Sand Mining

Sand Mining – A Photo Essay in Koliwar, India

This is the first ever photo-essay shot on sand mining in Koilwar, Bhojpur district Bihar. The sand mining nexus in Bihar is intricate and involves influential people at distinct authoritative positions in the government, administrative circles and mafia. As a result, photos of sand mining are highly inaccessible. Though several stories have been published on the issue, photojournalists have often been beaten up in their attempts to capture images. Puneet Gupta, Akashdeep Roy and Ashish Gupta have documented sand mining – sand diggers and their environmental impact during 2015-17. The most challenging part of this project was getting access – locals give information yet choose to be anonymous and are incredibly uncomfortable being shot. After sincere attempts over three years, the team approached sand-diggers in different seasons to capture the reality on the ground. This photo essay highlights the economic exploitation of the sand diggers, the environmental impacts of sand mining and subsequent risks to society.

Koilwar, a serene village in the Bhojpur district of Bihar, has seen significant infrastructural development in recent years . River Sone, one of the perennial tributaries of the Ganges originating in Amarkantak hills at Sonbhadra in Madhya Pradesh, runs northwards through the town, giving it a pristine, natural appearance. The river derives its name from the light gold-tone sand it carries. The sand of River Sone is one of the purest & highest quality in the Ganges – ideal for construction work. This fine grade, superior quality sand has transformed the village into a town with manufactured construction at every nook & corner, thereby mutilating its natural  landscape.  

As one walks by the riverside in Koilwar, one cannot miss bare-chested sand-diggers of different age groups disappearing into water for a few minutes and then reappearing with a bucket of glistening wet sand, loading their boats and plunging back into the river. Without formal training or safety equipment gear, these sand-diggers have been accustomed to the process since childhood. While a few of the diggers are local inhabitants, the others are migrants arriving from different towns in and around Bihar to earn a means of livelihood. 

The sand-diggers earn a meager daily wage ranging from USD 6.28 to USD 25.13, depending on the season. In fulfilling the monetary needs of their families, these sand diggers do not realize that they are at the receiving end of a never-ending state-corporate nexus between petty contractors, local politicians, police, administrative officers and the mafia. In this skewed power dynamic, where the winners earn profits in million dollars, the sand collectors on the ground take the worst risks for little economic return. 

The sand mining business requires no inputs other than labor. Since it generates significant profit, the state government has legalized the business of releasing annual tenders to individual investors. Over the last couple of years, investors have started using machinery and mechanized boats to accelerate the entire process and earn rapid returns. During the July to September monsoon season, when sand mining is banned, multiple actors churn more significant returns by selling sand at double the regular price in the name of scarcity. Sand diggers enjoy a grand  time during these months of the sand crisis, where they end up earning around USD 25.13 per day. In this entire business with million dollars of turnover, the maximum that sand-diggers earn is merely in hundreds.

The sole protagonist of this grand network is sand, which due to its fine construction-grade is the underpinning for this business. Apart from the significant societal role that sand plays here, its primary commitment is to nature. It serves as a natural filter with a critical water holding capacity. Indiscriminate sand mining through both manual & mechanized methods  brings about the degradation of river water. It increases turbidity resulting in decreased light penetration and reduced photosynthetic processes, thereby impacting the aquatic ecosystem, including the food chain and life cycles of zooplanktons, phytoplankton and fishes.

According to Dr Gopal Krishna (of Patna University), when the government leases out plots to investors, the stakeholders expect an environmental impact assessment, which produces individual reports for their respective plots. The results, however, remain skewed without an authentic scientific assessment of the entire area by an independent team of experts. A lack of a holistic approach to environmental evaluation has led to the continued monetization of the natural reservoir by vested interests. 

In this web of sand monetization, the environment and sand diggers are at the losing end. The natural resources extracted from the environment by manufacturing processes cause irreversible damage that cannot be replenished. Though the sand-diggers gain a minor economic return, they continue to live in temporary homes with their families in and around the riverside – the zone likely to witness maximum impact during a natural disaster. They are the most vulnerable and disenfranchised groups likely to bear the environmental burden. The ones higher up in the social ladder – petty contractors, local politicians, police and administrative officers have the power to externalize the cost of the environment onto the most vulnerable social group – sand diggers.

Puneet Gupta is an Assistant Professor specializing in Photojournalism, Architectural Photography & sociology at Symbiosis School of Visual Arts & Photography. She started her career as a photojournalist and eventually moved to academics. She finds a thrill in amalgamating her creative calibre of photographic techniques with her innate research skills.

Ashish Gupta is a Special Photojournalist working with a leading English daily. He is a passionate documentary photographer who loves capturing human interest stories. He believes that his photojournalistic skills are at their best when he captures the plight of socially vulnerable groups, especially in highly inaccessible zones.

Akashdeep Roy is an interdisciplinary researcher in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Pune. He is growing as a political ecologist who delves deeper into understanding the hidden dimensions of human-elephant conflict.