It was around 5 am on October 19, 2021, dark, drizzling and cold in the foothills of the Himalayas. “A noise woke up my wife,” said farmer Gopal Datt Sharma in Indirapuri village, near the city of Haldwani in Uttarakhand. She went out to the porch and saw that farms adjacent to their 1.6-hectare patch of wheat had vanished overnight. As she watched, the Sharma family’s farmland collapsed into the Gaula River.

That day, the Sharmas and four other Indirapuri families lost their homes to a flash flood. A part of the Gaula bridge in Haldwani collapsed the same day. Many smaller bridges fell down after incessant and unseasonal rainfall, which blocked the main road from the north Indian plains to Nainital city up in the mountains.

According to government reports, the flood that washed away farms and bridges on 19 October was a natural calamity. In the past five years, more than 37 bridges are reported to have collapsed in Uttarakhand, and more are on the brink.

Gopal Datt Sharma’s house on the brink of collapse into the Gaula River. Throughout the Himalayan foothills, communities have lost their homes to flooding, which is being exacerbated by riverbed mining. Photo credit: Monika Mondal / The Third Pole

In 2012, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that global warming was leading to the kind of erratic rainfall and cloudbursts that this region experienced well after the 2021 monsoon season should have ended. Little has been done to safeguard infrastructure and help communities build resilience against such climate change impacts.

What is actually happening on the Gaula and hundreds of other rivers in Uttarakhand – and all over India – is the opposite of building resilience. Instead, riverbeds are being mined in a way that multiplies flood risks. The state of the Gaula illustrates the situation across much of the Himalayan foothills and beyond in Asia.

The Gaula is one of the many small rivers that form the veins of the largest river basin in India, the Ganga. The Gaula starts in the middle mountains of Uttarakhand, reaches the plains near the commercially important town of Haldwani and joins the Ramganga River, which in turn flows into the Ganga.

Graphic: The Third Pole

As the Gaula – and other rivers – reach the plains, they deposit a huge amount of boulders, stones, gravel and sand that they have carried down from the mountains. When riverbeds are mined, this material is removed for sale to the construction industry. Sometimes those carrying this out have a licence; sometimes they operate illegally.

The removal of all this material means water flows faster down the river and makes floods more dangerous. But objecting to such mining can also be dangerous. Bureaucrats and journalists who raise concerns have been attacked, some fatally. State governments continue to give out riverbed mining licences.

Plundering the riverbed

For much of the year, the spring-dependent Gaula carries little to no water. “Such rivers [normally] do not carry much water; nevertheless, the volume can increase up to 800 to 1,000 times when it rains,” said Shekhar Pathak, an environmental historian based in nearby Nainital.

As a result, every monsoon the Gaula carries riverbed material down to Haldwani. For the rest of the year, constant operations on the riverbed scoop out sand, gravel and stones, then load it onto mules and horses or trucks.

The monetary value of riverbed material was realised as the world moved towards concrete construction. Pathak said, “As the country moved towards urbanisation, demand for the RBM [riverbed material] for construction activities exploded.”

The Gaula bridge at Haldwani that collapsed last year has been repaired, and now carries scores of vehicles at a time.

A mule cart carries material excavated from one of Gaula’s riverbed pits. The material will then be taken to a trader, located around 5-km away. Photo credit: Monika Mondal / The Third Pole

When The Third Pole visits the area in the last week of January, riverbed mining has restarted a few metres away from the bridge. Some trucks are parked deep in the pits, some at ground level. Groups of 10-12 men surround the back of each truck, shovelling riverbed material into the vehicle. Mules and horses, some pulling carts, stay on or near the ground level.

“It is just the beginning,” said one of the labourers. “The pits from last year’s mining have been filled by the debris that came with the floods. Return in a few months, and you will see the big pits again.”

Changed course

These pits are connected to the flooding, Pathak explains. “When mining is practised unscientifically, leaving pits and empty spaces, the river can change its course when it carries a lot of water.” Uttarakhand’s rainfall in October 2021 broke records: it rained 500 mm in two days. The Gaula changed course and ravaged railway tracks at Kathgodam station next to Haldwani, as well as engulfing acres of farms and homes like the Sharmas’.

The Uttarakhand Forest Development Corporation is a state-owned statutory body responsible for the commercial exploitation of state forest produce, which includes the bed of the Gaula, and therefore licensing for mining on the river bed.

Speaking with The Third Pole, KN Bharti, regional manager of the Uttarakhand Forest Development Corporation, said: “The collapse of the Gaula bridge had nothing to do with the mining at all. If mining was one of the reasons for the collapse of the bridge, then all the bridges built on the rivers must have collapsed by now.”

A few kilometres downstream of the Gaula bridge, near where the Sharmas’ farm collapsed into the river, another labourer Subhash (he uses only one name) stays with many other migrant labourers from Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

They live in polyester tents right on the riverbed. Subhash has been digging the Gaula’s riverbed at this location for the past 15 years. Every year, like many other labourers, he comes to Haldwani after Diwali (in October or November) and returns home before the monsoon arrives in June.

“Sometimes it takes about an hour for 10-12 of us to fill a truck,” Subhash said. “Sometimes it may take longer.”

Asked about the changes he has seen, Subhash replied: “Earlier it was so easy to dig a few metres. But in the last few years, we cannot dig more than a few feet. Digging below it, we often reach the groundwater level. Not only deeper, the river has become so much wider.”

The Sharmas’ Indirapuri neighbour Bhuvan (he uses one name) told The Third Pole he has watched the level of the Gaula fall. “Earlier, the river and our lands were at the same level, but when mining started about 15-20 years ago, slowly and steadily the riverbed went down, finally reaching about 20 feet deeper.”

