In late February and early March, travelled across Karnataka to meet the families of 23 men who the Bharatiya Janata Party claims were murdered by “jihadi elements”. An investigation found that only 10 of the killings were linked to Muslim groups such as the Popular Front of India. The rest had resulted from political or personal enmity, and two men had committed suicide.

One recurring theme that emerged during the investigation was senior government officials pointing to the importance of sand mining to politics in the three communally volatile coastal districts of Uttara Kannada, Dakshina Kannada and Udupi. Records accessed by bear this out.

Sand mining is a highly lucrative business and political parties have crafted a clientele model to run it, the officials said. Politicians give mining permits to their loyalists, who in turn pour money into local politics. It is effectively a kind of a benami system, only it also threatens to destroy the sensitive ecosystem of the 21 rivers flowing through the region.

The story of how sand mining became big business in coastal Karnataka begins in 2011, when the central government framed the Coastal Regulation Zone, or CRZ, rules to govern economic activity along India’s coasts. The rules made it illegal to carry out any commercial activity within 100 metres of a river bank and 500 metres of the High Tide Line – the highest point on the coast reached by the rising tide – but exempted traditional activities such as fishing. The political class exploited this loophole, using “traditional communities” as a front to mine sand.

This became evident in 2017. The coastal district administrations brought in regulations to define “traditional communities”, and the number of people getting permits declined significantly. The officials said local politicians have been constantly trying to undermine the law governing coasts and rivers. The officials who introduced tighter regulations and clamped down on illegal miners by seizing their boats and vehicles have had to pay a price. Some have been transferred out.

This conflict between officials and politicians has extended to sand mining in non-CRZ areas. The politicians wanted a separate tendering system for sand mining in non-CRZ areas of the coastal districts but the officials opposed this and even wrote dissent notes to the Cabinet against formulating a dual tendering process. In the end, a compromise was reached to roll out a restricted system whereby only local people could bid for the permits.

Old practice

Coastal Karnataka is watered by several fast-flowing rivers originating in the Western Ghats. The Netravati, for example, has a large catchment area and high, swift flows during the monsoon. This river is a vital source of water for the Mangaluru region.

A study by the National Institute of Technology Karnataka in July 2017 showed how west-flowing rivers are joined by several tributaries just before they flow into the Arabian Sea. Some run parallel to the coast for several kilometres before merging near the estuary. The Netravati and its tributary Gurupur, for example, merge near Ullal in Dakshina Kannada. Mining primarily takes place downstream as the heavy water flow makes it difficult to remove sand upstream.

Sand has to be removed consistently to avoid build-up and breach in the banks from flooding. If not removed, it will be impossible for boats to use the waters.

For centuries, traditional fishing communities living by these rivers extracted sand to facilitate easy movement of their boats. They used baskets and small non-mechanised boats to remove the sand, which was rarely exploited commercially. In many places, the sand would be dumped on the banks.

In January 2011, as the CRZ rules were issued and officials moved in to stop sand extraction completely, the politicians realised the full potential of sand deposits in the area, the officials said. The estuaries became a prime target for sand mining. “It is counter-intuitive when you say that regulations led to exploitation,” a senior official added. “But this is exactly what happened.”

Legal loophole

On March 28, 2011, the Karnataka government wrote to the central environment ministry, seeking relaxation of norms to extract sand from CRZ areas. The reason given was that sand deposits were obstructing fishing boats and flooding farms. Moreover, sand extraction would provide employment to local communities.

The ministry responded through two letters in June and November 2011. It was permitting sand removal, the ministry clarified in the second letter, but only if done manually using small non-mechanised boats and baskets. It also asked for a seven-member committee to be formed under the collector in each district to draft regulations for extracting sand and issuing permits.

Yet, according to a senior official, no proper method was devised until 2017 to determine members of the communities exempted from the CRZ rules. “From 2012, the number of persons identified for permits ballooned as proper criteria were not established,” the officer said.

In 2012-’13, the records obtained by show, 203 sand mining permits were issued in Dakshina Kannada alone. The number dropped to 187 the next year and further to 53 in 2014-’15. The decline started after clearance from the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority was made mandatory for obtaining full permits. “The process was to first issue an in-principle approval so that they could apply for environment clearance,” an official said. Once the authority’s clearance was obtained, a full permit to mine the sand was issued.

