Sand Mafias in India Disorganized crime in a growing economy

Why does an illicit market for sand exist in the first place?

Worldwide, sand is the second most exploited natural resource (water is the most consumed), and the most traded commodity by weight. Together with gravel, sand is the most heavily mined commodity, accounting collectively for 85 per cent of global mining activity. It is used in the production of concrete and cement for construction, as well as in glass, ceramics and electronic devices.

The demand for sand is expected to rise with world population. The United Nations estimated that, by 2030, the world will have 40 mega-cities (i.e. those with a population of 10 million inhabitants or more), as opposed to the 31 presently existing.

Urbanization will accelerate as young people migrate to towns in search of employment. While around 4 billion people now live in cities and towns, that number is projected to increase by 2.5 billion over the next three decades, imposing a massive strain on housing.

Demand for sand in India will continue to rise rapidly if efforts are made to follow through on wildly unrealistic government pledges to provide housing to all citizens by 2022.

It is estimated that 110 million housing units would have to be built by that time, including making up a shortage of 60 million units that existed as of 2014. 70% of this construction activity would be concentrated in 10 of India’s 29 provinces.

Not coincidentally, these are also provinces that are often mentioned in media reports on sand mining (see the map).

Map: India, showing provinces, and hubs reportedly associated with illegal sand mining

Attention on ‘sand mafias’ has increased since around 2013 to the present, partly because of increased coverage of the phenomenon in the Indian media.

What exactly led to the increase in sand-mafia activity is difficult to say. One possibility is that India’s economic boom years in the mid-2000s led to a surge in demand for housing and this, in turn, drove up the demand for sand.

In itself, extraction of sand for construction is not a severe problem, due to gradual natural replenishment of river beds and deltas. Rather, the issue is the scale at which it occurs. If supply is to meet demand, illicit mining is seen – at least by some – as a necessary evil.

By ‘illicit’, what is meant is extraction that is either unlicensed (i.e. illegal) or where the extraction process breaches restrictions provided by a mining licence issued by the authorities (i.e. extra-legal).

The increasing violence associated with both kinds of illicit sand mining now makes it a law-and-order threat.

Since the late 1990s, when Indian police cracked down on elements of the Mumbai mafia for supporting jihadist terrorism, ‘traditional’ extortion-based organized crime has been migrating to the real-estate market.

This has been the case in Mumbai, as well as other rapidly expanding cities, such as Bangalore. Hence, sand mafias are often connected with land mafias. Both are domestically oriented entities.

Only the ‘beach sand mafia’ deals routinely with overseas business partners and therefore represents a fusion of transnational and organized crime.

Land mafias do not smuggle a commodity, but seize well-located real estate from its original inhabitants or occupants.

Threats of violence are issued to coerce the inhabitants/occupants to vacate a property, so that it can be used for a lucrative construction project.

It is here that sand mafias come in, as suppliers of material needed for construction. Although no ethnographic studies are known to have been conducted, it is reasonable to hypothesize that both sand and land mafias recruit from a common demographic of low-level musclemen.

The special case of the beach sand mafia in Tamil Nadu

Across India, illicit sand mining from rivers and deltas is a free-for-all to make fast money, provided one is prepared to bribe some local officials and threaten or eliminate others, all the while facing down violent competitors.

Tamil Nadu Sand Mining 2018

Different dynamics operate with sand mining from beaches, where rare earths are extracted for export. Rare earths smuggled from Tamil Nadu are destined for foreign markets, primarily North America and Europe.

Among them is suspected to be monazite, a strategic mineral that is banned for export since it can be used to manufacture thorium for nuclear programmes.

Sand mafias in India, like organized-crime actors anywhere, invest in cultivating a political roof, which allows them to stay in business.

In India, the sand mafias are helped by two constitutional provisions. Under India’s federal system, the management of natural resources and the maintenance of public law and order are responsibilities of the provincial governments.

Certain mineral-rich states, like Odisha in the central-eastern part of the country, appear heavily controlled by an alleged politics–business alliance. For example, a 2009 media report found that government departments tasked to stop illegal iron-ore mining were chronically understaffed.

Photo: Iron Ore mining activity underway at one of the Mines in Barbil-Joda area of Odisha, India

In some cases, the mining activity is sustained by the groups’ capacity for violence. Thus, the Chambal River valley in Madhya Pradesh province, a region with a long history of rural banditry, has become one of the deadliest locations for sand mining.

The ‘mafia’ in this part of India is brazen because Madhya Pradesh is a political backwater where little attention is paid to open defiance of law-enforcement personnel.

