuelled by the country’s relentless building boom. Millions of new homes are being added every year – that’s apart from the government’s infrastructure drive.
Building homes, bridges and roads requires a lot of concrete – ‘three parts sand to one part cement’ means the need for sand is seemingly unquenchable.
For developers and contractors, obtaining that sand from the mafia which has mined it illegally from local rivers and waterways is far cheaper than importing it from other states.
Any attempts to regulate or clamp down on the outfits have had little effect. It has become such a profitable business that the mafia will prevent sand shipments imported from overseas from entering the market – as was the case when a shipload of Cambodian sand was left stranded at the port in Kochi.
While sand mining is rampant in Bihar, it’s believed that the southern state of Karnataka is the one place where the problem is most acute, driven in part by the demand for sand in nearby Kerala where the mafia has been suppressed – to an extent.
There has been a limited fight back authorities but most efforts have been little more than symbolic gestures – in September 2014, the Indian Supreme Court made it much easier for police forces to take action against illegal miners but the police and the IAS have been hampered by the widespread collusion between the mafia and politicians.
Halting illegal sand-mining is made problematic by two factors.
Firstly, there are no substitutes for sand in the construction industry and secondly, sand is considered a “minor mineral” under Indian law and not a “major mineral” like coal or gold.
As a result, sand mining is governed by state rather than federal law. Given the fact that politicians are believed to be directly involved in sand mining, many state’s laws have been largely ineffective.
The problem shows little sign of abating.
The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called for a trillion dollars of public and private investment into infrastructure in the next five years to help revive India’s stagnant economy.
As a result, the demand for sand and other raw materials is expected to grow three-fold.
Some experts have called for a more “environmentally-friendly” substitute for sand but that, even in more developed nations, is a long way off.
Until then, the scourge of sand-mining will continue.