Let Batha bring our bread
Villagers along the Assam-Meghalaya border are struggling against rampant illegal sand mining on River Batha to save their means of livelihood
Nearly a year ago, on January 7, 2015, a 21-year-old villager, Pradip Rabha, was buried alive by landslide triggered by erosion in River Batha, one of the many rivers that have entered Assam from Meghalaya.
In a State where river erosion is common, so much so that it even threatens to sink its cultural storehouse -- the Majuli Island, Rabha’s death may not count as significant. However, the reason behind the erosion of River Batha since the last few years needs to be looked at urgently. Simply because it’s solution seems to lie with the state Government.
Like many villagers living along the river, Rabha was a sand miner. They would go knee-deep into the river and pull out sand from the river bed and make a living by selling it to traders and others in the local market. However, since the last few years, when they would step into the river water, it would nearly come up to their neck.
The reason behind the abnormal rise of the river water at many places most likely is due to rampant mechanised sand mining taking place along Batha’s 3-km stretch. Sand sucking machines dig deeper into its bottom in search of the construction material in high demand, thereby disturbing its ecological balance.
The Union Ministry of Mines has classified sand as minor minerals under Mines and Mineral (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957,and mining it without Government approval is an illegal activity. The State Government, under the Assam Mining Mineral Concession Rule 2013, has given permission to four sandmahals (stretch from where sand is legally lifted) in Batha River under Loharghat Forest Range Office. Over the years, the Government reportedly terminated two mahals ---Batha 2 and Batha 5 -- for failing to deposit rent due to it, leaving two units operational. Four sand mining permits have also been issued.
However, the number of sand mining operators along the river is in two digits now along 3-km stretch of the upper reach, causing rampant mining of the mineral, illegally.
Besides changing the character of the river, the illegal activity is also threatening to take away the livelihood of many locals. Farmers are seeing “the river change, particularly since the last two years,” leading to erosion which regularly wipes away their standing crops along with the land. Local manual miners are increasingly finding themselves out of job against the might of machines. Also, their ponds and wells are increasingly going dry due to depletion of groundwater, a cause they link to rampant mechanised sand mining in the area.
On November, 11, people of 20 villages under the banner of Batha River Protection Samiti submitted a petition to the Kamrup district administration to stop illegal mechanised sand mining along River Batha. The villagers say this is their second petition to the District Administration (The first was to Seshan’s predecessor J Balaji). This time, if the administration fails to act, the petition warns, the villagers will take the issue into their hands. In the petition submitted on January 9, 2015, the villagers’ body have also demanded adequate compensation for those whose paddy farming and homestead garden have suffered loss due to erosion.
Two streams -- Khenakundi and Garokundi -- emerging from the hilly terrain of Meghalaya mingles at Betalanshi (Longshai), a border village, from where the course of the river flows taking the name Batha. After flowing about 50 km, the serpentine course of the river falls on Kolohi River at Kukurmara in Assam’s Kamrup district.The majority of the course of the river is flanked by agriculture land. As many as 50,000 people of the district are dependent on the river for farming.
After Rabha’s death, villagers met the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest demanding immediate halt of mechanised mining so that such deaths don’t recur. The Forest Department conducted a raid and seized eight suction machines from along the river, a small figure compared to the number that actually operates.
A walk along Batha can make one easily see the adverse effects of rampant sand extraction along the unauthorised sand storage zones by suction machines. On one such walk, this correspondent witnesses a sordid picture -- cropland being gobbled up by erosion, the river widening at some stretches and narrowing at some other, and civil structures like bridges and road facing threat. Says a tiller from Ouguri village, “Mechanised mining triggered erosion has gobbled up about four bigha of my farming land.”
Another villager shares his concern, “The river is our economic backbone which was feeding our agriculture land till two years ago. Erosion was foreign to the river. But rot has set in with the initiation of mechanised mining.”Yet another adds, “Mechanised mining is turning the river from a feeder to a zone of despair for farmers and manual miners.” As per agricultural experts, the water required to produce one kg of rice is 5,000 litre and 3168 litres for one kg of wheat, signifying how indispensable water is for food output.
Petitioners allege that unregulated rampant illegal sand mining have also led to depletion of the water table of the area.“Our farming has heavily suffered as moisture of the agriculture land is no more. Also, our ponds and wells are drying up,” says a farmer.
Public infrastructure like wooden and concreted bridges and roads arealso facing serious threat from the river erosion. A Government move was seen on this count in 2014. To protect the arterial, Guwahati-Chandubi road from erosion, the State Government had to announce a four crore anti-erosion scheme last year. Erosion has taken a serious turn particularly at Loharghat.
Besides the use of suction machines to extract sand from the river, mechanised mining operators are also affecting the livelihood of manual miners by reducing the cost of sand by Rs. 100 per cm. Traders have begun purchasing sand at the reduced cost leaving the manual miners high and dry.
“Most manual miners are women. This September, finding no way out, the shovel wielding women miners blocked the way to the mechanised mining sites,” some petitioners say. The villagers have also urged the Borduar Tea Estate to close all roads that pass through its land to the riverwhich are used by the operators. The 4-km stretch of the river from Garilik to Kalghar and from Kalghar to Bagan is flanked by the tea estate and agriculture land.
Villagers have also put up signs boards along the stretch against sand mining.
In spite of these desperate measures by the villagers to save the river and the means of livelihood it gives them, rampant mechanised mining continues in absence of concrete action from Forest Department.
( Kishore Talukdar is an independent journalist based in Guwahati. His areas of interest include Development journalism and Environment journalism. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org )