Drawing a line in the sand
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A year after Dilip Mahato was killed by the sand mafia, his family still seeks justice, and illegal mining continues unabated
Bhrikuti Rai in Dhanusa

Each time Sangam Mahato passes the excavators scooping up sand from the Aurahi River, it brings back painful memories of her brother, Om Prakash. Also known as ‘Dilip’, her brother had been protesting illegal sand mining, and pushing for the conservation of the ecologically fragile Chure Hills.

Dilip was murdered on 10 January 2020, crushed beneath the wheels of a tipper truck. He was only 24.

“My brother had been in arguments with contractors who he believed were destroying the Chure and the rivers nearby with uncontrolled excavation,” recalls Sangam. “But we never thought that his activism would cost him his life.”

Dilip Mahato had become an environment activist after seeing his community suffer from the consequences of uncontrolled riverbed mining. Photos: Bikram Rai

Dilip’s murder made headlines. His body had cuts from a sharp iron rod, and deep injuries from being run over. Social media was filled with ‘Justice for Dilip’ posts. Everyone, from former president Ram Baran Yadav to Members of Parliament, condemned Dilip’s murder and vowed to protect the Chure.

After the crime, on 13 January the Province 2 government said it would put an end to all illegal riverbed mining and handed half a million rupees to the Mahato family for their loss. But a year on, the spotlight has moved on to other injustices. The local and national governments are struggling to control the Covid-19 pandemic, Nepal is in a full-fledged political crisis, and the rampant destruction of the Chure has resumed.

Dozens of sand processing operations, like this one in Ratu river in Mahottari, are rarely penalized despite flouting mining regulations.

Dilip was an engineering student at college in India and had come home for his holidays. Seeing his community suffer from the consequences of uncontrolled riverbed mining, he had become an environmental activist.

Deforestation and mining were drying up water sources, the ground water table was receding, and in the monsoon the flooded rivers destroyed homesteads and farms. Forest cover in the Chure, which makes up 15% of Nepal’s area, is vital for groundwater recharge in the Tarai. The sand and boulders in the floodplains slow the velocity of rivers in the monsoon.

But not even Dilip's death and the ensuing public outrage has stopped contractors from mining the river beds and hills for sand, aggregates and boulders to feed a booming construction industry.

Satellite image of Ratu river and sand mining activities in the surrounding area.
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“Earlier, we only had to dig about 20 metres to install a hand pump, but now we have to look for water as deep as 100 metres, and even that does not guarantee water supply for more than a year or two,” says Dhanusa activist Dev Narayan Mandal. “The water scarcity here in the dry season is as bad as in a city like Kathmandu.”

It is in Province 2 that the consequences of the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources are most acute, and are further burdening an already impoverished region. The province ranks among the lowest on the Human Development Index.

In a 2018 report by the National Planning Commission, Province 2 fared the worst nationally. It said: ‘roughly half of the population is poor ... the intensity of deprivation is higher in Province 2 than it is nationally’.

Rampant riverbed mining for sand and boulders have also made the rivers downstream increasingly destructive, breaching their banks and destroying farmlands and villages. While water is in short supply during the dry season, floods and landslides are becoming common in the summer and the monsoon.

According to the Home Ministry, nearly 200 people have lost their lives to floods just in the eight districts of Province 2 in the last decade and thousands of families have lost their homes and property to inundation.

Nor any drop to drink

Digambarpur in Chhireshwarnath municipality is a quiet village on the banks of the Jallad River in Dhanusa. The settlement’s 900-odd households are spread out next to sprawling green fields where farmers grow sugarcane, mustard and an assortment of vegetables, from cauliflower to eggplant. The produce is consumed locally, and also sold to the nearby towns of Janakpur and Bardibas.

But with each passing year, growing crops in Digambarpur’s fertile soil has become more difficult, and expensive. Despite being situated less than 500m away from the Jallad River, which has its source to the north in the Chure, the once-abundant water sources have dried up. For water-intensive crops like sugarcane, not having reliable irrigation means that much of the cash crop dries up before it can be harvested.

