For Thane's Sand Miners, a Life Mired in Dirty Water, Illness, Illegality

The workers dive down 50 feet to dredge for sand that is then sold to the construction industry.

Mumbai: Balancing himself on two wobbly boats, Amit pulls out a 60-foot-long metal bargepole tied to one of them and slips it into the bed of the river. “Fifty feet,” he announces. The other four helpers support the pole and then tie it up on the rear of the boat. This pole tells him the exact depth of the river and the task in hand. Without wasting much time, Amit then changes into a vest and shorts, takes a deep breath and plunges into the river. He dives in and out of the water for the next eight hours, manually excavating sand using an iron bucket from the bed of the saline Thane creek.

Amit is one among nearly 70,000 people engaged in manual sand dredging work on the 12-km stretch of Thane creek about 30 km north of Mumbai. Over the years, this has become the primary source of sand for the booming construction business in Mumbai and its two neighbouring cities of Thane and Navi Mumbai.

“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,” Amit says.

On an average, Amit, like other divers, works in and out of the water for nearly eight hours at a time, diving deep down at least 350-400 times during that period.

Since there is no harness, the diver has to use the bargepole for support with one hand and carry the iron bucket with another, and stay in until the bucket is filled to at least one-third (the bucket holds 30-35 kg sand) before he signals the pullers (‘khechya’, as they are called in the local lingo) to drag the bucket up.

Is the work dangerous? Amit says he is risking his life with every dive. “But more than the fear of drowning in the water, I wonder what those chemicals and pollutants are doing to my body,” he adds.

The water has become progressively dirtier over the years. On one end, the Thane creek is surrounded by highly polluting units operated by the MIDC (Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation), which is accused of releasing untreated industrial effluents directly into the creek. On the other end, massive residential projects like the Hiranandani estate have mushroomed over the past few years.

At least 12 men work on each boat. Around 7,500 kg of sand is excavated during an eight-hour shift. Close to 200 boats are presently operating on the 12-km stretch of Thane creek.

At least 12 men work on each boat. Around 7,500 kg of sand is excavated during an eight-hour shift. Close to 200 boats are presently operating on the 12-km stretch of Thane creek.

A wooden boat holds anything between 7,200 and 7,500 kg sand, and it takes two divers and ten other support men to work simultaneously for eight-ten hours to fill one boat. At the end of a day’s work, the divers are paid Rs 1,200, while the support staff, depending upon their seniority and efficiency, get anything between Rs 400 and Rs 600. The work goes on for nine days at a stretch, depending upon the lunar tide. The first day, as per the Hindu calendar, is called “Ekadashi” and the ninth, “Navami”. After Navami, the workers get a three-day break, and then the nine-day cycle restarts. This way, each worker gets at least 21-22 days of work in a month, and could end up with up to Rs 25,000; but each day is full of immense risk.

In 1952, Mustafa Fakih, then the revenue minister of the erstwhile Mumbai state, opened the 12-km stretch of Thane creek to carry out sand excavation work. “It was supposed to be an alternative source of income for the natives of this region, mostly belonging to the Koli and Agri communities,” says Nandkumar Pawar, founder of the Shree Ekvira Aai Pratishthan (SEAP), who has been following this issue for years.

A sand miner enters the saline water at Thane creek.

A sand miner enters the saline water at Thane creek.

That explains how at most sand excavation sites, the boat owners work in a highly organised way, with villages occasionally even forming a cooperative. The cooperative at Kalher in Bhiwandi has as many as 28 villages registered under it. “This is an old cooperative and we only have members with registered boats and old royalty (a temporary licence to carry out the sale of sand) to carry out sand mining,” said Prahlad Mhatre, a local resident who until a few years ago was engaged in the business.

But as the city expanded and witnessed a real estate boom in the 1990s, this excavation work grew exponentially, leading to tighter regulations of sand mining work in the region. Only those with royalty were allowed to carry out the work; in 2014, that too was totally stopped. It is now illegal to dredge or mine for sand.

