Dwarki’s fish basket is barely filled to half, even after a long, hard day of work. A resident of Pichodi village in Badwani district of Madhya Pradesh, she makes a living by selling the fish that she catches every day in the river Narmada.
“These days, big fish are not found in the Narmada river. The overall fish population has also gone down significantly, threatening the very source of our livelihood. It has now become difficult to run a household relying on fishing income.”
Dwarki’s family has been fishing in the Narmada for generations. Talking about old times, she says, “Until 15 years ago, we used to get good income from fishing and live comfortably. Earnings from the river were enough to spend on marriages and also some extra expenses at times.
There was so much work, especially from December to March, that we would live on the banks of the river to fish. In those days, even taking a break from fishing and visiting home was difficult.”
The drastic change in Dwarki’s life tells the story of the exploitation of the river Narmada.
Sand mining destroys the many aquatic animals that these birds prey upon. It also reduces the safe shelter for birds and their hatchlings.
Mohammed Khaliq, ornithologist, Bhopal Birds Conservation Society
She tells Mongabay-India, that apart from catching fish, she would cultivate watermelons on the sandbanks of Narmada. But now because of rampant mining, even that source of income has been destroyed.
The erosion in the river ecosystem has adversely impacted the flora and fauna of the region.
Jitendra Manjhi, also a resident of Badwani district, says that the last few years have been witness to major changes in the river. A common sight in the past, the mahseer fish is now rarely found in the river. The mahseer, often referred to as the “queen of the river” because of its colour or the “tiger of the river” because of its size, is among the big fishes found in the Narmada. Mahseer are large-bodied fish, with an average weight of 20 kgs and have reached weights greater than 50 kg and lengths of over 200 centimetres.
The mahseer has been declared as endangered by the Madhya Pradesh Biodiversity Board. The big fish species has also been placed second in the list of 15 endangered fishes of the state. It was granted the status of ‘State Fish” in 2011 due to conservation efforts taken by the board.
Researcher Sriparna Saxena told Mongabay India that over five decades, between 1963 and 2015, mahseer population went down by 76 per cent.
Saxena, who is conducting a research on conservation and artificial breeding of mahseer in collaboration with the government of Madhya Pradesh, says that at one point Narmada used to have 30 per cent of the mahseer fish population. It has now drastically come down to less than 1 per cent. “The mahseer is a clear water fish, which likes flowing water. Due to the dam and opaqueness of water, Narmada is no longer conducive to the breeding of mahseer, causing a rapid decline in its population.”
According to the Narmada Valley Development Authority, around 40 to 60 kg fish is produced per hectare in the Narmada. As per records maintained by the Madhya Pradesh Fisheries Department, 46 fish species are found in the Narmada. However, it’s not just mahseer that is facing the brunt of ecological changes caused by reckless mining; several other species are also dealing with the threat of extinction and fish species native to the Narmada such as kamankar, ghoghara and gurmuch have also become a rare sight.
Majhi, a fisherman by profession, testifies about the changing ecosystem around the river. He says that until a few years ago, flocks of cranes and herons were regularly seen on the banks of the river. Now these have become a rare sight. A bird named titahri (sandpiper) which was common here is also hardly seen these days.
However, there have been some new sightings in the region. Various types of jalmurgi, which is the common moorhen or water hen (Gallinula chloropus) have been seen around the river. But locals point out that this bird species signal towards the poor quality of water in the Narmada.
Bhopal-based ornithologist Mohammed Khaliq says that like every other creature, birds also need food and safe shelter to flourish and procreate. “Sand mining destroys the many aquatic animals that these birds prey upon. It also reduces the safe shelter for birds and their hatchlings, affecting their very survival,” he adds.
How sand mining is disrupting the natural flow of the river
Talking to Mongabay-India, Medha Patkar, leader of the Save Narmada Movement, underlines the fact that mining threatens the very existence of a river. “Every river has its own ecology where fish, aquatic animals and other creatures that are dependent on these waters live.”
Social worker Vinayak Parihar adds, “Due to sand mining, all tributaries of the Narmada have been turned into rivers that solely depend on rainwater. Tributaries like Dudhi, Tawa and Karjan are drying up due to mining and encroachment. “The day is not far when the Narmada will also meet the same fate.
He further says that rainwater or groundwater needs sand to join the flow of the river. “Sand mining has destroyed this process, adversely impacting the flow of the Narmada.”
Projects such as big dams, hydroelectric power plants, barrages etc. are considered major contributors in destroying the river ecology. There are as many as 281 small and big dams, and six hydroelectric projects built on the Narmada.
A study conducted in collaboration with the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) revealed that sand mining should also be listed as a major factor.
