In the Vasai Creek near Mumbai, lack of alternative livelihood and employment opportunities pushes local and migrant labor to work in illegal sand mining operations which pose a great threat to their life. Many officially unreported deaths by drowning and burial under sand have been reported in the Vasai creek near Mumbai where illegal sand dredging operations continue despite official bans. The construction boom in India has generated demand for sand which is often illegally mined from river beds, beaches, and marine floorbeds. In the case of Mumbai, one of the largest operations have been detected in the Vasai creek which is one of the two main distributaries of the Ulhas river (Srivastava, 2018).
Workers are largely a combination of local rural people and migrant laborers. Traditional fishing communities no longer have access to sufficient fishstock due to the pollution of Vasai creek due to industrial effluents and other chemical wastes which are directly disposed of into the creek (Rawat, 2019). Migrant labor largely from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and other states, who are in search of employment not available in their local regions are the other major section of sand miners in this region (Srivastava, 2018; Shantha, 2018).
In the Vasai creek sand mining is largely manual in nature, with very few extractive agents using suction pumps. Whereas the use of suction pumps has a much higher negative impact in terms of environmental implications, due to the ability to extract much larger quantities of sand much easily, manual sand mining in this region has had very serious negative impacts on the lives of miners.
Illegal dredging of sand in the Vasai creek is often done manually, with miners given no access to any protective gear or any safety nets as they dive to the bottom of the creek. The process of dredging sand involves unprotected free diving by people up to 12 meters (40 feet) into the creek and collection of sand from the floor of the creek using buckets (Srivastava, 2018; Rawat, 2019). The boats which carry the labor are equipped with a single iron rod which is extended into the floor of the creek and is held onto by divers with one hand as they descend into the dark waters with a bucket for sand collection in the other hand. During a regular 6 hour working shift, depending upon the speeds of individual divers, 200-300 trips are made to the bed of the creek with divers coming up for air for 30-40 seconds before going back into the waters (Srivastava, 2017; Srivastava, 2018; Shantha, 2018).
The creek is filled with murky waters which include toxic waste such as industrial effluents and untreated chemicals. In an interview to the Thomas Reuters Foundation which did a ground report from Vasai Creek, one such laborer is quoted as expressing the impacts that the activity has had on his physical body, and his economic desperation by stating: “My ears and nose bleed all the time…But where can I find more work?” (Srivastava, 2018). Apart from miners suffering from physical problems, one of the largest issues associated with this form of sand dredging is death of divers.
Miners speak of death as a being very common occurrence in the sand dredging industry. Two main reasons for the death of divers can be identified—by drowning off in undercurrents, and by burial under sand dunes. In the first case, given that miners dive into the creek only holding onto an iron rod for support with one hand and using their other hand to scoop sand into a buckets, if there are strong underwater currents, divers can simply get swept away. In the second case, death of divers is due to burial under underwater dunes. Divers say that the creek floor bed has uneven dunes which can measure up to 1.5-2 meters. Scooping out of sand from these dunes, loosens the structure of the dunes. In such case if a miner loses balance or is unable to get away, he can be buried within a collapsed or collapsing sand dune. Essentially, if a miner loses his grip on this metal rod, and if there is an undercurrent he could be swept away along with it, if there is a dune collapse he could get buried under the sand with no means of being able to get back out of the river. One sand miner has described this process by saying: “I never lose my grip on the metal rod. If I lose my balance, I am gone… It is pitch dark under the water. I just feel a wall of sand. I have to dig my feet in it, balance myself and push the bucket into it to fill it” (Srivastava, 2017). Another diver is quoted as informing a reporter from the Wire: “Once you go in, you cannot see anything. The water is black and gets darker as you go deeper. I have to hold my breath for nearly 45-50 seconds and shut my eyes tight each time I plunge into the water, and just pray I don’t get stuck at the bottom” (Shantha, 2018).
Divers claim that often, bodies either simply disappear, or are found days, weeks or even months later and are unidentified. Although there are no registered cases of deaths due to sand mining and local police denies any such occurrences, speaking to local miners indicates that drowning death are in fact a common occurrence, with varying numbers emerging from discussions with miners. One miner states: “There have been so many times when I have gone down for sand and touched a body” (Srivastava, 2017).
