Trunks of mangrove trees in the Sundarban delta, October 2006. Photo: Frances Voon/Flickr, CC BY 2.0
- Many of West Bengal’s natural resources have been degraded by illegal rackets run by people who allegedly have the backing of the ruling party, the TMC.
- Unregulated sand-mining and extraction of boulders from river basins have altered the courses of several rivers across the state.
- Illegal soil-cutting along river banks directly destroys riparian ecosystems and reduces the fertility of the surrounding agricultural lands.
- West Bengal is also losing important forests, including the precious mangroves of the Sundarban delta, to wood-smuggling.
- There have been violent encounters between offenders and between offenders and those asking questions of them, and against the state’s poorer people.
The West Bengal government has of late been neck-deep in a flood of allegations about different scams. They include the recent SSC recruitment scam and cattle smuggling scam, the infamous Sardha ‘chit-fund’ and Ponzi scams, the Narada sting operation, and the coal-smuggling scam.
But these are arguably not the West Bengal government’s worst mistakes. That distinction may lie with the wanton destruction of the state’s biodiversity.
Today, many of the state’s natural resources have been degraded by illegal rackets run by people who allegedly have the backing of the ruling party, the Trinamool Congress (TMC). Sand-smuggling, soil-cutting, stone-smuggling and forest and mangrove destruction don’t just hurt the environment, they actually eliminate it. And, as has become usual, the poor bear the brunt.
Sand- and stone-mining
Unregulated sand mining and extraction of boulders from river basins has altered the courses of several rivers across the state, including, reportedly, the Teesta in North Bengal.
Ten years ago, the Teesta, a transboundary river shared by India and Bangladesh, used to flow along the Burnish area of Maynaguri in Jalpaiguri before entering Bangladesh, said North Bengal-based environmental activist Soumitra Ghosh. “Now, its path has changed,” he said. “Similarly, rivers such as the Mahananda and the Jayanti have also changed their courses over the years.”
The Balason, Jaldhaka, Sankosh, Leesh, Siltorsha and indeed almost every other river with silt in the North Bengal districts of Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, Alipurduar and Cooch Behar have been victims of the illegal excavation of sand, gravel and pebbles, according to Ghosh.
According to a report by the Bengali daily Anandabazar Patrika earlier this year, sand that the district administration had allowed to be mined from the Teesta river basin to construct a building for the Jalpaiguri circuit bench of the Calcutta high court was actually smuggled elsewhere.
Together with the increasing number of dams and hydropower projects over the Teesta, the unchecked sand and stone extraction from the river basin has had an adverse effect on riparian communities.
“For the last five to seven years, the river embankments have been washed away every monsoon,” a farmer from North Bengal’s Gajaldoba was quoted as saying in the Bengali daily Ei Samay. “We even lose land where our homes are built. We have to move house every year.”
The situation is similarly appalling in South Bengal’s Birbhum, Bankura, West Midnapore, Hooghly, Howrah and Bardhaman districts. This August, a TMC panchayat pradhan in West Midnapore was reportedly accused of allowing sand to be mined from riverbeds without the permission of the district administration, in exchange for cash.
South Bengal’s Damodar river basin has probably been hurt the most. A 2021 report claimed that the river was confronted with an existential crisis after sand traffickers blocked its course in Asansol. According to the report, the river was dammed when contractors poured stones, bricks and boulders into it to make a path for the tractors and the dumpers to move sand out of the river bed.
Another news report earlier this year stated that in lieu of dredging to increase the navigability of the Damodar, a company was allegedly trafficking sand from West Bardhaman’s Raniganj area.
Locals have alleged that illegal sand-mining on the river banks used by the public was polluting the water supplied to the pipeline of the public health department. The government had allowed for some sand extraction without hurting day-to-day civic affairs. But the miners have seemingly had no such compulsions.
Just as bad as sand-mining is soil-cutting. Along river banks, it directly destroys riparian ecosystems. Local reports alleged that soil has been illegally cut out from farm and even private residential land to be smuggled elsewhere for use in brick making. Such soil poaching has been happening in Maldah, Birbhum, North 24 Parganas and Midnapore districts.
Between May and June this year, at least four incidents of illegal soil cutting were reported. In East Midnapore district this May, the police arrested four persons with suspected links to an influential local politician for poaching soil from a coastal town. In the same month, a TMC panchayat pradhan reportedly acknowledged that soil had been smuggled from his constituency in North Dinajpur’s Islampur.