The study suggests that sand mining depletes the natural habitats of plants, fish, turtles, crocodiles and other mammals. This also means lesser breeding sights for such creatures. The removal of sand and gravel pollutes the river water and increases its temperature, which leads to reduced oxygen levels in the water.
The study also suggests that the impact of in-stream mining, which means the extraction of sand from the middle of the river, has a major impact on the flora and fauna. In addition, floodplain or terrace mining indirectly affects the river ecology by accumulating silt in the river.
Sand mining in Badwani and Dhar districts
Even as Dwarki and others like her face a major threat to their livelihood due to their dependence on fishing, illegal sand miners continue to make huge profits.
Standing on an elevated landmass on the banks of Narmada, Bachhuram, a member of the Sardar Sarovar Displaced Fish Association, points toward a small sand island in the river. He says that the land where he stands earlier extended till the island located in the middle of the river.
“But the sand mafia has extracted all the sand in between. This small land too was saved some time ago when activists of the Save Narmada Movement caught hold of 150 tractors laden with illegal sand and handed them over to the police.” Bachhuram alleges that due to his role in anti-mining activities in the Narmada, he was attacked by angry sand mafia members.
Mukesh Bhagoria, who has been campaigning for the same cause under the Save Narmada Movement, points out that illegal sand mining continues at a very large scale in Badwani and Dhar districts.
“According to a study conducted by us in collaboration with activists and the locals over the past two years, more than 6000 tonnes of sand has been illegally extracted from river Narmada around the Barwani and Dhar districts,” he adds. The study conducted by the Narmada Bachao Andolan has revealed crucial figures that are based on inputs from locals and people working at sand quarries.
Sand mining is done on a large scale in Avalda, Chhipkhedi, Baguda, Khedi, Piplud, Utavad, ChhotaBarda and Pichodi in Barwani district, and Lasangaon, Balwara, Pipalda Gadi, Nimola, Dharampuri, Gulati, Khujwa, Man Narmada Sangam, Ratwa, Bada Badda and Perkhard in Dhar district.
Pawan Solanki a resident of Barwani tells Mongabay-India that miners are using all sorts of modern and heavy equipment such as Poclain, JCB and compressor machines with large dumpers, trucks and tractors for this purpose. On some occasions, villagers have also helped police confiscate the machinery, but those involved in illegal sand mining remain undeterred.
How successful is the administration in stopping the sand mining?
On May 6, 2015, the Jabalpur High Court, while hearing the writ petition of Narmada Bachao Andolan leader Medha Patkar vs Government of Madhya Pradesh, had given a decision to ban sand mining in the area surrounding the Sardar Sarovar Dam. Nearly two years later, on May 30, 2017, NGT Bhopal, while hearing Patkar’s petition, gave a verdict to ban sand mining in the submergence area of the Sardar Sarovar Dam.
Talking about the mining activities in the region, Medha Patkar says, “With the help of big machines, sand is removed from the depths of the river, due to which 50 ft-deep ditches have been formed on the riverbed. Due to these reasons, the Narmada river was completely dried up around Barwani in 2016-2017 and people started crossing it on foot.”
She further states that the Supreme Court in its judgment dated February 27, 2012, Deepak Kumar vs State of Haryana, held that sand mining causes great damage to the river.
Environmentalist and river expert K.G. Vyas validates the claim by saying that one has to first understand that a river is not just the water flowing in it but the entirety of life that survives inside it. “An imbalance in any of these components is detrimental for the river,” he says, adding that the Narmada is far from what it used to be 50-60 years ago.
Sand mining has caused great damage to the river. Sand, while maintaining the flow of water in the river, also allows some part of the water to flow parallel to the river. The purpose of sand is also to balance the river with the flow. Besides this, many aquatic organisms live in sand, which is part of the food chain of the fauna dependent on the river as well as the creatures that prey on these living organisms from outside the river. Together, they all work to keep the river clean.
As soon as sand is removed from a river, there is huge water wastage. This has a serious effect on the river flow as well as on the organisms dependent on the sand, which results in destruction of the whole river ecosystem, threatening the very existence of the river.
K.G. Vyas suggests a solution to this problem. He maintains that along with exploring alternatives to sand, the government should take initiatives on the lines of the forest department, wherein the mining department can take the responsibility of extracting sand from the river in a scientific and responsible manner, so that the river and the flora and fauna dependent on the river are not harmed.
He also suggests that the mining department can make its own sand depot and sell it. “Illegal sand mining can also be stopped by creating separate checkpoints. Apart from protecting the river from getting destroyed, these steps will also help the government in getting full revenue,” he adds.
This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.