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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- Travel and research grants could be provided to investigative reporters to provide in-depth stories on organized crime.
- 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.