But even this lowered level is higher than the riverbed upstream and downstream. Mining stopped near the Sharmas’ house a few years ago, which meant a small portion of the riverbed remained intact while there were deep pits upstream and downstream. Bhuvan thinks this relatively higher riverbed worsened floods in Indirapuri village.

Raj Bhagat Palanichamy, a geospatial analyst at the World Resources Institute, used satellite images to find out how the Gaula has changed its path over the past 20 years. “The shadows along the edges of the river in the map tell you how the depth of the river has increased over the period, and you can see how the river has changed its patterns,” he said.

Pradeep Srivastava, associate professor in the department of earth sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee, told The Third Pole: “This is not a case of poor mining; it is a case of excessive mining.”

“The natural behaviour of the river is to transport the sediment,” Srivastava explained. When the sediment has been removed by mining, the water has no sediment burden, which means it moves faster and cuts into the riverbanks. This created the circumstances in which the Sharmas and others like them lost their farms.

Srivastava adds that this also affects the groundwater level in the region. As the water flows downstream faster, less of it percolates underground to recharge aquifers.

Srivastava said sand mining can be allowed in certain parts of a riverbed “after careful examination of landscape and surface processes. The Himalaya is a region of very high relief that produces massive amounts of sediment and the rivers that act as hotspots of sediment storage may be dredged in a technically planned way.” But what is happening in Uttarakhand is “unscientific and unsustainable”, he said.

However, mining of the Gaula is an important revenue source for the state government through licence fees, as well as for local businesses in Haldwani: 17 out of 22 registered stone crushers in the Nainital district are based around the city.

Legal aspects

The labourers start work on the riverbed at 6 am every day. None of the labourers The Third Pole spoke to was aware of a regulation that says digging is permitted only to a depth of three metres, and anything deeper would be illegal mining. One said, “We dig till nine-10 feet,” which is around three metres. Another said, “We dig till we reach the water level. It can mean anything.”

Before 2020, digging was permitted to a depth of 1.5 metres. This limit was extended to three metres by a decision of the state cabinet of ministers. “No scientific study was conducted before modifying the regulations,” said Bhim Singh Rawat, associate coordinator of the non-profit South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.

SK Bartarya, a retired senior scientist from the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology in Dehradun, studied the Gaula in the 1980s. He found that the river was degrading at a rate faster than any other in the region. “The region is tectonically quite active and uniform dredging of three metres on the riverbed could be dangerous,” he told The Third Pole. For experts in this area, degradation is a term that includes deforestation, pollution, erosion and other processes which can destroy natural ecosystems, Bartarya explained.

Sanjay Upadhyay, an environmental lawyer who practises in India’s Supreme Court, told The Third Pole that illegal mining is often detected during the transport of material. The Indian government’s sand mining framework also says the majority of registered cases of illegal mining are related to illegal transportation or transportation without a valid permit.

While it can be difficult for authorities to accurately record how much material is being mined as it is happening, impounding trucks as they leave with the excavated material and adding up their loads may reveal mining beyond licence limits.

One of the foremost criteria in determining that mining is legal is that “the mining of sand must be within the replenishment rate”, said Upadhyay. The replenishment rate is the rate at which a river brings down sediment in the monsoon, which can be extracted sustainably.

What is the replenishment rate of the Gaula, one of the most mined rivers in Uttarakhand? There is no study in the public domain. Asked about this, Bharti of the Uttarakhand Forest Development Corporation responds: “There is no need to put such studies in the public domain.”

Central government regulations say every state government should report how much sand it produces each year. Uttarakhand is one of the states that does not reveal this figure. In 2017, it was the state with the highest revenue in northern India from sales of sand.

The Centre’s sand mining framework reports that revenue from the sale of sand in Uttarakhand was Rs 173.5 crore in the financial year 2014-’15, and nearly doubled to Rs 335.3 crore in 2016-’17, the latest year for which figures are available.

In 2016, India’s environmental court, the National Green Tribunal, admitted a plea against riverbed mining in the Gaula and ordered an investigation. The investigation found serious violations and Uttarakhand Forest Development Corporation had to pay a hefty fine.

In 2017, 32 cases of illegal mining were registered within three months. The Uttarakhand High Court banned mining in the region temporarily. Now, Bharti of Uttarakhand Forest Development Corporation said: “The operations in Gaula River are such that there is no question of illegal mining in the area. Such systematic mining is hardly running anywhere [else] in the country.”

The government’s 2018 regulations for sustainable sand mining recognises a “gap in the technical aspects of mining and related environmental concerns between the regulating body and those taking care of operations”.

All over Uttarakhand, petitions are filed in various courts against riverbed mining, but the state government has always defended the practice. The authorities have even acted against Hindu monks who went on hunger strike against riverbed mining and dam building.

“It took the government until last year to recognise the fact that a mafia exists in the sand trade in the country when so many people have been killed and attacked, including their own officers,” said ​Sumaira Abdulali, founder of NGO Awaaz and an environmental activist who focuses on sand mining. “That is why it is so difficult to control such illegal mining on the ground.”

Asked about the difference between licensed and illegal riverbed mining, Abdulali said: “Legal and illegal are man-made terms, but are the regulations serving the purpose of saving the riverbed? Is it [riverbed mining] good for the people in the short term [because it gives them employment]? Yes, but isn’t it the duty of the government to make sure that the lives of the people and the environment are not endangered?”

This article first appeared on The Third Pole.