According to the Reuters report, in the Vasai Creek region close to 75,000 people were found to be employed as daily wage illegal workers in order to dredge sand from the creek floor bed (Rawat, 2019; Srivastava, 2017; Srivastava, 2018). Miners here has been found to include underage labor of 10-13 years old. The main reason why people take up such risky work is due to lack of alternative employment opportunities and because the pay is significantly higher than they would be able to earn as daily wage laborers in other industries. As per the ground report, laborers earned up 1200 rs a day or 15$ for this high-risk activity, which is much higher than the average daily wage rate of 270 in India (Srivastava, 2017; Srivastava, 2018). At the average rate of 1200 Rs a day, and with 21-22 days of work, a diver can earn around 25,000Rs per month.
The Wire report reveals that the iron buckets that are used for dredging sand—each of which can hold up to an average of 30-35 kgs of sand must be filled up to at least 1/3rd during every dive. The report suggests that each boat can carry between 7200-750 kgs of sand must be filled on a daily basis. This requires two divers and ten support workers in shifts of 8-10 hours. Based upon lunar tides, overall, each team works continually for nine day stretches and then gets a three day break before repeating the 9 day cycle. As such, if a diver is continually employed for the entire stretch of the month, he can obtain 21-22 days of work (Shantha, 2018).
The sand dredged in the Vasai Creek is used mainly in the construction industry in Mumbai and in nearby urban agglomerations. with increasing demands of sand the working shifts of divers has been increasing. In recent years, some have claimed to be working upto 12 hours a day. With increasing sand mining, the depths of the creek flor have also been increasing, putting miners at increasing risks, increasing the time per diver, and increase the physical pressures that divers are exposed to per dive.
Despite the report by Reuters regarding the deaths of diver, local authorities continue to deny any such events. When questioned, the Confederation of Real Estate Developers’ Associations of India (CREDAI), simply denied that manual mining takes place in the region (Srivastava, 2017). Further, a local sand mining association called Bhiwandi Taluka Reti Utpadak Sanghatna-- an association of sand businessmen in Thane, dismissed the presence of any risks associated with the activity even if was going on. Expressing blatant disregard, and a condescending attitude towards the high risks associated with the job, the lack of any protective gear or safety nets, and the many deaths reported, the head of the Sangathan, Bhagirath Ramchandra Mhatre has been quoted as stating: “This work has been going on for over 150 years. This is traditional work and is good physical exercise for those who do it…There are no grievances, no pain in this work . . . They are like fish under water” (Srivastavsa, 2017). He goes on to state that workers themselves are reluctant to wear gloves or masks as they find it uncomfortable.
Various actions have been taken by the national and state authorities against sand mining in the region. In 2014, the National Green Tribunal (NGT), after receiving many complaints against illegal sand mining operations, officially imposed a ban on sand mining in Maharashtra. However, illegal mining operations continue for several years after. Eventually given public pressure, sand mining has been curtailed to a certain degree, but operations still continue. Moreover, following the report on the deaths of divers by the Reuters Foundation the deputy commissioner of the revenue department of Maharashtra state, Mr. Siddharam Salimath took action to inform the district heads of Thane (city) and Palghar district to provide miners with alternative livelihood generation options and alternative employment in their districts. Further actions taken on paper by the government were to ask the district heads (who are responsible for regulating mining in India) to include sand miners in existing village health camps and skill development programmers. The government also said that they would ensure that miners be given identity cards which would allow them to access benefits of welfare schemes of the state government. Further, the Maharashtra Maritime Board proposed that in order to regulate operations and in an attempt to reduce illegal operations it would auction sand along Vasai Creek this year. The reduction of illegal sand mining, and regulation of existing mining, it said would result in better protection of workers since auction-holders could then be directly held accountable for any harm to workers, and put the onus of responsibility of safety of workers and precautionary measures on the shoulders of auction-holder. However, it is not known how effectively these regulations will be implemented on the ground and whether there are any relevant positive impacts of these new regulations (Dailyhunt; Rawat, 2019).
Although regulations were imposed and sand mining has been contained to a certain degree, illegal operations still continue (Khan, 2018; The Asian Age, 2019), and reports suggest that there has not been any actual provision of alternate jobs which means that people continue to work in these illegal sand dredging operations out of desperation.