On Monday, Indian Administration Service officer DK Ravi was found dead in his home in Bengaluru. The young bureaucrat, who was found hanging in a room, had earned a reputation for bravery after he took on the land and sand mafia, which provides vital material for the construction industry.

Though the police say that he committed suicide, his friends and the media immediately speculated that Ravi's death was somehow related to his opposition of the sand mafia. After all, the power of the people who control illegal sand mining across the country is well known. For instance, the sand mafia is so influential that officers who oppose it are often transferred, as happened in the much-publicised case of Durga Shakti Nagpal in Noida in 2013. The IAS officer had confiscated trolleys used by illegal sand miners and fined them for lakhs of rupees. It wasn't long before she was transferred over the matter of a demolished mosque wall.

Sand mining may at first seem more benign than coal or iron ore mining. Machines, depending on their size and kind, do not have to dig deep for sand. Rivers themselves do the job of processing the sand to a large extent. But excessive mining can lead to the degradation of rivers and their ecosystems.

It can also cause deaths. Sand mining in the Jhelum was blamed for weakening its banks and causing the devastating Srinagar flood in September. Illegal roads for sand mining led college students to their deaths after a dam released water on the Beas River in Himachal Pradesh in June, as the state admitted at the time. Sand mining is so rampant on the Ganga that it has even forced the river to change its path in Bihar.

A national phenomenon

Where other forms of mining are limited by the existence of the specific natural resource, sand mining proceeds profitably in all major and many minor rivers across the country. As a consequence, like murder, theft and corruption, there is no state that does not suffer from the ill effects of rampant illegal sand mining.

It is impossible to gauge the extent of illegal sand mining in India. There is virtual media silence on sand mining in the northern states, broken only by the occasional report caused by activists taking the state and illegal miners to court or the National Green Tribunal.

Scroll.in examined reports of just one year, from March 2014 to March 2015, to see how entrenched the mining mafia is in every state in India, sometimes with the collusion of local governments.

Even if DK Ravi’s death is not eventually linked to the sand mafia, there are numerous instances of the mafia attacking people who attempt to inspect or record evidence of illegal mining.

Journalists are regularly assaulted, as was captured on camera in Maharashtra last Thursday, and thrice in one month in Tamil Nadu, where reporters from Down to Earth, Malayalam Manorama, Puthiya Thalaimurai and Asianet News were beaten, chased or threatened with death. M Suchitra from Down to Earth received little help from the police, who told her instead to leave the state that very night as they could not ensure her safety.

If media representatives have the voice to highlight these problems, inspectors are not always similarly blessed. Mafia men attack revenue officials, threaten lorry association members and even attempt to run over police officers.

Construction boom

The illegal industry is fuelled by India's astonishing construction boom. The country is expected to add 11.5 million homes each year over the next decade, industry experts estimate, in addition to undertaking numerous infrastructure projects. New buildings need large quantities of concrete, which is a mixture of cement and sand. Instances of sand mining near capital cities close to rivers seem more frequent than in other places.

It is difficult and expensive to import sand from far away, especially if the imported sand is already illegal, as is the case in Karnataka and Kerala.

In December, Karnataka’s Vidhan Sabha was rocked with allegations that HC Mahadevappa, the public works deparment minister and MP of T Narasipura along the Kaveri River, was closely involved in illegal sand mining. Around 600 trucks bearing sand, each worth Rs 1.3 lakh, had been intercepted driving across the Western Ghats to Kerala, the Opposition claimed.

Karnataka has emerged as a significant  supplier because of an acute shortage of sand in Kerala, driven both by its construction boom and by a virtual ban on sand mining.

So strong is the hold of the sand mafia in Kerala that in October, the Times of India reported that a large shipment of Cambodian sand was lying unsold in Kochi. The sand mafia, according to the report, had made backdoor negotiations to ensure that its price was too high for local builders to afford.

Bans of no use

Bans might not be effective, as the case of Kerala and Karnataka shows, but that does not mean that various judicial bodies have not tried to impose them. In just the last year, courts across the country have rapped Rajasthan for not taking the issue seriously, told Tamil Nadu to stop in-stream sand mining with machines, stayed all new sand mining tenders in Maharashtra, and ordered the Bihar government to bring the Ganga back on course.

On September 6, the Supreme Court ruled that the police across the country can file cases of illegal mining without first registering the offence under the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act of 2010.

In a significant order in 2013, the National Green Tribunal made it compulsory for all new licencees to first obtain an environmental clearance before beginning to mine.

States have also fought back. After the Kerala High Court ordered the state to consider 29 joint and private project permissions for mineral sand mining in November, the government appealed to the Supreme Court for a stay .

Whose model?

For states, illegal sand mining results in an enormous loss of revenues – unless politicians themselves are running the outfits. Nevertheless, states have attempted to frame new laws and policies, to little effect. Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra have now emerged as models of controlling mining, even if this is not reflected in the situation on the ground.

What do they do? Continuing its love affair with technology, in December Maharashtra launched a Sand Mining Approval and Tracking System. Instead of barcoding trucks to ensure they deliver only the agreed amount of sand, trucks now have a messaging system where they get codes via SMS.

Andhra Pradesh has also attempted to use technological solutions. In January, it launched a website to centralise all sales of sand so that appropriate prices are given. Users can track trucks as they come and go and the state has also made it clear that no trucks travel between 6 pm and 6 am, to prevent illegal trucking. Maharashtra lauded this model, even as Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar praised the texting model as being ideal for the rest of the country.