In West Midnapore’s Chandrakona this June, the police stopped the filling of a municipality-owned wetland after the persons involved in the activity failed to provide legal documents that showed they had been given the authority to do so. Allegations were raised that trucks without number plates had smuggled soil to the region. Later the same month, Manoranjan Byapari, the TMC MLA from Balagrah, personally prevented the establishment of a soil mafia in Hooghly district.
Unchecked soil-cutting along the bank of the Bhagirathi river in East Bardhaman’s Katwa has deprived farm lands of their fertility. “Many people used to earn their livelihoods by farming on land adjoining the Bhagirathi river. But soil mafias have started cutting soil without considering the farmers and villagers,” the Bengali daily Ei Samay reported.
“Those who once cultivated the land are being threatened. As a result of soil cutting, holes of about 15 feet deep have been formed, making the land uncultivable.”
Forest and mangrove destruction
The unbridled cutting and smuggling of wood and the destruction of forests are further depleting West Bengal’s natural resources. The illegal felling of trees became a big issue earlier this year when TMC leader Pasang Lama, who was also the party’s candidate in Alipurduar’s Kalchini assembly constituency in 2021, was arrested allegedly for being part of a wood smuggling mafia in North Bengal’s Terai and Dooars regions.
Per reports, wood worth Rs 50 crore is smuggled every year from North Bengal’s forests. In South Bengal, the forests in West Midnapore and Jhargram districts have witnessed the regular felling of trees, allegedly for the wood to be smuggled.
At least a thousand hectares of the Sundarban mangroves have reportedly been lost to make way for wetlands meant to cultivate shrimp and prawns. Most of these wetlands are apparently illegal. Akashmoni, Arjun and mahogany wood are also smuggled out in large quantities.
“Though West Bengal has a high population density, forest land in West Bengal has decreased. This needless felling of trees heavily impacts the local climate and we have already started witnessing the bad effects of tree felling,” said Saurabh Prakritibadi, an environmentalist based in Purulia.
“For the last few years, North Bengal has been receiving very heavy rain for short periods of time. In South Bengal, the monsoon is almost always delayed. This year, we received very little rainfall. As a result, many small rivers dependent on rain water are dying and the agricultural activities and livelihoods depending on them are also hit,” Prakritibadi explained.
The claim that ruling party members are involved in illegal sand-mining across the state found some validation when the TMC required its 2018 panchayat polls candidates sign a written pledge that they wouldn’t engage in the activity if elected. In 2021, soon after coming to power for the third time, the TMC government decided to create a centralised auction system for sand quarries.
To restrain unlawful soil-cutting, the state administration announced a three-member block-level committee. With the block development officer as its head, a local inspector-in-charge and an official of the land reforms department as its other members, it is supposed to keep a close eye on illicit soil-cutting and smuggling activities in its constituency.
In its attempt to stop the destruction of forests, the top brass of the state government, including chief minister Mamata Banerjee, has repeatedly instructed the local administration and police to act swiftly and decisively. Banerjee had personally told the police to arrest Lama who, she said, was destroying West Bengal’s “heritage”.
However, the punishment for cutting and smuggling trees is not severe. In most cases, offenders get away with two years’ imprisonment and a maximum fine of Rs 10,000, which encourages poachers to carry on their businesses as usual. This is true for illegal sand- and stone-mining and soil-cutting as well.
Social and ecological impact
According to a 2020 paper by the India Rivers Forum and the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People, the state government’s negligence vis-à-vis curbing the unrestrained depletion of natural resources has “led to a boom in illegal extraction of river bed materials with ‘sand mafias’ ruling the roost at the more lucrative locations”.
One of the authors of the paper, Siddharth Agarwal, told The Wire:
“The ecological impacts of sand mining in rivers that you read about for other locations are also applicable to West Bengal. These include the loss of flood plains, the destruction of aquatic habitats, including that of India’s national aquatic animal, the Gangetic river dolphin, and loss in ground water recharge.
The combined effect of upstream river bed mining at multiple locations in a river system also affects coastal regions when enough sediment is not allowed to reach the ocean. These are important issues for a state with a coastline. This sediment load reduction is a combined effect of the impounding of rivers as well as sediment extraction by mining.”
Agarwal, a steering committee member at India Rivers Forum and founder of the Veditum India Foundation, is walking along India’s rivers to document stories of marginalised people from riparian communities.
The scale and intensity of illegal sand and soil excavation, Agarwal alleged, make them impossible to be conducted without the political support of the ruling dispensation anywhere in the country.
