Dwarki’s fish basket is barely filled to half, even after a long, hard day of work. A resident of Pichodi village in Badwani district of Madhya Pradesh, she makes a living by selling the fish that she catches every day in the river Narmada.

“These days, big fish are not found in the Narmada river,” she said. “The overall fish population has also gone down significantly, threatening the very source of our livelihood. It has now become difficult to run a household relying on fishing income.”

Dwarki’s family has been fishing in the Narmada for generations. Talking about old times, she said, “Until 15 years ago, we used to get good income from fishing and live comfortably. Earnings from the river were enough to spend on marriages and also some extra expenses at times.”

“There was so much work, specially from December to March, that we would live on the banks of the river to fish,” she said. “In those days, even taking a break from fishing and visiting home was difficult.”

The drastic change in Dwarki’s life tells the story of the exploitation of the river Narmada.

She told Mongabay-India, that apart from catching fish, she would cultivate watermelons on the sand banks of Narmada. But now because of rampant mining, even that source of income has been destroyed.

The erosion in the river ecosystem has adversely impacted the flora and fauna of the region.

Dwarki Bai’s family has been dependent on the fish of the Narmada river for generations, but reducing fish stock in the river is impacting their livelihood. Photo credit: Rohit Shivhare/ Mongabay

Jitendra Manjhi, also a resident of Badwani district, said that the last few years have been witness to major changes in the river. A common sight in the past, the mahseer fish is now rarely found in the river.

The mahseer, often referred to as the “queen of the river” because of its colour or the “tiger of the river” because of its size, is among the big fishes found in the Narmada. Mahseer are large-bodied fish, with an average weight of 20 kgs and have reached weights greater than 50 kg and lengths of over 200 centimetres.

The mahseer has been declared endangered by the Madhya Pradesh Biodiversity Board. The big fish species have also been placed second on the list of 15 endangered fishes of the state. It was granted the status of “State Fish” in 2011 due to conservation efforts taken by the board.

Researcher Sriparna Saxena told Mongabay India that over five decades, between 1963 and 2015, mahseer population went down by 76%.

Saxena, who is conducting research on the conservation and artificial breeding of mahseer in collaboration with the government of Madhya Pradesh, said that at one point Narmada used to have 30% of the mahseer fish population.

It has now drastically come down to less than 1%. “The mahseer is a clear water fish, which likes flowing water. Due to the dam and opaqueness of water, Narmada is no longer conducive to the breeding of mahseer, causing a rapid decline in its population.”

Mahaseer fish. Photo credit: Charles J Sharp/ Wikimedia Commons

According to the Narmada Valley Development Authority, around 40 kg to 60 kg fish is produced per hectare in the Narmada. As per records maintained by the Madhya Pradesh Fisheries Department, 46 fish species are found in the Narmada.

However, it is not just mahseer that is facing the brunt of ecological changes caused by reckless mining; several other species are also dealing with the threat of extinction and fish species native to the Narmada such as kamankar, ghoghara and gurmuch have also become a rare sight.

Majhi, a fisherman by profession, testifies about the changing ecosystem around the river. He said that until a few years ago, flocks of cranes and herons were regularly seen on the banks of the river. Now, these have become a rare sight. A bird named titahri (sandpiper) which was common here is also hardly seen these days.

However, there have been some new sightings in the region. Various types of jalmurgi, which is the common moorhen or water hen (Gallinula chloropus) have been seen around the river. But locals point out that this bird species signal the poor quality of water in the Narmada.

Bhopal-based ornithologist Mohammed Khaliq said that like every other creature, birds also need food and safe shelter to flourish and procreate. “Sand mining destroys the many aquatic animals that these birds prey upon,” he added. “It also reduces the safe shelter for birds and their hatchlings, affecting their very survival.”

Sand mining effect

Talking to Mongabay-India, Medha Patkar, leader of the Save Narmada Movement, underlines the fact that mining threatens the very existence of a river. “Every river has its own ecology where fish, aquatic animals and other creatures that are dependent on these waters live.”

Social worker Vinayak Parihar added, “Due to sand mining, all tributaries of the Narmada have been turned into rivers that solely depend on rainwater. Tributaries like Dudhi, Tawa and Karjan are drying up due to mining and encroachment. The day is not far when the Narmada will also meet the same fate.”

He further said that rainwater or groundwater needs sand to join the flow of the river. “Sand mining has destroyed this process, adversely impacting the flow of the Narmada.”

Projects such as big dams, hydroelectric power plants and barrages are considered major contributors in destroying the river ecology. There are as many as 281 small and big dams and six hydroelectric projects built on the Narmada.

The land here extended to the small island but illegal sand extraction by land mafia has changed the ecosystem here. Photo credit: Rohit Shivhare/ Mongabay

A study conducted in collaboration with the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People revealed that sand mining should also be listed as a major factor.