Recognising the environmental hazards of sand dredging, the western bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2014 banned sand mining in coastal regions of many states, including Maharashtra. Soon after, the state government filed an appeal against the order, but in a series of petitions, environmental activists ensured the official ban on excavation continued.

However, this ban on paper did not really translate into a complete end to the practice on the ground. It continued surreptitiously and was flourishing until a few years ago. The extent of it has now come down, but it still continues on a smaller scale under the noses of the administration, since there is rising demand from the booming construction sector.  Before the ban, Maharashtra Maritime Board guidelines allowed mining only up till three metres. But the miners blatantly violated the rule and the entire stretch of Thane creek has already been mined close to 12-15 feet.

“The lower you go, the larger the impact on the ecosystem. Sand mining doesn’t just impact the course of the creek, it also destroys mangroves and the adjoining groundwater system. The uneven depths in creeks and rivers caused by mindless mining has already destroyed fishing here,” says Sumaira Abdulali, a well-known environmentalist and founder of Awaaz Foundation, an NGO campaigning actively against sand mining.

Workers tie a bargepole to the boat. The metallic pole is used as a support by the sand miner who dives 50 feet into the creek to excavate sand.

Workers tie a bargepole to the boat. The metallic pole is used as a support by the sand miner who dives 50 feet into the creek to excavate sand.

The revenue department has carried out raids from time to time and several cases have been registered against both boat owners and those working at the site. “But they are mostly fined and allowed to go,” said A.M. Jadhav, an officer at the revenue department. For every brass (a measurement used for sand that roughly translates to 1,600 kg) seized, the revenue department imposes a fine of Rs 50,300. “Most of them take a chance and are even ready to pay the fine in a worst case scenario. In most cases, much before the raids are arranged, the information is leaked out and the work is stopped. In some cases, they try and ‘manage’ the officials,” a senior mining officer in the Thane collectorate said, on the condition of anonymity.

Between April 2017 and March 2018, the revenue department seized 153 trucks of sand and collected fines worth Rs 89.58 lakh. “These trucks were seized at different points notorious for illegal sand transport. Once the fine is paid, the owners are let off and are allowed to sell the sand on their own,” says Ujjwal Deshmukh, a vigilance officer with the mining branch in Thane.

Abdulali points out that these numbers mean nothing for the impact that mining has on the environment.  “Those 153 trucks are not even a tiny percentage of the total business. For those dealing with hundreds of trucks, getting a truck or two seized means nothing. Both the government and the miners are happy with this arrangement.”

Illegal sand mining, which was earlier limited only to Thane and Raigad districts, has now moved within the municipal limits of the city of Mumbai. Over 70 cases of illegal sand mining were registered between April 1, 2016 and March 31, 2017. Sand mining was reported from the coastal areas of Madh, Malad-Marve, Gorai and Versova areas of suburban Mumbai.

Sand mining and its impact on human life

While the petitioners and the judiciary have dealt with the environmental implications and have brought in laws and regulations from time to time, they have failed to spare a thought for those several thousand human lives that are directly affected by this work.

Like Amit, several workers travel from the tribal regions of Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. Many also migrate from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. But the major workforce comes from Palghar, a tribal district that was carved out of Thane district of Maharashtra in 2014. Tribals belonging to Warli, Kaikadi and Mahadeo Koli communities from Wada, Jawhar, Dahanu, Vikramgad, Shahpur and Murbad talukas are mostly dependent on sand mining for their livelihood.

Workers getting wooden boats ready for work.

Workers getting wooden boats ready for work.

While there is no apparent connection between the involvement of people from the tribal communities and the work – besides their dire need for a livelihood – the owners of the boats claim it is the “strength” that the divers have which makes them a natural choice. This explanation is ironic, as most of these workers come from one of the most acutely malnourished regions in the state.

Life is often hard in the remote villages of Palghar district. Stories of financial insecurity, chronic but inexplicable illnesses and even deaths in some cases can be heard in abundance. In late February, The Wire travelled to villages in Wada, Vikramgad and Jawhar Taluka and met several workers at their homes while they waited for work. They had not got any diving jobs since November, since the administration had launched a vigorous crackdown on the business.

