How Karnataka's sand mafia is spreading its tentacles with political patronage
The recent shocking murder of a police constable Mayur Chouhan (51), who was mowed down by a tractor, even as he was trying to stop illegal sand transportation in Nelogi in Kalaburgi district, has brought Karnataka’s notorious sand mafia under the spotlight once more.
This gruesome attack in a district 580 km away from Bengaluru, however, is not a rare and one-off incident in the area. Earlier, there have been several similar attacks on the police and other officials involved in trying to prevent the illegal transportation of sand, said police officials. But, most of these cases were not even reported.
According to police records, there have been 313 cases of illegal smuggling of sand this year since April 2022 and 24 attacks or threats to officials working against sand smuggling.
An official in the Karnataka State Crime Records Bureau told The Federal that in many cases, no FIRs are registered, and Station House Officers just acknowledge the complaint. He said FIRs have to be compulsorily filed and the home ministry has to take cognisance of these crimes.
Today, the truth is that the sand mafia in Karnataka is growing from strength to strength. Its unchecked power stems from the fact that it has politicians from the gram panchayat level to MLAs in its pocket, said government officials, adding that it is a well-known fact that prominent politicians are behind the sand mafia.
Local leaders of all political parties ‘share’ the sand reserves equally with the mafia and are engaged in doing business with them. Politicians, businessmen and government all play along with the mafia allowing them to function freely, pointed out officials.
Areas where sand mining continues unabated
Illegal sand mining continues unabated on the banks of rivers Cauvery, Hemavati, Tungabhadra, Krishna, Bhima, Ghataprabha, Vedavati, Netravati and wherever sand is available near other rivers. Sand is available in more than 650 rivers and canals in the state.
The state’s mining policy has, however, identified natural sand deposits in the state, which can be legally mined. 251 have been auctioned and the remaining 102 deposits are proposed to be handed over to state-owned Hatti Gold Mines (HGML) and Karnataka State Mineral Corporation (KSMC – erstwhile MML) for supply to consumers. Besides, sand deposits, four each in Udupi and Mangalore, and one each in Koppal and Raichur districts have recently been identified.
The extent of sand mining in the state
An official in the state mining, geology and earth sciences department, who prefers to be anonymous, said that it is estimated that more than ₹30,000 crore worth transactions with sand are happening in the state. However, only ₹110 crore is coming to the state government coffers in the name of royalties and duties through the department of mines and earth sciences.
Seventy-five per cent of these financial transactions are conducted through illegal channels. The profits are being shared among the politicians, bureaucrats and underlings of the mafia, said the official.
The powerless bureaucracy rarely control the illegal sand mining mafia. Efficient deputy commissioners (DCs) and SPs posted to districts where sand is abundant are quickly transferred. On the other hand, there is competition among the officials, who are hand in glove with the mafia, to get posted in the districts and taluks where sand is abundant, he said.
There have also been incidents when officials who tried to stop illegal sand mining were assaulted and nearly killed. Social workers and activists who tried to trace the trail of the sand mafia were also attacked.
Other kinds of sand
As the demand for sand has increased, filter sand (filtering the soil and collecting sand) business, near the capital cities, is also gaining ground. Recently, the mafia has also started to mix and sell cement waste too, said a top IPS official, who fought with the sand mafia in north Karnataka and was transferred before completing his tenure.
Recently, the demand-supply system of sand in the state has created an ‘artificial shortage’ and prices have skyrocketed.
Though M-Sand (Manufactured Sand) is available, the ‘sand mafia’ has spread the impression that the quality of river sand is higher, said Deepak Raj, a member of the Builders Association in Bengaluru. M-sand is a type of sand that is manufactured by crushing rocks and quarry stones into fine particles. It is an alternative to river sand and is used in construction projects to reduce the dependency on natural sand.
It is widely used in concrete production, plastering, and other construction activities.
The demand for sand
One of the reasons that spurs illegal sand mining is the gap between the demand and supply of sand in the state. Currently, Karnataka uses 1.8 crore tonne of sand.