The study suggests that sand mining depletes the natural habitats of plants, fish, turtles, crocodiles and other mammals. This also means lesser breeding sights for such creatures. The removal of sand and gravel pollutes the river water and increases its temperature, which leads to reduced oxygen levels in the water.

The study also suggests that the impact of in-stream mining, which means extraction of sand from the middle of the river, has a major impact on the flora and fauna. In addition, floodplain or terrace mining indirectly affects the river ecology by accumulating silt in the river.

Saving Narmada

Even as Dwarki and others like her face a major threat to their livelihood due to their dependence on fishing, illegal sand miners continue to make huge profits.

Standing on an elevated landmass on the banks of Narmada, Bachhuram, a member of the Sardar Sarovar Displaced Fish Association, pointed toward a small sand island in the river. He said that the land where he stands earlier extended till the island located in the middle of the river. “But the sand mafia has extracted all the sand in between. This small land too was saved some time ago when activists of the Save Narmada Movement caught hold of 150 tractors laden with illegal sand and handed them over to the police.” Bachhuram alleged that due to his role in anti-mining activities in the Narmada, he was attacked by angry sand mafia members.

Mukesh Bhagoria, who has been campaigning for the same cause under the Save Narmada Movement, points out that illegal sand mining continues at a very large scale in Badwani and Dhar districts. “According to a study conducted by us in collaboration with activists and the locals over the past two years, more than 6,000 tonnes of sand has been illegally extracted from river Narmada around the Barwani and Dhar districts,” he added. The study conducted by the Narmada Bachao Andolan has revealed crucial figures that are based on inputs from locals and people working at sand quarries.

Sand mining is done on a large scale in Avalda, Chhipkhedi, Baguda, Khedi, Piplud, Utavad, ChhotaBarda and Pichodi in Barwani district, and Lasangaon, Balwara, Pipalda Gadi, Nimola, Dharampuri, Gulati, Khujwa, Man Narmada Sangam, Ratwa, Bada Badda and Perkhard in Dhar district.

Pawan Solanki a resident of Barwani told Mongabay-India that miners are using all sorts of modern and heavy equipment such as Poclain, JCB and compressor machines with large dumpers, trucks and tractors for this purpose. On some occasions, villagers have also helped police confiscate the machinery, but those involved in illegal sand mining remain undeterred.

Administration’s role

On May 6, 2015, the Jabalpur High Court, while hearing the writ petition of Narmada Bachao Andolan leader Medha Patkar versus the Government of Madhya Pradesh, had given a decision to ban sand mining in the area surrounding the Sardar Sarovar Dam. Nearly two years later, on May 30, 2017, the National Green Tribunal Bhopal, while hearing Patkar’s petition, gave a verdict to ban sand mining in the submergence area of the Sardar Sarovar Dam.

Talking about the mining activities in the region, Medha Patkar said, “With the help of big machines, sand is removed from the depths of the river, due to which 50 ft-deep ditches have been formed on the riverbed. Due to these reasons, the Narmada river was completely dried up around Barwani in 2016-2017 and people started crossing it on foot.” She further states that the Supreme Court in its judgment dated February 27, 2012, Deepak Kumar versus the State of Haryana, held that sand mining causes great damage to the river.

Environmentalist and river expert KG Vyas validates the claim by saying that one has to first understand that a river is not just the water flowing in it but the entirety of life that survives inside it. “An imbalance in any of these components is detrimental for the river,” he said, adding that the Narmada is far from what it used to be 50-60 years ago.

Sand mining has caused great damage to the river. Sand, while maintaining the flow of water in the river, also allows some part of the water to flow parallel to the river. The purpose of the sand is also to balance the river with the flow. Besides this, many aquatic organisms live in sand, which is part of the food chain of the fauna dependent on the river as well as the creatures that prey on these living organisms from outside the river. Together, they all work to keep the river clean.

As soon as sand is removed from a river, there is huge water wastage. This has a serious effect on the river flow as well as on the organisms dependent on the sand, which results in the destruction of the whole river ecosystem, threatening the very existence of the river.

Despite the protests by locals and legal interventions by the courts, illegal sand mining continues. Photo credit: Mukesh Bhagoria/ Narmada Bachao Andolan

KG Vyas suggests a solution to this problem. He maintains that along with exploring alternatives to sand, the government should take initiatives on the lines of the forest department, wherein the mining department can take the responsibility of extracting sand from the river in a scientific and responsible manner so that the river and the flora and fauna dependent on the river are not harmed.

He also suggests that the mining department can make its own sand depot and sell it. “Illegal sand mining can also be stopped by creating separate checkpoints,” he adds. “Apart from protecting the river from getting destroyed, these steps will also help the government in getting full revenue.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.