New Delhi: Two months before elections were announced for Uttarakhand, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami changed a law and introduced two new policies that made mining easier in a state ravaged by environmental degradation.
Introduced between 28 October and 11 November 2021, the amended rules and mining policies, said experts, violate several court orders and Indian laws by diluting environmental-clearance obligations for mining businesses.
The new rules removed regulations—such as levelling land and cutting hills—around mining on private lands, allowed easier, even indiscriminate, mining of river beds and delayed for six more months, for the 13th time, a move to disallow illegal stone crushing near human habitation.
On 6 January 2022, the Uttarakhand High Court stayed permissions—relating only to one petitioner—granted under the new mining rules and demanded the state government explain the amendments, pushed through in 15 days.
The amendments appeared to be timed for elections to 70 state assembly constituencies, polling for which was scheduled for 14 February 2022.
The new changes, environmentalists and experts said, favoured mining contractors and owners of stone crushers in a state where forests have been denuded over the years for roads, dams and other construction, leading to widespread environmental damage, including landslides, floods and other disasters.
Some examples of environmental damage in the Himalayan state:
– Over five years to 2020, 37 bridges collapsed in Uttarakhand and another 27 bridges are on the brink of collapse. Locals attribute the bridge disaster to unbridled mining of sand from rivers, making floods more devastating.
– Over five years to 2020, Uttarakhand witnessed a 2900% increase in landslides, which scientists have previously noted are a result of the state’s denuded hillsides. The state lost 500 sq km of forests over 20 years, about five times the size of Chandigarh.
– In September 2021, landslides triggered by particularly heavy rain blocked at least 100 roads across the Himalayan state. Thousands of trees have been cut, loosening vast quantities of mud, otherwise bound by tree roots.
Despite the impact of mining on rivers, people, infrastructure and environment, the government relaxed regulations to make it easier for mining companies, who are major funders of political parties in Uttarakhand.
“It is obvious that the changes are not made for the purpose of ecological conservation,” said Rahul Choudhary, environmental lawyer and trustee of Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE), a public interest environmental law group.
“The government neglected addressing longstanding concerns of illegal mining activities [and] diluted mining regulations before the end of their tenure to favour their supporters,” said Choudhary.
We sought comment on the rushed changes from Brijesh Kumar Sant, director general, Suresh Lowrence Patrick, director of the geology and mining unit in Uttarakhand’s department of industrial development and the chief minister's office via email on 11 February 2022. We will update this story if they respond.
The New Rules
On 28 October 2021, the department of industrial development published amendments to the Uttarakhand Minor Mineral (Concession) Rules 2001. On 10 November, the government notified the Uttarakhand River Dredging Policy 2021, replacing the Uttarakhand River Training Policy, 2020. A day later, a new Stone Crusher, Screening Plants, Mobile Screening Plant, Pulverizers, Hot Mix and Ready Mix Plants Permission Policy, 2021 (Stone Crusher etc Policy 2021) was notified as well. Notification meant the new rules and the two policies had come into effect.
The new tweaks to the 2001 mineral rules—which specify the conditions for mining operations and permissions—relaxed the previous requirement of an environmental impact assessment (EIA) before mining on private land.
One amendment said: “Environmental clearance will not be required for construction activities like levelling, water storage tank, recycling tank, fish pond etc on private land adjacent to the bed of the river/tributary/estuary...”
It excluded a variety of activities, such as levelling, cutting of hills, excavation and transfer of excavated sand for non-commercial activities, from the category of mining and allowed the use of heavy machinery for such activities.
The 28 October notification was challenged in the High Court by one Satyendra Kumar Tomar on the grounds of being “arbitrary” and affecting his “lease interests”. Tomar was granted a mining lease on private land in May 2018 under the previous rules through a competitive bidding process. Now the new rules waived off such bidding processes on private lands.
One of the new policies, related to stone crushers, extended the deadline to relocate existing crusher units from sites deemed illegal for another six months, not the first such deadline extension.
The policy regulates stone-crushing plants, hot-mix plants, pulverizers and other plants that produce crushed stone grit and materials used in construction.
It was in November 2007 that the state mining policy first mandated that plants within 500 m of abadi (human habitations) and eco-sensitive regions be relocated within a specified deadline. Six extensions later, in July 2015, ‘siting distances’ (distance of the plant) were reduced to 300m.
The latest policy becomes the 13th extension for relocating plants operating in ‘illegal sites’.
“Successive governments have been favouring the owners of stone crushers, which are mostly owned by benamis (proxies) of politicians in the state,” said Dushyant Mainali, an advocate representing petitioners who challenged, in the Uttarakhand High Court, unregulated operations of stone crushers near human habitations. “The new amendments to mining rules, the river dredging policy and the new extension for relocation of plants, everything benefits the owners of stone crushers.”
The new river dredging policy duplicates existing provisions in the river training policy it replaced.