Sanjay Rende, a bony, 36-year-old man, anxiously talked about the issues he has been facing, both financially and physically. He had been having serious breathing problems, he said, and occasionally experienced bleeding from his nose. This, he said, was a common issue every time he took a break from work for a long period. “I have been visiting the primary health centre (PHC) in the village and taking medicines. But the problem does not seem to subside. The doctor at the PHC suggested I consult a private doctor at Thane,” Rende told The Wire.

Sanjay Rende along with other divers at their village in Wada taluka in Palghar district.

Sanjay Rende along with other divers at their village in Wada taluka in Palghar district.

Bleeding from the nose was a problem that almost every diver that The Wire spoke to complained of. But the common belief was that once you have suffered from this illness and are eventually cured of it, you are free from every ailment. This old belief has kept Rende hopeful too. “I was alarmed in the beginning. But when my uncle, also a one time diver, told me about his condition and how with time the problem subsided, I stopped worrying.”

Rende said he would give up the work provided he finds an alternative. “The owner (of the ship Rende works on) pays me Rs 1,200 per day along with free accommodation and healthy food. Where else will I find a similar paying job?” he asks. Insurance is non-existent. Until a few years ago, he would manage to earn around Rs 20,00-25,00 in most months. “But it is not the same anymore. For months at a stretch there is no work.”

Rende’s friends, too, are not positive about the situation. Describing his predicament, Kishan Khaparde said he would rather work as a farm labourer than return to the work. “Each time I enter the water, I wonder if I will make it safely back home this time. They provide us with food and money, but no safety.”

Khaparde has had similar health issues to Rende, along with an itching in his eyes and periodic outbreaks of rashes on his skin. Last summer, Khaparde was infected with hepatitis. “During the diagnosis, the doctor had also found out that my liver was badly affected. I don’t drink or smoke. The how did my liver get infected?” Khaparde asks. “Ganda paani hai, haalat toh kharab hona hi hai. (It is bad water. I am bound to fall sick).”

A sand mining boat on the Thane creek.

A sand mining boat on the Thane creek.

Almost every diver that The Wire met has had at least one encounter with death, either by losing control or suddenly consuming a large amount of toxic water. They also narrated stories of having found “floating bodies” in the water. “Sometimes it is one of the co-workers. Sometimes some strangers’ bodies that have been disposed of. It is a disturbing sight,” Biju Potkhal, a 62-year-old resident of Rathad in Vikramgad, said. But none of these deaths are investigated. They only get notified as “accidental deaths”. With no official data, residents and old workers at the site put the figure at around 20-25 deaths in last decade.

“We are not mafia”

Only a part of the sand demand is fulfilled by manual dredging. There has been serious exploitation of the seashores and creek fronts using suction pumps too. As compared to manual dredging, suction pumps manage to excavate almost ten times more, said a senior officer at the mining section of the Thane revenue department. But local groups operating at the Thane creek claim those are the big players, mostly operating under complete protection from local politicians.

“For the media and lawmakers, we are some deadly mafia operating on the creek. But our conditions are just as vulnerable as those working under us,” says Narayan Joshi, the owner of a boat. “For our livelihood, we end up doing everything. I have been working at the creek front since I was 14. This is the only work I seem to know.”

A worker transfers sand from a boat onto the ground.

A worker transfers sand from a boat onto the ground.

Abdulali feels the situation here is so desperate that you cannot help but look at this with some sympathy. “People are desperate and indulge in this work. One cannot ignore their living conditions. But this work also has a huge impact on the environment and this is a reality too.”

Pawar also points out how the work cannot stop here unless the government brings out a clear rehabilitation plan for the lives dependent on sand mining. “For every village displaced, displacement and rehabilitation policies are followed. But what policies are available for the fisher and other communities dependent on the water bodies for sustenance? If a fisherman loses fishing as his only source of income, what else can he do? He will have to look for a source of income around him, some legal and some illegal,” Pawar says. The question looms large over the 70,000 families that are directly dependent on sand mining work, even as labourers continue to risk their lives in this hazardous and illegal business.

All photos by Sukanya Shantha.