But the downward trend did not last long. In 2015-’16, the number of permits went up to 242. The next year, it rose again to 427, with each permit holder allowed to extract sand from 0.25 acres to 0.5 acres across 18 sand deposits.

By the end of 2016, officials said, the Dakshina Kannada administration decided to frame regulations to determine who qualified as “traditional people”.

For 2017-’18, the district administration wanted to stipulate that a person provide proof of extracting sand for at least five years to be considered a traditional community member. “When this was put in place, the number drastically dropped to about 50,” said a district officer involved in regulating sand mining.

However, according to the officials, politicians exerted pressure to relax the five-year standard. They offered all sorts of excuses such as that traditional fishermen could not be expected to maintain records of five years, the officer added.

The five-year rule was then modified to three years, the officer said. This meant that the total permits for 2017-’18 settled at 92, a drop from 427 the previous year.

Deputy Commissioner Jagadeesha was transferred from Dakshina Kannada in October 2017 and posted as director of geology and mines, and later as labour commissioner.

Jagadeesha said he does not remember the details of the policy. “All decisions made are on record,” he said. “I do not recollect the exact details”.

Jagadeesha was replaced by Sashikanth Senthil. As soon as he took over, the officials said, he was pressured to reduce the criteria to two years to enable more permits. But he resisted. When contacted, Senthil refused to comment, citing the model code of conduct in place for the impending Assembly election. But officials in the know said Senthil has been seeking a complete ban on sand extraction in CRZ areas.

Permits cancelled

In neighbouring Udupi, sand mining led to a protracted legal battle in the National Green Tribunal.

The environment ministry’s letter in 2011 had asked for sand deposits to be identified scientifically with the help of institutions recognised by the ministry.

But Udaya Suvarna, Narayana Sriyan, Santosh Bangera and Suresh Kumder, who all claimed to be living on the banks of the Swarna river in Udupi, contested the legality of the studies conducted to identify sand bars for extraction. In their petition to the National Green Tribunal in June 2016, they pointed out that the professor who conducted the study for 2016-’17 had retired from the National Institute of Technology two years earlier. The recommendations made in his name could not be said to have come from an institute recognised by the environment ministry, they argued.

On February 27, 2017, the tribunal cancelled all permits issued for sand extraction in Udupi.

Dual policy

After Senthil took over as deputy commissioner of Dakshina Kannada in October 2017, he took help from the district’s police chief Sudheer Kumar Reddy to seize boats and vehicles transporting sand illegally. More than 50 cases were filed. It came to light that sand was being extracted using machines and mechanised boats.

But again, a senior official alleged, pressure from politicians led to Reddy’s transfer in December that year.

According to media reports at the time, Reddy was transferred at the behest of Congress’s Ramanatha Rai, the minister in charge of the district. Rai has denied the accusation, claiming the transfer was a routine administrative exercise.

“Reddy was extremely harsh on sand smugglers,” an officer said. “He ordered his men to seize vehicles, which hurt the sand mafia as an amount double the value of the vehicle has to be deposited in court if the vehicle is to be released during pendency of the case.”

In June 2017, a Cabinet sub-committee proposed to have a separate sand mining policy for coastal Karnataka. The dual policy was what politicians wanted but it was resisted by the bureaucracy.

The idea was to give “traditional people” permits to extract sands in non-CRZ areas without auction. The proposal was opposed by the departments of law, finance and mining, which cited the Supreme Court’s rulings against dual policies.

Chief Minister Siddaramaiah informed the Assembly that the decision to formulate a separate mining policy for coastal Karnataka was taken after representation from a delegation of leaders belonging to the region. This delegation was led by Ramanatha Rai.

The matter was referred to the advocate general, who opined that a separate policy for the coastal region was not illegal. The policy was finally cleared in September 2017. Addressing a press conference soon after, Law Minister TB Jayachandra said those applying for the permits will have to furnish proof of residing in the village concerned for at least 10 years as well as some proof of having mined sand for five years. The policy meant auctioning for the permits would be restricted to the gram panchayat where the sand bar was located. However, the officials said this could be relaxed to Taluk level soon, as the restrictions have resulted in very few applications.

The demand for a separate sand mining policy has not come from Congress leaders alone. The BJP MLA Sunil Kumar has also demanded such a policy.

A senior police official said it was important to check illegal sand mining since money from it funded other criminal activities. “Given the communal nature of the area, it is important to ensure this money does not reach those who would want to cause trouble,” the officer said.