Now, black plastic pipes connected to water pumps jostle for space at the openings of deep wells beside each home, a stark reminder of the water shortage in the plains.

Besides the bigger rivers that flow down from the mountains, Province 2 has more than two dozen rivers and rivulets flowing through its eight districts from the Chure. They have irrigated some of Nepal’s most fertile agricultural land. But that might soon be changing.

Ward chair Asheshwar Mahato of Chhireshwarnath 5 in Dhanusa blames deforestation in the Chure, and the wholesale exploitation of the province’s rivers for the water scarcity. He says he has been able to limit the use of heavy machinery in his ward.

Just a few kilometres away in Ward 7, however, excavators are digging up the riverbed nearly lowering it by 6m — almost five times more than government guidelines. This has resulted almost directly to a reduction to the water table in the region, according to locals.

Ram Devi Tachamo Shah is a river ecologist at Kathmandu University who has studied the effects of resource extraction on large rivers like the Rapti. Drawing out large quantities of sand and pebbles means riverbeds lose their ability to retain water, which is crucial for groundwater recharge.

“What we see now is just layers of loose material like clay, which cannot hold water and simply flushes whatever passes through,” Shah says.

These signs are already visible in Digambarpur. Ward chair Mahato says: “Our wells have all dried up, now we have to dig up to 150m and use commercial water pumps to irrigate our fields.”

Farmers in Digambarpur are forced to use imported commercial pumps, which are almost five times as expensive and consume much more electricity than regular ones.

Moving between rows of cauliflowers in full bloom, Gulab Devi Shah deftly cuts off their heads with a large knife, leaving the green leaves in place. But this harvest has come at a steep price. She pays nearly Rs4,000 each month just on electricity bills for a water pump that irrigates her small patch of land during the dry season. These bills eat up a quarter of her profits from annual cauliflower harvest.

“It’s getting harder every year to cover the plantation cost, but we have to pay for pumping the water. There is no other source of income here except farming,” she adds.

Gulab Devi Shah is forced to pay thousands on water pumps to irrigate her vegetable farm in Dhanusa.

Most Digambarpur farmers report the same story. Despite being surrounded by a river, there just is not enough water.

“What was doable for under Rs15,000 using regular motor pumps now requires imported commercial pumps, which are almost five times as expensive and consume much more electricity,” says Ward chair Mahato.

Existing government guidelines aimed at regulating the mining of riverbeds clearly state that industries need to maintain proper standards to protect the environment and the community they operate in, especially along the ecologically-sensitive Chure.

For instance, excavation of sand and pebbles from rivers cannot go deeper than 1m. The guidelines also limit the use of heavy machinery, which adversely impacts riverbeds and risks lowering water tables. Once the mining is over, excavation pits and ditches need to be filled in and levelled. But in districts like Dhanusa and Mahottari, these guidelines are often ignored.

In Mahottari, on the banks of the flood-prone Ratu river, the gouging of sand and pebbles from pits as deep as 20 feet has left several cavernous ditches like these, that turn into ponds when it rains heavily.

Since being elected to office in 2017, Asheshwar Mahato’s ward has spent close to half a million rupees installing wells and pumps in his constituency, but households still do not have a reliable water supply throughout the year.

“The government’s focus on creating water tanks by spending installing expensive water pumps while allowing exploitation in the Chure to continue is like pouring water into sand,” says journalist and environmental activist Rajkarana Mahato from adjoining Mahottari district.

Bikram Yadav, a local activist from Dhanusa, started the ‘Save Kamala River Campaign’ as he watched the river dying slowly. Along with the Kosi and Bagmati rivers, the Kamala is one of the three primary rivers that start in the mountains and flow across Province 2 into India, providing vital irrigation to farmlands here.

“Drilling deep tube wells isn’t a long-term solution to the growing water shortage, because unless rivers and other water bodies go back to healthy levels, the water table will not recharge,” Yadav says. “For that to happen, we need to overhaul our idea of development, which relies so heavily on sand and pebbles from the rivers.”

Urban expansion in the Tarai, coupled with a growing emphasis on road connectivity, especially since the local elections in 2017, have fuelled demand for sand and aggregates from the rivers.

