River Reflections: Brahmaputra's Scowling Sky And Economy Of Sand
What happens when cities, such as Guwahati, grow with abandon, on the backs of a sand economy?
The scowling sky glowered at us over the sparkling green of the fields and the shining tin roofs of a village hamlet, which reflected a few beams of the sun. We were chugging our way along a stream of the Pagladiya river in Central Assam's Nalbari district, about two hours out of Guwahati, the bustling, overpowering, incredibly fast growing commercial and political capital of Assam--and to a large extent that of the entire northeast.
A storm is coming, I thought to myself, even as the sun came under shadow, the blistering heat under the tarpaulin eased and we breathed in relief.
We had just made it off the boat when the wind hit, squalling and bursting over the island, bending trees and making us scurry, faces covered for protection from the swirling dust, our pace slowed by the sandy track to our destination for the day--a primary school where a health camp was scheduled. A tractor with a trailer of sand driven by a young man in shorts rumbled by us.
We had barely got into the small building at Tilardia, its roof and walls made of tin sheets, when the storm slammed into the island. The children rushed under the desks, a fine exhibition of disaster preparedness, the sheets shuddered in the fierce gale, and water dripped from the roof on new books, the sole teacher at Tilardia L.P. School covered with a plastic sheet; the courtyard, dry a few moments back, turned into puddles of water.
But once the lashing of the rain eased, school resumed with children chanting their lessons. The health camp in a nearby building began smoothly with nurses and community workers as well as the ASHAs (Accredited Social Health Activists) mobilising the community and bringing order to the rush. Most of the attendees were women and children; infants got their first immunisation shots to the accompaniment of surprised painful squalls from the child and the mother's shushing to calm the irked creature. There were pregnancy check-ups and every single person who needed treatment for anaemia (a major problem in rural areas, especially the islands) and other ailments received medication. With quiet efficiency, the nurses checked those who came, entered their names on large registers, before sending them to the single doctor who treated 92 patients in barely two hours. The lab assistant checked blood and urine samples while the pharmacist doled out medicines, yelling out the name of the medication and the patient.
What impressed me hugely here, as in every sapori I had visited, was that the schools had filtration units for drinking water and functioning, clean toilets. I had to use the toilet here at the Tilardia school and did so with a mixture of foreboding and anticipation. I was again pleasantly surprised and much impressed with the high quality of cleanliness. Swachh Bharat in Assam truly has reached this remotest of hamlets, cut off from the mainland by the river, lack of communications and distance.
"I come here every day on my motorbike--the rural roads are very good--and have to take a ferry at one point," said Abdul Rahim, the solitary school teacher. There are 250 students in different classes and sections in Tilardia. "I like my work, it's challenging, I only wish we had more teachers."
A sand dumper at work in Dibrugarh
As we stepped onto the wet soil track to return to the boat, carefully avoiding puddles, freshly washed paddy fields and vegetable patches on either side greet us. It's then that I see the tractor and its trolley again with its young driver, trundling along. I also see a JCB [backhoe excavator, not necessarily of the eponymous company], its ubiquitous yellow, standing out in bright contrast against the glowing green.
What are these doing here, I wonder, to the village community worker standing nearby. They're building a road in the village. A road? Yes, an earth road for the village so that people can travel more easily. There are just two tractors, I'm told, and this JCB.
The bright yellow is visible long after we have left the island.
In districts across the state, the wealth, extent, job generation and power of the sand-driven economy is visible
In Dibrugarh and Dhemaji, Tinsukia and Lakhimpur as well as Nalbari, at Kukurmara, some 35 km from Guwahati, the wealth, extent, job generation and power of the sand-driven economy is visible. If not JCBs, tractor trolleys, dumpers and small trucks rattle and rumble along small roads and highways in these and, I am sure, in the districts I have not visited, carrying sand and silt drawn from the banks of the river, from designated spots approved by the forest department under whose purview such works lie. But there is also illegal extraction of soil, pebbles and rocks especially from river and stream beds. This in turn endangers people working in these spaces, as they get trapped or dragged into the pits in the river beds.
The soil is taken elsewhere. As sand is the most widely extracted material on earth, after water, it is critical in the construction of almost everything: houses to high rise office buildings, laying of railroads, setting up factories and roads, bridges and airports, markets and even beauty treatment. It is used for construction, for earth works, it's mixed with cement to fuel a new economy, bursting with energy and testosterone.
The silt is good for the home-grown, organic vegetables that are hawked on village roadside and city markets by local farmers and producers. Some of it can be used as a base for roads, as can sand. But some varieties of sand and silt aren't good for construction, don't mix well with concrete and lead to cracked walls and unsafe houses.
Young men are among the owners, drivers and workers here in these smaller townships and villages; the major projects are handled by larger, wealthier players whose connections are vast. The economy of sand is a worldwide phenomenon. In India it plays out in confrontations between those pressing for a green economy based on social capital and others determined to exploit resources. There are casualties too, in several states, with activists, journalists and others caught in the face-offs with accusations often tossed at political leaders, faceless officials from the bureaucracy, forest departments and local contractors.
I'm told that a single truckload can fetch the owner Rs 3,000. "Three truckloads and he's making more money than he would in a formal job," said one informant. That's good going for mid-sized towns where the markets are open and busy, there is a buzz about the harvest festival Bihu in the air and young men call out to each other cheerfully about grabbing a caseload of beer and meeting up at home late. It sounds like any other part of the country--or the world.
