Heavy extraction of natural resources such as sand, stones, pebbles and timber among others by traders, big and small, is increasing at several places in Manipur, with the increase in construction work brought about modernisation, expansion of urbanisation and development of human settlement and township over the years. The Wangjing- Heirok riverbed in Thoubal district has now become a hub for illegal mining of sand and pebbles, say local residents. Owing to the unchecked and unabated illegal mining in the area, the riverbed of Wangjing-Heirok is diminishing. And the river is vanishing.
According to the people living in the Wangjing- Heirok area, with no one to check and put a halt to the illegal activities, people from nearby villages can be seen carrying away stones and sand from the riverbed every day. They said that those stones and sand are further sold at different construction sites. Heavily loaded vehicles, trucks, excavator machines are driving down the riverbed and vast illegal mining goes on unabated for several years. The villagers expressed fear of losing the Heirok river due to illegal mining and its disastrous impact on the ecosystem of the place.
“The National Green Tribunal (NGT) listed Heirok river under the list of most polluted rivers, but no action has been taken so far by the concerned authority,” said Sintha Laishram, a resident. He said vehicles are commonly used for mining activities. Now, mules are also being used to ferry stones and sand.
“The illegal activity begins as early as 3 am. Many locals of the area are also involved in such illegal mining for their livelihood. However, illegal mining must be stopped before the river dries up and a natural calamity knocks at our doors,” he said.
Rampant sand mining at Wangjing- Heirok riverbed in Thoubal district (Photo: Babie Shirin_IFP)
Another local, who declined to reveal her name, said that people involved in mining have dug up four-five feet pit into the riverbed to extract sands and stones. Women workers are also involved in the illegal mining activities at the riverbed. Over the years, the number of workers seen at the site of the mining has increased, he said.
Following the information, this Imphal Free Press reporter recently visited the Heirok-Wangjing river. The river is located in the foothills of a small hill range. The villagers call it Machi hill range. The hill was totally deforested and there were no springs. The springs have vanished.
Many people, particularly women, could be seen mining the sand inside the riverbed. They were digging for sand and making pot-holes inside the river. The river was dried up. Water could be seen only in pot-holes.
When this reporter approached the group of men and women who were mining the sand at the Heirok-Wangjing riverbed and asked about the river water, they said that only during the rainy months, there is water in the river and at other times there is no water. They also said that the river water that flows during the rainy season will carry down the sand and all pot-holes will be filled up with sand again.
When asked about their labour charge, they said that per-day they earn about Rs 750 in one heap of sand. It depends on how much they can mine. Now, due to lack of rain and no water flow in the river, the sands are becoming limited, they added.
River water pollution
Apart from rampant illegal mining, the pollution level of the Heirok-Wangjing river water has reached a precarious level. It has become a matter of big concern for NGT. The river was listed among the nine most polluted rivers in Manipur as per the NGT list in 2018.
Villagers living near the river areas have been disposing of all kinds of wastes on the banks of the river. The river has become a dumping place for other waste materials which is one of the main reasons for polluting the water. Stone quarrying and sand mining in the river has added to the pollution and destroying the river.
Sintha Laishram said that the water from the river was used by villagers settled on both sides for drinking and domestic purposes. For drinking purposes, small wells were dug and after the sedimentation of particles, the clean water on top is used. The process of obtaining clean water is still being continued in some parts of the river.
In the absence of law enforcement to check dumping of waste and illegal sand and stone mining, environmental damage to the river ecosystem is increasing.
The mining trails
The Wangjing-Heirok river originates from Gomi village of Chandel district. The size of the river is not big and except during the rainy season, its flow is gentle. About 40 per cent of the total stretch of the river (27.18 km) is in the upper catchment of hilly region up to Wangjing, and then it flows towards south-west direction and passes through Tentha village before entering into Kharungpat Lake. The Wangjing River flows towards West via Heirok and Wangjing before joining the Loushi Pat.
The quarrying activity can be seen almost all through the stretch of the Heirok river, extending about seven km in the hilly part and another seven km in the valley area. Mostly quarrying is done manually along the stretches of the stream in the valley region, according to the district survey report of Thoubal district. With the advent of cheap and faster means of road transport, the river no longer serves as routes of transportation of goods. Still, they provide good building materials in the form of sand, pebbles and boulders and a means of livelihood for a large number of people inhabiting along their courses, the survey report added.
It may also be pointed out that the riverbed mining is being conducted in the most unscientific manner. River sand is preferred for construction because it requires less processing and has better quality than other sources. But it comes at a huge cost to the river and those living around it. Excessive sand mining can alter the river bed, force the river to change course, erode banks and lead to flooding. It also destroys the habitat of aquatic animals and micro-organisms besides affecting groundwater recharge.
River systems comprise not just the water flowing in it, but also the sediment, the silt, sand, gravel, cobbles, and boulders that flow with the river and are deposited along the river bed and banks. Moving the sediments, the rivers maintain a diversity of habitats upon which the river’s living organisms depend. Aquatic insects and algae are the main sources of food for the fish that breed and live in cobbles; the cobbles and boulders provide refuge for fish in winters and in floods and protect the young and smaller fish from predators.
However, sand is also essential for a river. Sand regulates the flow of a river, floodplains store water, recharge ground water, filter pollutants, and allow aquatic life to thrive. When sand is taken out, water tables sink, rivers dry up, change course, banks collapse, floodplains get pitted with ponds, silt chokes rivers, vegetation and habitats get destroyed, dust pollution kicks in.