“Monitoring agencies are often powerless and powerful actors are hand in glove with illegal entities,” he explained. “Efforts to make this nexus visible are met with violence in a bid to quash questions. The violence also keeps good actors at bay.”
In 2015, three TMC workers were killed in alleged clashes between rival factions of the ruling party to take control of a local sand mafia in Wari in Bardhaman district.
In 2017, two gangs with alleged links to a local TMC leader hurled bombs and fired shots at each other, killing at least eight people in Birbhum. In the same district this year, following the murder of a TMC leader who allegedly refused to split the profits of illegal sand-mining with a rival party leader, eight people were burned to death.
Deaths and violence are part of the illicit soil-cutting and wood-smuggling trades as well.
As tragic as these deaths are, they are matched by the consequences of the impact of uncontrolled sand and stone excavation, soil-cutting and trafficking of wood on the people at large.
“The primary impact is the loss of habitat for vegetation, invertebrates, fishes, turtles, crocodilians, birds and mammals. This means the loss or shrinking of breeding and spawning sites, loss of food, and ultimately, changes in populations and community composition,” the 2020 paper said.
“Large-scale illegal sand-mining is climate change in action,” Agarwal said. “It has contributed to our changing climate over time and is only going to make things worse as we start seeing incidents take place because of a changing climate.”
In rivers with gravel deposits, such as the ones in North Bengal, the paper noted that uncontrolled excavation has “strong negative effects on groundwater-surface water exchanges and increases fine suspended sediment loads in the water column.”
When sediment is removed, the river becomes “hungry”, the paper added, and it becomes more erosive. A higher flooding intensity has been observed in Jharkhand’s Mayurakshi river due to uncontrolled sand mining, for example.
It is a fact that Himalayan rivers need to be dredged, said Ghosh, the environmental activist. “Due to deforestation and construction work upstream, rivers bring with them toxic and heavy materials,” he added. “They need to be cleared to ensure the river’s natural course downwards.”
When the administration slacks off, however, the increasing sediment load will erode river banks and block channels.
But the unrestricted mining of river beds is equally harmful, according to Prakritibadi. “The sand mafia has always existed. But right now, West Bengal is functioning like a petty criminal state and due to the government’s negligence, the mafias operate brazenly,” he said. “An uneven river ecology directly affects a large number of riparian livelihoods and the local climate by leading to a rise in temperature and causing a reduction in rainfall.”
The most threatening outcome of unwarranted soil-cutting is the erosion of embankments, triggering large-scale floods that wash away human properties. The erosion of banks also causes the river to gradually shift its course.
“To meet the ever-expanding need for bricks, more and more brick fields are being established rapidly and soil is cut from river banks. As a result, the river width is enlarged, engulfing valuable fertile lands,” noted Balai Chandra Das, a professor in the Krishnagar Government College, Nadia district.
“Soil cutting from [river] banks and beds by brick fields is one of the most triggering human activities affecting the river,” Das wrote. “This illegal practice causes bank erosion, leading to loss of property and life. It also multiplies silt charge and consequently the river becomes shallow and deteriorates rapidly.”
At a time when India has envisioned net-zero carbon emissions by 2070, destroying forests makes no sense. Global Forest Watch estimated that West Bengal has lost 752 ha of humid primary forest cover and 14,100 ha of its total tree cover, which is equal to a 3.4% decrease in tree cover since 2000.
The destruction of mangroves, meanwhile, is causing greater damage as West Bengal hosts 43% of India’s mangroves. According to the UN Environment Programme, mangroves “extract up to five times more carbon from the atmosphere than forests on land”.
Mangroves make up less than 1% of all tropical forests across the world. But they play, the UNEP said, a “critical role in mitigating climate change”. Mangroves are more important in South Bengal’s biodiversity because they provide a buffer against the effects of tropical cyclones.
Due to the destruction of mangroves in the Sundarban delta, the soil here has become saline, which in turn stunts more mangroves and reduces their chances of survival, Abhijit Mitra, the former head of Calcutta University’s marine science department, told Hindustan Times.
Thus, rising water levels have made many locals climate refugees in their own land. Rising tides have either submerged or rendered many small islands in the Sundarban uninhabitable, DW reported earlier this year.
“We wanted to stay as we had had a steady income from catching fish. But every other year we had to move inwards a little and build a new house as the island shrunk a little more. Finally, after surviving many storms and floods, we gave up,” a local was quoted as saying in the report.
Niladry Sarkar is an independent journalist based in West Bengal. He tweets at @niladry17.