River training or dredging is a process that is supposed to readjust a river’s natural flow and prevent erosion of its banks. The policy sets guidelines to “remove or excavate” excess riverbed minerals, gravel, sand and boulders in Uttarakhand’s rivers, reservoirs and canals.
The new policy, like the previous river training policy, violates central environmental norms.
A 2021 analysis of the previous policy—introduced in September 2016—by Land Conflict Watch found the state invoking powers under the Disaster Management Act 2005 to allow unfettered mining of sand and boulders, violating in the process the Environment Protection Act 1986 and a 2012 Supreme Court order, which requires environmental clearances for river mining. An amendment in January 2020, allowed the use of heavy machinery on river beds.
The policy noted: “For disposal of debris/RBM/silt… for the purpose of speedy disposal of work in view of disaster management, the use of machines like JCB, Pokeland etc. will be permissible.”
River-bed minerals, sand and boulders—which can be removed under the river training or dredging policy—were important to riverine ecosystems, said Bhim Singh Rawat, associate coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), an advocacy group.
Rawat, who has studied environmental issues affecting Uttarakhand’s rivers for nearly a decade, said that "excessive mining" increased the chances of landslides by affecting the stability of the surrounding hilly areas.
He blamed unchecked riverbed mining, masquerading as “river training or dredging” for contributing to the rise in collapses of bridges. Sand, boulders and minerals are important to ensure recharge of groundwater, to keep water clean and to keep it flowing.
“With no proper monitoring system in place, the state’s rivers are mined and exploited indiscriminately," said Rawat. "There are no records of state EIA studies or replenishment studies conducted on these rivers.”
Environmental Disaster Vs Political Gain
An ecologically fragile state, Uttarakhand has witnessed rapid environmental degradation as forests were cut and replaced by roads, homes, hotels and other construction.
Over the last decade, thousands of flash floods, cloudbursts and landslides have struck the state, killing people and causing large-scale infrastructural damage.
A 2021 study by the Wadia Institute for Himalayan Geology in Dehradun noted that over half of Uttarakhand fell under zones that had a ‘high’ and ‘very high’ susceptibility to landslides. Between 2015 and 2020, the state witnessed a 2900% increase in landslides, as we said, including 33 incidents in 2015 to 972 in 2020, according to data from the state disaster management department.
Nine years ago, in June 2013, devastating floods and landslides due to cloudbursts in Uttarakhand was among India’s worst natural disasters, claiming about 6,000 lives.
That mining contributes to the finances of the state and political parties is not in question.
On 2 October 2021 , state chief secretary S Sandhu said that the new “user friendly” mining policy could fetch the state an additional revenue of Rs 500 to 1,000 crore.
For years, successive governments have been accused (here, here and here) of encouraging unscientific, unrestricted mining to improve their finances. Both the BJP and the Congress have accused each other of abetting the mining mafia. The Congress has run the state for 10 years and the BJP for 11 years.
Former commissioner of Garhwal and retired Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officer Surendra Panti, who lives in state capital Dehradun and has led campaigns against illegal mining, alleged stone-crusher plant owners and their networks were among the leading funders of political parties.
“Mining is a crucial sector in Uttarakhand," said Santi. "But the state government has left aside environmental concerns and made new policy changes to woo miners and their funders. These changes will be detrimental to the sensitive ecology of the Himalayas."
In the riverside town of Haridwar, Matri Sadan, a Hindu religious group, has often campaigned against illegal mining to protect the river Ganga, considered holy to Hindus. Swami Dayanand, a Matri Sadan monk, said the BJP’s new policies were made to favour the “stone-crushers’ mafia” and the politicians who backed it.
Alleging a nexus between the BJP regime and owners of stone crushers, Dayanand said, "Everything that is mined from rivers and private lands will reach stone crushers. Their owners who are making profits are the main beneficiaries of the new policy changes."
A 72-year old Hindu monk called Swami Shivanand, founder of Matri Sadan, has been on a hunger strike since 24 January 24 to protest mining permitted in November 2021 in Bishanpur, Shyampur and Bhogpur by the Uttarakhand forest department along the river Ganga.
In their election campaigns, opposition parties, including the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party, have accused the BJP regime of abetting illegal mining and quarrying in the state.
Karan Mahara, a Congress member of the legislative assembly (MLA) from Ranikhet, accused the BJP government of bringing in the new relaxations to provide legal sanction to illegal mining.
“Over 80% of contractors who bagged river training or dredging bids are BJP workers," alleged Mahara. "The majority of the owners of stone-crushing companies are associated with the saffron party. They made large profits with the new changes and in return funded the BJP."
Ajay Kumar, BJP’s general secretary for Uttarakhand refused to comment on Mahara's allegations. “I’m not aware of the latest policy changes made by government,” he said,
(Prudhviraj Rupavath is researcher, land and forest governance, at Land Conflict Watch, an independent network of researchers studying land conflicts, climate change and natural resource governance in India.)