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Himachal floods: Besides heavy rain, illegal mining impacted river course

Environmental experts say indiscriminate mining, rampant construction and mechanised dredging of river beds by contractors with political clout contributed affected the riverine ecosystem, making the recent death and destruction along embankments as much a man-made tragedy as a natural calamityhimanchal flood

The bustling tourist town of Manali wears a desolate look after heavy rain led to flooding in the Beas river on July 9 and 10. (HT file photo)

The heavy rain alone wasn’t responsible for the large-scale damage Himachal Pradesh witnessed in Kullu, Mandi and Shimla districts this monsoon as illegal sand mining in the riverbeds of the Beas, Sutlej, Ravi, Yamuna, Chakki and Swan is also said to have led to the rivers changing their course and causing destruction.

 

 

 

Illegal mining is rampant in the riverbeds of the Sutlej, Yamuna, Beas, Ravi, Chakki and Swan. From dusk to dawn, dozens of tippers and tractor-trolleys laden with sand and gravel head out, while earthmovers wreak havoc, plundering the riverbed even as mechanized mining is banned. Due to heavy rainfall in the state on July 9 and 10, almost all rivers and their tributaries were in spate and at many places they changed their course, wreaking havoc on the embankments. The destruction along the banks of the Beas was widespread, causing heavy losses to life and property in Kullu and Mandi districts.

“Indiscriminate sand mining minus regulation is detrimental to the riverine ecosystem. With the rise in mindless construction, mechanised excavation has increased and contractors backed by political support flout rules. In 2022, the government further eased the minor minerals rules, relaxing transit and allowing heavy equipment for dredging the riverbed,” says Manshi Asher, an environmental activist.

 

 

Also read: Flash flood at villages near Manali damages vehicles, roads

When contacted, state geologist Piyush Guleria said, “Boulders and stones in the river help in checking the speed of the water during floods, particularly on the banks. We have set up squads to check illegal mining but they are vulnerable if outnumbered by the mafia. Debris dumping certainly impacts the flow of the water.”

 

Fine no deterrent for violators

Sanjiv Singh, 41, a farmer of Bhang village on the banks of the Beas near Manali says, “A major flood took place here in 1995. The government constructed retaining walls at certain places to protect the riversides from destruction. One of the reasons for the largescale damage this time is the illegal mining on the stretch from Nehru Kund to Potato Ground. The river has changed its course. People are breaking boulders for constructing houses. There is no check.”

Police, however, claim they are acting against violators. State police chief Sanjay Kundu says, “Himachal Pradesh Police are doing all they can to address illegal mining. It is a priority area for us. In 2023, we registered 17 first information reports (FIRs), issued 3,765 challans, seized 135 vehicles and recovered a fine of 2, 20, 95,100. We are also referring cases to the Enforcement Directorate for the seizure of properties of the violators.”

He, however, admits that the illegal miners take advantage of the fact that the Mineral and Mining Development Act is a civil Act. “They can get away by paying a fine,” Kundu says.

Taking on the mining mafia

Seeking the Centre’s assistance to tide over the flood damage, chief minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu has cited an estimated loss of 8,000 crore in the tragedy that claimed 91 lives. Three central teams are in the state to assess the loss of life and property. The Centre has given the cash-strapped state an interim compensation of 180 crore so far.

State public works department minister Vikramaditya Singh described the flood in the tourist town of Manali a man-made disaster due to “mining activities” in the adjoining Beas River. He said he would raise the issue in the cabinet meeting. His statement sparked off a political row with state industries minister Harshwardhan Chauhan terming his statement “childish”.

Sukhu also said that blaming the mining for the flooding was not right. “Himachal Pradesh received 436% excess rainfall than normal in four days between July 7 and 11. According to IMD, Shimla, all districts of the state received excessive rain,” he said.

BJP leader and former chief minister Jai Ram Thakur, however, blamed the mining mafia. “All sorts of mafia are active in the state. Who is granting them protection? The chief minister should explain the rationale behind allowing mining when approaching these water bodies is forbidden. When the police tried to stop illegal mining in riverbeds, they were attacked. A fortnight on, flood victims are struggling for amenities, such as clean drinking water,” he said.

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