New Delhi: A mining contractor has been found to have partially diverted the flow of the Yamuna river at the Haryana-Uttar Pradesh border in order to extract sand from the riverbed, putting the lives and livelihoods of nearby villagers at stake. An expert panel constituted by the National Green Tribunal has submitted a report on March 27, highlighting how the firm, which has a sand mining lease from the Haryana government, had constructed a dyke (bundh) across the Yamuna in Sonepat, thereby damaging the riverine ecology in the area.
As per the expert panel’s report, the dyke has now been demolished by the Haryana Irrigation Department to allow the natural flow of river water. The expert panel had been formed by the Principal Bench of the green tribunal upon a petition filed by a farmer and environmental activist from Tikola village – which abuts the Yamuna River – of Sonepat district . A penalty of Rs 1.64 crore on the sand mining contractor has been recommended by the panel for causing damage to the local ecology by violating the terms and conditions of its Environmental Clearance.
“The unit found to have violated the specific condition of sustainable mining and as mentioned at Sr. No. 17 of Environmental Clearance dated 22.03.2016 that ‘No stream should be diverted for the purpose of sand mining. No natural course and water resource are obstructed due to mining operation’ (sic),” the panel stated in its report.
The tribunal had ordered for a re-investigation of the petitioner’s allegations by the expert panel this year after an earlier field visit conducted during the monsoon months in the year 2020 had yielded no significant findings. Sand mining activities were suspended during the earlier field visit.
Locals in Tikola have alleged that apart from constructing the dyke, the firm has also dug a man-made pit in order to alter the flow of the river. The pit is nearly a kilometer long and several meters deep; it was dug in May last year.
“The Respondent No. 10 has been undertaking large scale illegal, unsustainable mining including diversion of river channel by digging a manmade pit of around 20 ft deep and 1 km length to aid its mining operations, which is clearly causing irreversible harm to the riverine ecology and the environment … it is believed that they continue to do illegal mining beyond the areas granted building a temporary bridge/bund which has led to complete diversion of river channel in the area (sic),” the petition before the tribunal stated.
It was alleged that by constructing the dam, partial flow of river water was being diverted across the inter-state border towards Uttar Pradesh in order to enable excavators and earth movers to extract sand with ease. As a result of the water diversion, farmers have alleged that underground water table in the region has reduced, thereby affecting agricultural activities.
A field visit to Tikola village was undertaken by the expert panel – comprising officials of the state mining, irrigation and pollution control departments – and a representative of the Central Pollution Control Board, on January 27.
“In the event of a flood, this dyke could have caused destruction in the nearby areas. The Haryana government has a policy in place called The Haryana Canal and Drainage Act, 1974, which prohibits causing obstruction to the natural flow of river water,” said Ashwani Phogat, Executive Officer, Haryana Department of Irrigation.
If diversion of river water is an illegal activity, how could a mining operator then construct a dyke in the middle of the Yamuna right under the nose of the local authorities?
As per the petition, the dyke was constructed by dumping mounds of sand in the month of May, 2020, when a nationwide lockdown had been in force on account of COVID-19. However, documents establish that the dyke had existed much before this period; a year earlier, that is.
On May 25, 2019, a First Information Report had been registered against the sand mining firm by the Sonepat district administration through a sub-divisional magistrate. The firm was booked by the Haryana Police in its FIR numbered 0180/2019 for allegedly violating provisions of The Haryana Canal and Drainage Act, 1974, in causing a diversion of river water by constructing a dyke. Though demolition orders were subsequently issued by the district administration of Sonepat, local officials allegedly took no action in the matter.
When questioned by Newsclick, Phogat said: “These mining operators construct dykes overnight. In the past too, we have detected and dismantled several illegal dykes on the riverbed.”
The report submitted to the NGT stated that the irrigation department had dismantled the dyke on October 23, 2020. However, members of the panel said a dyke was found during the field investigation.
“During our field visit, we found a dyke that was obstructing the natural flow of water. But we could not find the trench which is alleged to have been dug by the mining operator,” Bhupinder Singh Chahal, Regional Officer of Haryana State Pollution Control Board, told Newsclick, adding that “mining operations have at present been halted” in the area by the contractor.
Haryana Cabinet Minister Mool Chand Sharma had also reportedly undertaken a field visit to the area following which officials had been strictly directed to halt sand mining activities that were being undertaken on the Yamuna riverbed in an illegal manner. Instances of illegal mining on the Yamuna riverbed continue to be reported, particularly from Haryana, despite claims of strict vigilance by the Manoharlal Khattar-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state government.
Manoj Misra, the Convener of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan, a Delhi-based non-profit organisation working towards the conservation of the river, said that illegalities in sand mining lie in the manner in which terms and conditions imposed upon mining leaseholders in the lease agreement are executed.
“As per law, no sand mining activity can take place on the riverbed. No extraction can take place beyond a depth of three meters. Again, the use of heavy machinery in extracting sand is prohibited as per law. But more often than not, these conditions are violation due to collusion between local officials and local government officials,” said Misra, a retired Indian Forest Services officer.