But soil excavated wrongly can damage both natural systems, harming the recharge capacity of aquifers, as well as human-designed interventions such as embankments. In Dibrugarh, water engineers are worried about the way private miners have been cutting away at sand stretches along the major embankment that protect part of the city near Maijan Ghat. This could weaken the base of the structure and enable water ingress when floods come.
"They're going about it completely the wrong way," said Kamal Gurung, a local businessman, as he watched trucks growl their way up the Maijan ghat bank to the road with their loads.
Some in Dibrugarh may recall the catastrophic incident of August 1950, when a massive earthquake measuring 8.6 on the Richter scale, flattened the city, ripped valleys apart, demolished hills and sent a high wave of deadly water hurtling through the valley. Parts of Dibrugarh were swallowed by the river, as was Sadiya and other towns and villages upstream. That was why the embankment was built as a fortification against the river to protect Dibrugarh. It is also too often taken for granted that the river at times, especially in high floods, may be flowing above the level of the city--kept at bay by the fortification of the 1950s.
It is that cataclysmic quake that changed the flow and shape of the Brahmaputra, as the seismic event pushed its bed upward, making it shallower. It is a challenge that continues to impact the river, even as sedimentation grows and the water levels get lower.
My friend, the economist and columnist Swaminathan A Aiyar, wrote in the Economic Times in 2013 "… an acute sand shortage has been created by licensing and environmental bottlenecks. So, mafia groups are mining river beds illegally across India. It's easy: one mechanical excavator can extract several truckloads of sand every night."
He added, "Sand helps retain monsoon water in river beds, releasing the water gradually in the dry season. Excessive mining endangers this.
"Central and state governments have detailed environmental rules for extraction, made even tougher by court interventions. Ideally, we should have environmentally safe mining that meets rising construction demand. Instead we have grossly insufficient legal mining, huge illegal mining, sand scarcity for construction, and big illegal profits split between the mafia and politicians."
Swami and I don't agree on some things but he does have a point--the lack of better mining laws that meet rising needs and aspirations. As recently as 2019, not less than 60 million tons of sand were used for urban purposes. As much as 515 million tonnes of sand (15 million in Assam) was consumed across the country in 2017. These figures would only have increased.
The Centre has tried to take steps to tackle the issue. Thus, in 2016, the Union Environment Ministry released the Sustainable Sand Mining Management Guidelines, which aim to "promote scientific mining of sand and encourage environmental friendly management practices". It recommends actions to be taken for sustainable sand extraction, emphasises monitoring and suggests that governments map the district-wise availability of sand.
In 2018, the Ministry of Mines released a 'Sand Mining Framework' to help states frame their sand policies.
According to one account, India is extracting sand faster than it can be replenished naturally. A 2019 UNEP report said that India and China had the most "critical hotspots" where sand extraction was affecting rivers, lakes and coastlines. This is most likely because of the construction boom in both countries, the report said.
Uncontrolled extraction also adversely affects oxygen content in the water, threatening the existence of fish and other species, especially the Gangetic dolphin which is the prime creature of the river and is India's national aquatic animal.
Swaminathan Aiyar's thoughts are relevant here: "One alternative is to crush boulders into gravel and sand, but the same environmental problems have hit stone quarrying. This sector is equally characterised by detailed rules and court curbs, a scarcity of gravel and sand, huge illegal mining, and a mafia-politician nexus."
Then come his punch lines: "We have enough outrage at illegal activity. We need more outrage about limitations on legal activity. It sounds progressive to demand environmental impact assessments for sand and rock mining in every deposit, regardless of size. But state governments have neither the money nor expertise. They sorely lack the staff and capacity to implement even existing rules and laws, let alone new ones. Heaping ever more responsibilities on them simply generates cynicism and corruption."
I would say that though this view is important, the state would also need to build capacity on all these fronts, rather than merely being a spectator. In January 2020, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change published 'Enforcement and Monitoring Guidelines for Sand Mining', to monitor sand right from the 'identification of sand mineral sources to its dispatch and end-use by consumers and the general public'. But the implementation of these leaves much to be desired, as seen in Assam and other parts of the country.
Meanwhile, trolleys, trucks, dumpers and earth movers trundle across the spanking new, fine slip roads, highways and rural lanes of Assam--and probably other states as well because the northeast is in a frenzy of construction and infrastructure making. A vibrant example is the stunning growth of Guwahati, commercial capital of Assam and the region. The burgeoning city, once a sleepy town, is expanding in every direction, including up. It appears as if every few days, a designer store, spanking new high-end restaurant, apparel store and even mall comes up. There are customers from the city, the state and across the region. People have money and are spending.
Guwahati (it's actually made up of two words--guwa, meaning areca nut, which Assamese and communities across the northeast relish chewing; and haat or market) faces the troubles as do all mid-sized urban bodies which are transitioning into the future--it suffers the aches and aims of a growing city, with unanticipated pressures caused by a surging population. Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Bengaluru, Kolkata--all large metros have issues of flooding. But Guwahati faces an additional challenge. When the Brahmaputra is in spate, the water from the channels and drains of this historic city (it was first settled over 1,000 years old) pushes back, instead of heading out into the river, causing more water logging and citizenry woes.
Recent heavy showers threw the bustling city out of gear for hours as commuters struggled with waist-high muddy and discoloured water in some neighbourhoods as drains and roads overflowed. One of the problems is the beels and water bodies of Guwahati, which have acted as storm water reservoirs, have been extensively built up on, despite objections from environmentalists and media. These natural shelters for excess water can no longer play their protective roles. There is periodic desilting and clearing of drains and beels, yet the hills around the city are encroached upon and streams have become clogged with muck.