Cement and sand are used in the ratio of 1:4 and 1:6 for buildings. Even if calculated in the ratio of 1:4, there is a demand for 7 crore tonnes of sand in the state. However, only 3 crore tonnes of sand, which includes manufactured sand are being officially supplied. The remaining 4 crore tonnes of sand from rivers and gullies are brought through illegal channels by the sand mafia to the customer.
Mysore Sales International Limited (MSIL) and eight private companies have obtained licenses to import sand from abroad. Among these, MSIL, Integrated Service Point of Chennai, TMT and Acor Enterprises are the only companies importing M-sand.
MSIL has imported a total of 1.03 lakh tonnes twice from Malaysia. Out of which, around 16,750 tonnes have been sold. The remaining sand is languishing at Krishna Pattanam port.
An MSIL official said that since builders want original sand from the river beds, the demand for M-sand has dropped. Also, the mafia in mining areas of Bellary, Hospet and Chitradurga control the sale of M-sand by selling this sand for lower prices.
A director of a private sand importing company told The Federal, “We invested ₹11 crore and brought 56,400 tonnes of M-sand from Malaysia to New Mangalore port. The transportation costs works out to be ₹2,200 per tonne. Because of the lack of demand, we sold it at ₹1,400 per tonne. It took us two years to empty all the sand and we suffered a loss of ₹5 crore.”
Sand mining laws
Sand smuggling is so rampant that it is draining the river sources in several villages and towns. Stringent rules and restrictions, including orders by the Supreme Court, high court and National Green Tribunal against illegal sand mining and transportation, have failed to curb the incidents, said a MSIL official.
Poor enforcement, because of the nexus between the sand mafia, police and local politicians, has resulted in a thriving illegal trade of sand, he added. In recent years, the situation has become worse and the authorities are unable to control the sand mining.
And, it has become a massive challenge for the government to curb this practice. Despite many changes in the ‘Sub-Mineral (Sand) Concession Policy’ and ‘Sub-Mineral (Sand) Concession Rules’, the laws failed to curb the irregularities in the past two decades. Changes were made in the sand policy in 2008, 2011 and 2017.
The rules were amended in 2016 to allow mining leases in riverine sand deposits and permit landowners to remove and sell what is available on their land. In the Sand Policy of 2017, a provision was made to import and sell sand from abroad. The mafia is capitalising on the confusion in these policies and rules, said an MSIL official.
Finally, the government brought in the ‘New Sand Policy-2020’ to make sand easily available and affordable. This was done ostensibly to allow scientific mining without harming the environment.
Later, the ‘Karnataka Sub-Mineral Concession (Amendment) Rules-2021’ was introduced in 2022 to complement the ‘New Sand Policy-2020’.
The new policy recognised the demand that a portion of the sand available in rural areas be earmarked for local use. Also, under the new policy, the power to distribute sand from ditches, streams and lakes is vested with the respective gram panchayats. But the sand mafia does not allow the gram panchayats to do any sand mining and thus the policy remains only on paper, said Raju Hiremath, a social activist from Hubli.
An MSIL official pointed out, “The New Sand Policy is a good document and can stop the sand mafia. But the problem is crores of money are involved in the business which allows the mafia to control the bureaucratic system. The officers allow illegal sand to be transported from the village to others places; they also help the transportation through the district borders, where they actually have to check and make seizures. The local gram panchayat members who are meant to be the watchdogs get easy money from the mafia to allow sand mining and the distribution.”
According to officials and activists, the only hope of controlling the sand mafia is by properly implementing the sand policy. But, lack of political facilitates the sand mafia to have a free run.
Sand status in Karnataka (in tonne)
Annual Demand: 4.50 crore tonne
M – Sand: 3 crores tonne
River sand: 50 lakhs tonne
From outside states: 20 lakh tonne
Deficiency: 90 lakhs tonne
Sand prices in the state
River sand: ₹2,400-3,000