The relaxed norms for river sand-mining may kill the rivers of Kerala, besides reducing the availability of drinking water.
The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has done away with the norm of environment clearance for river sand-mining for sites below the extent of five hectares. Sites with a mining lease area between five hectares and 25 hectares would be appraised on the basis of a pre-feasibility report and an application in the prescribed format, it said.
The decision will have far-reaching consequences in Kerala, where rivers have been exploited to the hilt. As all sand-mining areas in Kerala are below five hectares, the new order would impact States such as Kerala most, according to those in the sector.
The MoEF order also suggests that mining should be done manually to a depth of five metres or water level, whichever is less. In case of mining near bridges or embankments, a safety zone should be marked where no mining would be permitted. The mining plan approved by an authorised agency of the State government will study the situation to show that the annual replenishment of sand in the mining lease area is sufficient to sustain the mining operations at levels prescribed in the mining plan, it said.
If the mining lease area is likely to result into a cluster situation or if the periphery of one lease area is less than one km from the periphery of another and the total lease area equals or exceeds 25 hectares, it should require environment impact assessment (EIA), the order said.
According to Harish Vasudevan, a specialist in environmental laws, the MoEF has negated the recent order of the Supreme Court and the National Green Tribunal which prescribed EIA for all such mining activities.
The tribunal has since August restrained mining or removal of sand from riverbeds without obtaining environmental clearance from the MoEF or the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) and licence from competent authorities, he said.
‘A joke of SC order’
The Ministry has made a joke of the Supreme Court order, which too has prescribed EIA for such activities. Though sand auditing for rivers was suggested in the State earlier, it has not been effectively carried out in the State, Mr. Vasudevan said.
A. Lata of the River Research Centre, Chalakudy, said the MoEF order has come at a time when environmentalists have been calling for sand-mining holidays for Kerala rivers. The rivers should be allowed to recover from the damage imparted by unregulated sand-mining, she said.
Environmentalists have been campaigning for sand auditing to find out the volume of sand that could be mined from the rivers. The new order would hasten the degradation of the river ecosystem and also worsen the drinking water availability in the State, Ms. Lata said.
N.K. Sukumaran Nair, general secretary, Pampa Parirakshana Samithi, said the order would bring in irrecoverable ecological damage to the State. Unregulated sand-mining has resulted in the lowering of riverbed and depletion of groundwater levels.
It has also led to saline water incursion in unprecedented areas.
The situation would turn worse if no check measures are put in place to protect the rivers, Mr. Nair said.
A member of the SEIAA, who wished not to be quoted, has shared the concerns expressed by environmentalists. With the order, the check measures, including public hearing and EIA, would have no meaning, he said.
No clearance needed for sites below five hectares
All sand-mining areas in State are below five hectares