Drowning in sorrow

Children who have lost their lives in the pits and ditches left by contractors: (clockwise) Riya Bishwakarma, Sushil Layomagar, Aditya Layomagar, Jasmine Khatun, Suman Mahato, Anil Mahato, Karuna Bishwakarma, and Samma Khatun. All Photos: MUKESH POKHREL/HIMAL

Despite protests, defiant sand mining and quarry contractors have continued to leave large abandoned pits along Nepal’s rivers in which children drown by the dozens every year. 

There is no exact count of how many of the children who drown every monsoon lose their lives in the pits and ditches left by sand mining contractors because police only record these deaths as generalised 'deaths by drowning’.

In Dhanusa district alone, 206 children have drowned in the past two years – most of them were under 15 years and died while swimming in these water-filled sand mining pits.  

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Sushil Layomagar, 12, of Birendra Bazar could not return to school after holidays in July 2019 because of heavy rains. He was sent out in the afternoon to graze goats, but fell into a 50m deep pit dug by a sand mining contractor, and drowned together with a friend.

This was a doubly severe blow to his mother, Chhalimaya, whose husband Hari Bahadur had died in Saudi Arabia earlier that year. The contractor had extracted sand and gravel to build the Bharatpur-Srirampur road, but left the gaping hole that filled with water after the rains.

There was a strong protest against the contractor. "We told them to stop digging, the children will fall into the ditch,” says Susil’s grandmother Madhumaya Layomagar. “But they shouted at us, saying that they owned the land and could do with it as they pleased."

In the adjoining Sarlahi district the same year, Samma Khatun, 6, and Jasmine Khatun, 11, of Sarlahi drowned in a pit dug by a brick kiln. The two girls left home to play at noon, but when they did not return for two hours the parents started a frantic search. 

Jasmine's grandmother Jahira Khatun recalls, "They used to go to pick grapes, so we went to look over there. A while later, the brick kiln workers saw the children in the water and called us. They had already stopped breathing.” 

It is not just in the Tarai that children are drowning in abandoned sand pits. In Nuwakot, 12-year-old Binita Balami fell into a ditch left by illegal sand miners. Laxmi Tamang, 35, jumped into the pond to save her but also drowned. Last year, another 12-year-old boy drowned in similar circumstances by Nuwakot’s Likhu River. 

There have been many localised protests against contractors and calls for a ban on their activities, but both licensed and illegal businesses have local political patronage and have continued unabated. The rampant sand mining does not just pose a danger to children drowning, but also threatens bridges and other infrastructure.

Residents of Naktjij in Dhanusa have repeatedly complained to the municipality office against illegal gravel extraction along the Aurahi River, which has led to many deaths of children. The practice continues. 

It was after protests against illegal sand mining on Aurahi River that Dilip Mahato was beaten and then run over and killed by a tipper truck near his home in Sripur in January 2020. Mahato was a college student in India, and had been outraged by the dangerous pits that the contractors left near his home. 

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Following his murder, locals formed a struggle committee and waged a losing battle against the contractors. Dilip's father, Ramjivan Mahato, says the police sided with the owners of the Churiyamai Sand Processing Centre. 

The government’s rule on sand excavation prohibits sand and gravel mining within 2km of towns, and along rivers with a 1km radius of highways and bridges. The regulation requires contractors to level out ditches after mining so it does not collect water. The rules are blatantly ignored. 

Neither the national nor provincial governments have any data on how much sand, gravel and boulders are extracted from Nepal’s rivers and streams every year, but the Chure Tarai Madhes Conservation Committee estimates that more than 30 million cubic metres of riverine resources are collected annually nationwide. 

Only 20 out of 100 municipalities along the Chure Range which are extracting sand and gravel actually had licenses, according to Prem Nath Poudel, a geologist at the Committee. He adds, "There has been far more excavation than we have allowed. Even within the 20 municipalities that have the approval.”

The government is also seeing very little revenue in relation to the amount of excavation being done. The municipalities generally set a minimum price of Rs211 per cubic metre for the sand and gravel when inviting bids, which means the revenue for 30 million cubic metres should be Rs6.33 billion. “We are tired,” says Ramjivan. “When a child drowns and we lodge a complaint, excavation work stops for a day or two. But the digging soon resumes.” 

But according to the National Natural Resources and Finance Commission, the government collected only Rs4.62 billion in revenue from sand and gravel contractors in the current fiscal year despite one-third of municipalities across the country having signed contracts for excavation. It is clear that most of the mining is illegal, or are licensed in exchange for kickbacks.

The business is being driven by a surge in construction across the country, which has raised the demand for building material. The trade is so lucrative that political party leaders, the local administration and police officials are all in on it. In the 2017 local level elections, 68 among the 616 elected persons from 137 municipalities of Province 2 had affiliations with excavation contractors. 

Dev Prakash Tripathi is a journalist, who after seeing rampant illegal sand mining in his native Malekhu has become an activist with the 'Save Trisuli Campaign' in Dhading district. He says, “Leaders and people's representatives of all political parties have invested in the sand and gravel trade, which means their businesses are above the law.” 

Some big names linked to sand and quarry contractors are Krishna Lal Shrestha, chairman of Galchi Municipality of Dhading, Rajendra Pandey, leader of CPN (Unified Socialist), Bhumi Tripathi, and Salikram Jamarkattel, leader of CPN-Maoist Centre. 

Bishwa Aryal and Prabhat Kiran Subedi of the Nepali Congress have also been found directly or indirectly involved. A local government chief in Mahottari district, who did not want to be named, admitted that he would not be able to cover his election expenses unless he supported sand extraction. 

He says matter-of-factly, “I can’t sell my house to pay for the election. What’s wrong with selling sand and pebbles that are washed down by the rivers?” 

Such criminal callousness angers families like the Layomagars and Khatuns who have lost their children to drowning on sand pits, and to Ramjivan Mahato whose activist son was killed by lawless contractors in cahoots with local politicians.

Here in Dhanusa, the excavators and tipper trucks of the Churiyamai Sand Processing Centre are back on the banks of the Aurahi River, digging up sand and gravel. The company is still threatening the Mahato family. 

Says Ramjivan: “They say we already killed one of your children, don’t make us kill another one.”

Translated from the original article by Aryan Sitaula.

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