Nepal is the top importer of heavy earth-moving equipment in South Asia. Backhoe loaders, excavators and wheel loaders facilitate the country’s road building projects, are taking up an ever-growing share of physical infrastructure budgets.

Ongoing road expansion project near Janakpur. A huge chunk of the provincial governments’ budget is spent on roads.

According to the Ministry of Finance, Rs109 billion was earmarked for infrastructure projects in 2018/19, which grew to Rs163 million the following year. This year, the budget allocation was reduced because of the pandemic, but construction projects have continued to be a priority with Rs138 billion, nearly 10% of the federal budget earmarked for infrastructure.

A huge chunk of the provincial governments’ capital expenditure is spent on roads. In 2018/19, Nepal’s seven provinces spent Rs20.14 billion just to build roads and bridges. This is almost 18% of the provincial governments’ total budget. This year, even amidst a raging pandemic, provincial governments earmarked Rs45.33 billion for roads and bridges, almost a third of the total capital expenditure.

Lives lost to negligence

In Mahottari, on the banks of the flood-prone Ratu River, the gouging of sand and pebbles from pits as deep as 8m have left several cavernous ditches deep enough to engulf several vehicles. Government guidelines require these pits to be filled up and trees planted on top once excavation is complete. But they remain wide open, surrounded by weeds, turning into ponds when it rains heavily. Ducks swim lazily in the still waters of these man-made ponds, and in the summer children take dips for respite from the Tarai heat.

But these makeshift swimming pools can turn deadly. Last July, 16-year-old Rohit Mishra of Bardibas drowned in a 6m deep pit left behind by sand miners on the riverbed of the Ratu River. Less than a month later, a boy aged 12 and a 22-year-old man, drowned in abandoned ditches near riverbanks in Dhanusa.

In the last decade, at least a dozen cases have been reported from across the country of people drowning in waterlogged pits left behind by sand mining and crusher companies.

Despite deaths, mining companies, like the Churiya Mai Crusher Factory in Dhanusa, where Dilip was killed, are rarely penalised. In 2018, the Center for Investigative Journalism (CIJ) reported how companies hush up such cases by paying victims’ families compensation money.

Sangam Mahato in front of the now closed Churiyamai Sand Processing Factory near Aurahi river, where her brother Dilip was killed last year.

These tragedies continue to take place under the watch of elected leaders, many of whom have a stake in the construction industry and allow the excavation to continue unabated, according to Dhanusa-based environmental activist Som Prasad Sharma.

Locals allege that the mayor of Mithila municipality in Dhanusa, Hari Narayan Mahato’s family have invested in bulldozers and tippers used by sand mining companies in the district. His son Roshan Mahato is also in the construction business. But Mahato denies this: “These are all baseless allegations. I have nothing to say about them. All the river mining in Mithila municipality is done as per the guidelines.”

The cosy relationship between sand mining companies and the authorities was exposed during the most recent local elections.

In Bardibas, businessman Prahlad Chhetri, whose company is one of many that have excavated sand from the Ratu River, contested the 2017 election as a mayoral candidate from the Nepali Congress. Chhetri lost the election but dozens of others like him received tickets from the major political parties and were elected to public office.

A 2018 report in Himal Khabarpatrika showed that a quarter of all elected representatives at the local level have ties to construction companies and sand mining operations. These linkages have made the work of environmental activists even more challenging.

As the chairperson of the Federation of Community Forestry Users Nepal (FECOFUN) in Province 2, activist Som Prasad has taken up the issue of river conservation with local leaders and policy makers for years now. But he is frustrated by those at the decision-making level who have failed to prioritise Chure conservation and better management of sand mining.

“When we question elected leaders about the illegal mining happening under their watch, they shrug off the criticism saying they have given out contracts to these companies following due process and call for a tender,” Prasad says.

Last May, a parliament committee inspection team, led by assembly member Ram Chandra Mandal, visited mining sites along the Ratu River that contradicted guidelines, but no action was taken and the companies continue to operate, he adds.

Despite mining rules and regulations in place, authorities responsible for regulating these industries have not been able to monitor the toll mining is taking on the environment.

