To free its forest department from devoting too much time, resources, and efforts in fighting illegal mining in the National Chambal Sanctuary, the Madhya Pradesh government has proposed to open 292 hectares for mining in five stretches on Chambal and its tributary Parvati rivers. Sand mining has been banned in the sanctuary since 2006.
In a December 2021 proposal submitted to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change (MoEF-CC), the state said opening up the five stretches would minimise the conflict with illegal miners, gain local support, and fetch revenue from royalty, one-fourth of which could be used to strengthen protection measures.
Additionally, the proposal sought to make the contractors of the soon-to-be legal quarries responsible for checking illegal mining on adjacent sanctuary land four times their leased areas, failing which their leases would be terminated. Denotifying 292 hectares for mining would bring 1,168 hectares under the miners’ protection.
The Madhya Pradesh forest department, records show, started working on the proposal on July 13, 2021, a day before transferring the then superintendent of NCS who made headlines for seizing 78 vehicles engaged in illegal quarrying and facing multiple attacks allegedly from the mining mafia during her three-month stint.
Records show the denotification proposal was moved through the office of Shashi Malik, then Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Gwalior). Asked if the move was necessitated by the escalated conflict with the mining mafia, Malik said: “Neither did I ask for the proposal nor did I make any observation on it. I cannot comment further.”
“This is a policy decision of the government. Opening a legal window to meet local requirements should minimise the pressure of illegal mining,” Jasbir Singh Chauhan, chief wildlife warden, Madhya Pradesh, told The Indian Express.
The standing committee of the MoEF-CC’s National Board for Wildlife (SC-NBWL) has considered the proposal at its last two meetings on March 25 and May 30. A committee set up by the SC-NBWL to examine the proposal visited Chambal last week. “We have seen the areas and will submit our report before the next SC-NBWL meeting,” said NBWL member HS Singh.
Spread across three states, National Chambal Sanctuary (NCS) runs along a total stretch of 435 km of Chambal and its tributary Parvati in Madhya Pradesh. An important bird habitat, NCS is home to the critically endangered gharials, river dolphins, mugger crocodiles and several rare turtle species.
The state government’s proposal is a tacit acceptance of its inability to curb or stop illegal mining. Even with this, protection of Chambal’s wild habitat would require effective enforcement.
In its “justification” for the proposal, the Madhya Pradesh government noted that over 4 lakh locals directly depended on various resources of the NCS. They farm along the river, extract river water for irrigation, practice sustenance and commercial fishing, and quarry sand — activities that can destroy the natural nesting grounds of gharial, mugger, and turtles.
“Due to the absence of any legal quarries on Chambal since 2006, illegal sand mining persisted in the sanctuary area,” the proposal said. The three sand quarries allowed in 1999, noted the proposal, were shut down following an order by the Gwalior bench of the High Court of Madhya Pradesh in 2006.
Since “illegal mining has become a major commercial activity” in the area, the proposal underlined that upholding the nistar — concessional access to natural resources for livelihood needs — rights of the people while ensuring conservation of biodiversity was the “responsibility of the government” under the policies of the Centre.
Therefore, the Madhya Pradesh government proposed to denotify five stretches (see chart) that it claimed were already disturbed by mining and no longer used for mating, breeding or basking by gharials, muggers, dolphins, turtles or any migratory bird species.
To curb illegal mining, the state proposed stricter monitoring of vehicles carrying sand by marking them with registration numbers, barcoding the royalty receipts with time and destination, and developing a mobile application for on-the-spot verification.
Not everyone is convinced. “Such measures have not stopped rampant illegal mining in Chambal due to weak enforcement. Our experience in the neighbourhood tells that every legal mine allows a dozen illegal ones in the vicinity to manipulate papers and move their load as legal material,” said conservation biologist Dr Dharmendra Khandal.