Here, both of the two largest parties, the centre-right Bharatiya Janata Party and the centre-left Indian National Congress, are viewed by local NGOs as equally complicit in sand mining.

Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous province, and arguably its most important politically, has been the site of several murders purportedly connected to sand mining.

An under-resourced police force, coupled with a tradition of violent conflict between different castes and religious communities, provides a favourable backdrop for silencing witnesses.

In 2017, a local politician’s son was accused of burying alive two children who had stumbled upon an illicit sand-mining operation. Large-scale protests caused the police to register a case, but the family of the accused man alleged he was being scape-goated in a caste vendetta.

Rising sand prices are creating a chain of mafia-like violence, as career criminals first get drawn into ‘taxing’ the business and then fight to seize one another’s turfs.

The abundance of sand supply depresses profit margins and provides an incentive for government ministers to stay one step removed from the illicit extraction side of the business. Instead, they indirectly patronize it by maintaining close ties with their client base – the builders who purchase illegally and extra-legally mined sand.

Not coincidentally, these builders sit atop large construction companies that undertake infrastructure projects offering multiple opportunities for corruption.

In return for donations to political parties, the builders exploit their proximity to policymakers and thus deter law-enforcement personnel from pursuing them. In Karnataka, numerous complaints filed by village leaders have been ignored by local authorities.
According to one report, between 2015 and 2017 an average of 16 cases were registered daily by the province’s Department of Mines and Geology against sand miners. However, these were not followed up and witnesses were pressured to withdraw their statements.

Violence and intimidation in the illicit sand industry: ‘Disorganized crime’

There is no single ‘sand mafia’ in India, but rather a motley collection of actors who extract sand either illegally or extra-legally. As such, their methods of dealing with inquisitive government officials, troublesome villagers and environmental activists differ greatly.

Government officials have sometimes been moved for doing nothing more than implementing politicians’ own orders to restrict sand mining.

In one case in Madhya Pradesh, the government attempted to transfer a district administrator named Girish Sharma, who took rather too literally a formal directive to investigate illicit sand extraction.

He submitted a report that a state-owned company was using a private firm to conduct extra-legal mining. Opposition politicians seized upon the report, and the ruling party tried to bury the matter by dispatching Sharma to a new post. When he obtained a court order cancelling his transfer, the government divested him of responsibility for any further surveys of mining activity.

Image: ‎Girish Sharma Transferred from Sehore to Chhatarpur under Severe Pressure of Mine Mafias

Northern and central India have a more entrenched gun culture and tradition of violent – albeit mostly disorganized – criminality than the south.

As such, attacks on law enforcement are more common in those regions. There are multiple criminal interests who may wish to eliminate troublesome police officers.

In the Dhar and Dewar districts of Madhya Pradesh, illegal arms-manufacturing factories sell weapons to gangs both within and outside the province. Some of these firearms have appeared in neighbouring Rajasthan, emboldening local gangsters to seek out violent confrontations with the police and thereby build street credibility.

Photo: SHO Mukesh Kanungo's body in tricolour being taken away for cremation.

Sand mafias in Madhya Pradesh, as well as neighbouring Uttar Pradesh and Maharastra, have been brazen enough to burn investigative reporters to death.

Threats and violence are also used against local NGO workers who track patterns of illicit sand mining. The police in such cases do not seem to take victim complaints seriously, and sometimes pay greater heed to counter-complaints fabricated by sand-mining contractors.

A well-known activist from Mumbai, Sumaira Abdulali, has experienced such treatment from the authorities despite having been assaulted by members of a sand mafia.

Sumaira Abdulali

Although there is insufficient data to reach a definitive conclusion, from media reports it appears that hired hoodlums working for the sand-mining contractors routinely threaten and injure, but rarely kill, women. Those instances where a deliberate killing is suspected involve male journalists, farmers and activists. In this manner, the mafias try to avoid attracting the attention of women’s-rights groups.

Since the state apparatus is unlikely to do anything more than maintain discreet surveillance on politically connected gangs, it would be more productive to build community resilience from the bottom-up. Three measures could be taken in this regard.

  1. A website for tracking illicit sand mining, as well as other kinds of resource-related organized crime, could be set up and hosted by an Indian think-tank or journalism agency.
  2. Travel and research grants could be provided to investigative reporters to provide in-depth stories on organized crime.
  3. Rouse the Indian public from its general stupor, it may be useful to emphasize revenue losses that are caused by illegal and extra-legal sand mining.

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