Last year, when Dilip Mahato was murdered, Province 2 had already issued a directive mandating industries to strictly follow conservation guidelines and safeguard the welfare of local communities. But companies are openly mining rivers without permission, or beyond the permissible limit, explains Som Prasad.

Often, even elected leaders find their hands tied. Falgun Magar, Ward chair of Bardibas 7, is among the few elected leaders who have made stopping uncontrolled sand mining a priority, but without much success. He acknowledges the rampant illegal sand mining in the rivers, but says the contractors with political connections are too powerful.

As ward chair, he says his authority and resources are limited, despite the looming threat of environmental destruction in his constituency caused by unregulated mining.

“This year, we made a decision that we wouldn’t call for tenders for rivers in our ward because mining would flood nearby villages,” Magar says. “But the Bardibas Municipality didn’t listen and went ahead with the tender because they see the rivers only as a source of revenue.”

In two years since taking office, he says he has written to the Bardibas Municipality multiple times, but to his frustration there has been no action. “We are doing whatever we can at the Ward level but it is up to the Municipality to recommend and take action to penalise those who are disobeying guidelines,” he says.

One step forward, two steps back

In November, the Home Ministry announced that all illegal sand mining factories across the country would be shut down. While some have welcomed the decision as emblematic of the government’s commitment to weed out malpractices in the mining industry, advocate Chiranjivi Bhattarai is more sceptical.

Nearly two decades of environmental activism in Nepal, involving multiple lawsuits seeking to stop illegal sand mining has taught him not to celebrate these governments' decisions until they are implemented effectively.

“These are all half-hearted directives, they are illusions to deceive the people into thinking that the government cares about these things,” Bhattarai says. “The government only seeks to address problems when they are raised, and then it is all back to business in a few days because of the nexus between the contractors, police and political leaders.”

And his scepticism is not unfounded. In the past decade, there have been countless such directives, regulations, and court orders, all of which seek to address the growing environmental and social problems related to unregulated natural resource extraction.

Trucks carrying stones from rivers along the east west highway in Dhanusa.
In districts like Dhanusa and Mahottari, riverbed mining guidelines are often ignored, leading to growing water shortage.
Plastic pipes connected to water pumps jostle for space along the mouths of deep wells in towns and villages across Province 2.
Sand processing plants near Ratu bridge in Mahottari.

The latest government decision comes nearly a decade after the Parliamentary Committee on Natural Resources came up with a comprehensive report on better regulating riverbed mining, directing local bodies and authorities to ensure effective monitoring of these industries, and closing all illegal mining operations.

Several new laws and directives issued at the central and local levels have all had the same content — stricter guidelines, better monitoring, and coordination among all the different government agencies. But experts say that unless the deliberate bending of rules in order to gain influence and resources is addressed, these directives will not have impact.

The Constitution clearly states that the three levels of government have the authority to make their own policies regarding natural resource use and collect revenue generated from the same. But the lack of a strong oversight agency, a sense of ownership towards natural resources, and a business-political nexus have created this mess, says federalism and local government analyst Khim Lal Devkota.

“Unfortunately, our politics isn’t clean, which adds complexities around regulations when it comes to governing natural resources,” says Devkota. “The nexus with sand mining interest groups has resulted in policies and laws being made to favour these industries.”

Meanwhile, the families affected by the repercussions of the actions of these powerful industries continue to live in grief and fear.

Dilip's father Ram Jiwan Mahato in front of their home in Sripur Dhanusa.

Dilip Mahato’s family has set up a foundation to give continuity to his environmental activism. Walking past the deep mine pits all over the riverbed in Dhanusa worries Dilip’s father, Ram Jiwan. He says there is no way to undo the harm, and that placing a limit on how much and how sustainably sand can be extracted is key.

“When people cut their fingers and bleed briefly, they don’t pass out. But syringes jabbed to draw pouches of blood can be fatal,” he says, leaning against a faded blue mud wall near a smiling photo of Dilip. “It’s the same thing with rivers when excavators are used to dig them up.”

Bhrikuti Rai is a Bertha fellow