The Thoubal district report mentioned that the Imphal river and the Thoubal river are the most significant rivers that flow through the district. The Thoubal River originates from the hill ranges of Ukhrul and is an important tributary of Imphal River. It passes through Yairipok and Thoubal before joining the Imphal River at Irong near Mayang Imphal. The Imphal River originates from the hills of Senapati district and flows southwards. It forms the northern and western boundaries of Thoubal district.
Wangjing, Arong and Sekmai are other rivers found in the district. These rivers originate from the hills of Ukhrul district.
The Arong River flows through Charangpat and Khangabok and falls into Kharung Pat. The Wangjing River flows towards west via Heirok and Wangjing before joining the Loushi Pat. The Heirok or Wangjing river starts from the Nungtek village (1,638 m) of Chandel district and flows north-westwards. After flowing for about 20 km up to Wangjing Bazar (Nagar Panchayat), its name changes as Wangjing river. Before falling into the Kharung Pat in Loktak Lake, it drains Wangjing village, Sangai Yumpham and Tentha Khunou villages for about 10 km long.
The Sangmai river rises from the hills of Chandel district and flows north-westwards and falls into the Wangjing river at Tentha Khunou village. The Sekmai river rises from the Mount Sita Chingjao (1,597 m) and flows westwards and after flowing for about 42 km long it falls into the Manipur River at Sekmaijin village.
Wangjing- Heirok riverbed in Thoubal district (Photo: Babie Shirin_IFP)
The Hiranmai river drains out the excess water from Lamjao Pat and Pumlen Pat, flows northwards and joins with the Sekmai river at Wabagai village. The Sitalok river rises from the hills of Chandel (height about1,472 m above the MSL) and flows westwards upto Kakching Khunou Nagar Panchayat. It then turns southwards and falls into the Manipur river at Chairen village.
The Teralok river starts from the height of about 1,359 m and flows westwards for about 10 km and turns southwards for about 5 km and falls into the Manipur river at Nungu village. Some small streams like Lohilok etc., rising in the hills of Chandel district, are also flowing westwards in the district. The Manipur river forms the district boundary with Imphal West, Bishnupur and Churachandpur districts. It rises from the Lakhamai village of Senapati district and flows southwards and falls into the Chindwin river of Myanmar (Burma) as Myitha river at Kalewa.
Riverbed mining is a major form of sand extraction. According to a report by the Geological Survey of India, not only does it threaten the health and biodiversity of river systems, unchecked riverbed mining as it currently happens in India, has the potential to lead to the depletion of groundwater resources, causing severe scarcity of river water, affecting irrigation and potable water availability all across the country.
Unfortunately, despite these dire warnings, many of India’s rivers, such as the Sutlej, Baes, Ganga, Yamuna, Narmada, and Cauvery etc. are exploited unceasingly for river-bed sand and it is continuing in Manipur at several rivers of the state.
However, it has been noted that mining operations in the blocks recently allotted to non-local contractors are already underway even before obtaining environmental clearances. According to residents of Heirok, heavy extraction vehicles have been deployed in the riverbed of Wangjing-Heirok river.
These illegal mining operations are being reportedly conducted under the nose of the district administration without EC [environmental clearance]. Consequently, manual extraction of riverbed materials has been a predominant occupation in these areas for generations and continues to be the primary source of livelihood for many families even today.
State lacks record on riverbeds
According to the state Directorate of Environment and Climate Change, Manipur has no record of the status of sand sources in a district. There is no estimate of permissible volume that can be extracted from a river, upstream or downstream, or height of a riverbed below which mining cannot occur; no bar on harmful extraction methods, depth of mining or minimising harmful effects; no long-term monitoring programme or annual status reports; no mandate on reclamation of river banks and beds. And, more than anything, there is no effort to move towards sand substitutes: quarry dust, incinerator ash, desert sand, manufactured sand, waste from steel industry and thermal power plants etc.
“There is a need to strike a balance between the sand deposition through natural processes and extraction through mining. Indiscriminate mining focuses on extracting the maximum sand and stone. This is not only affecting the river water flow but also the entire river ecology,” joint director of the directorate of environment, T Brajakumar, told the Imphal Free Press.
Need for regulation
The environmentalist said it is clear that sand mining needs to be regulated. The Environment (Protection) Act and Rules, 1986 were enacted and came into force on November 19, 1986.
The Union Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) Ministry had issued various notifications to regulate mining of minor minerals, stating required procedures under provisions of the Act and Rules of 1986. A Committee headed by the Secretary MoEFCC was set up in 2010 to observe the impact of sand mining and prepare a report. In the report it was observed that many states did not specify the period and permissible area for mining in the Rules. Hence, the Committee recommended the minimum period for mining to five years and size of mine lease to 5 hectares.
However, many states have not made any sustainable, eco-friendly mining plans. On different occasions, the Supreme Court of India and the National Green Tribunal passed orders banning sand mining in riverbeds. The Supreme Court in 2012 ruled that sand miners must seek permission from the Environment Ministry. However, it is felt that such a ruling would not stop illegal mining; rather it would add one more layer of corrupt practice.
In Manipur, river sand mining poses a major threat to river biodiversity. Increased mining has impacted the entire ecosystem adversely. Sand and stone mining is increasing despite policies being in place. Open violation of environmental norms is a big challenge.
Till today, there is no process in place to check the volume of sand mined from a particular river. Rules and regulations should be properly implemented through community participation. Community awareness and political determination on protection of biodiversity and environment is the need of the hour to check the increasing illegal mining, to prevent the disastrous impact of random mining on the natural ecosystem of a place.