Yamuna riverbed mining rules tweaked in Himachal district despite guidelines
Structural changes to rivers due to mining of sand and aggregate apart from hydropower projects are harming the environment
Months before monsoon rains caused mayhem in several parts of Himachal Pradesh, the state government had sought modifications in granting forest clearance to mine minor minerals like boulders, stones and sand in a stretch of the Yamuna river flowing through Sirmaur, a southern district.
The HP state government referred the request of a license-holding mining company which sought to expand the mining capacity in the particular stretch of the river and reduce the prohibition period for mining during monsoon months, minutes of the forest advisory committee’s (FAC), affiliated to Union environment ministry, August 21 meeting show.
The FAC declined HP government’s request to expand the capacity in view of recent changes in the weather pattern and the flood situation in the state but, at the same time, agreed to reduce the ban on mining during monsoon months from “beginning of June to end of October each year” to months of “June to September each year.”
“The Government of Himachal Pradesh vide their letter dated 17.05.2023 has submitted the proposal for change in condition of Stage-II approval for diversion of 54.668 ha. of forest land under Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 for extraction of sand, stone and bajri from the bed of river Yamuna mining project by Randeep Singh, Mauza and Mohal Bhagani, District Sirmour,” the FAC minutes state.
The mining project in question was accorded stage 1 forest clearance for mining in 54.668 ha. of forest land in September 2020. The clearance was accorded on two conditions: Extraction of minor minerals had to be carried out manually. Further, heavy vehicles and heavy machinery were not to be used to extract and transport sand, stone and boulders from the riverbed. And, secondly, the minor minerals were to be extracted as per the district survey report (DSR) and the annual quantity extracted was not to exceed the average of extractions in the years of 2013-14 to 2015-16.
But since then, the project sought -- and received -- relaxations in mining norms through the HP government, documents show.
The first norm tweaked was on the use of heavy vehicles to extract and transport minerals.
The Union environment ministry accepted the request and reworded its first condition to: “Extraction of minor minerals shall be carried out manually. Further, the State Government shall ensure that there is no erosion and change in river course due to extraction/collection of sand, stone and Bajri from the riverbed. All Guidelines of Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change issued in respect of extraction/collection of sand, stone and Bajri from the riverbed shall also be followed.” It omitted the clause on use of heavy vehicles.
Thereafter, in November last year, the Ministry, accorded Stage-II approval to the project against certain conditions. It said: “The State Govt (HP) shall ensure that no extraction of material will be allowed from the riverbeds during the monsoon period i.e., from the beginning of June to end of October each year. 2.The State Govt. shall ensure that the extraction of minor minerals is as per DSR study report, and the annual quantity shall not exceed the average of extractions in the years of 2013-14 to 2015-16”.
But in April, the user agency through the state government sought to increase the mining capacity as per the DSR report. In 2015-16 the production from mining leases on Yamuna was 2,46,277 MT. But total mining potential is 16803612 MT according to DSR. The total length of Yamuna River in Himachal Pradesh is about 31 km, and the catchment of this area is approx. 270 sq km. There are 16 mining leases in operation in Giri river. Out of these, 7 leases have been granted for running stone crushers and nine for extraction of minor minerals for sale.
“Keeping in view recent changes in weather pattern and the flood situation in the state of Himachal Pradesh, the request of the State for modification in the condition no (vi) of the approval was not acceded to by the Committee. ,” the FAC decided in its meeting on August 21.
The Committee however decided to give HP government an exemption for mining in October.
Even as the proposal was being discussed, the state was ravaged by flash floods and mudslides this monsoon especially in July and August, which killed over 400 people.
Industries Minister Harshwardhan Chauhan said the state government as per the provisions contained in the Himachal Pradesh Minor Minerals (Concession) and (Prevention of Illegal Mining, Transportation and Storage) Rules, 2015 put many riverbed areas of District Sirmaur for auction to extract minor minerals sand, stone boulders and Bajri or gravel.
The auctions were held in 2015 and 2016. The highest bidders were awarded with Letter of Intents to obtain the requisite clearances such as forest and environment clearances, approval of mining plan etc.
In this case, a letter of intent (LoI) was issued in favour of Randeep Singh, a resident of Hanumangarh, Rajasthan who was the highest bidder with an annual amount of ₹5 crore. The annual bid amount is increased at the rate of 10% per year from second year onwards.
“As per the terms and conditions of auction, the successful bidder has to obtain all the clearances at his own level. Further, no such proposal for the enhancement of capacity or change in the condition of Forest Clearance has been sent by this department to MoEF & CC,” Singh said.
HT reported on May 10 that regardless of the change at the helm, police crackdown and heavy penalty, illegal sand mining goes on unabated in Himachal Pradesh. The riverbeds of the Sutlej, Yamuna, Beas, Ravi, Chakki and Swan rivers are illegal mining hotbeds
The FAC also considered HP’s application to divert 211.8427 ha. of forest land to construct the 500 MW Dugar Hyrdo Electric Project in favour of NHPC Ltd in Chamba.
The FAC has deferred the proposal, at least for now, and asked the project applicant to conduct a study of the proposed project area, impact of the proposed project and feasibility by a reputed Institute such as Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun; sought a detailed plan containing the details of muck generation and proposed utilization; a River basin Cumulative Impact Assessment and Carrying Capacity Study among others.
“One of the biggest issues being noticed now are structural changes to rivers due mining of sand and aggregate, apart from hydropower projects. The HP government has made several changes like allowing dredging and facilitating transit of minor minerals. This is of course to meet the massive demand from construction industry in neighbouring states,” said Manshi Asher, researcher and co-founder of Himdhara, which describes itself as a Himachal-based environment research and action collective.