On the night of July 30, 2022, at about 9 pm, I spotted a JCB machine extracting sand and gravel from the bed of the Shali Ganga stream in the Lalgund Panzan area of district Budgam. The Shali Ganga is a small stream that originates in the Tatakoti glacier in the Pir Panjal mountain range as a tributary of the Doodh Ganga, which itself is a tributary of the Jhelum river. This little stream is also the subject of an appeal I filed with the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in May 2022 about what I believe is the illegal grant of environmental clearance (EC) for riverbed mining on the Shali Ganga by the Jammu and Kashmir Environment Impact Assessment Authority (JKEIAA) to a Gurugram-based construction company named NKC Projects Pvt Ltd.

I filed this case with the NGT when, after nearly a year of appealing to various government authorities, including the District Mineral Officer, Budgam, the Sub Divisional Magistrate, Chadoora, and the Secretary, Mining, J&K government, to look into violations of environmental laws by various contractors including NKC Projects Pvt. Ltd, I saw that no action was being taken.

Based on my appeal petition which needed to filed within one month of the project clearance as mandated by the EIAA guidelines, the NGT had given the JKEIAA and NKC Projects a month to reply to my charges that they were violating the regulations of the Jammu and Kashmir Minor Mineral Concession, the Transportation of Minerals and Prevention of Illegal Mining Rules, 2016, and the standard guidelines of the JKEIAA itself.

In response to the notice issued by the NGT, member secretary of the JKEIAA Rakesh Kumar wrote on June 26, 2022, to the Registrar General, National Green Tribunal, denying that the agency’s guidelines were being violated.

On July 29, 2022, NKC Projects Pvt Ltd also wrote to the NGT, denying the charges I made against them. Supported by an affidavit, a copy of which is in my possession, NKC Projects said that the heavy machinery brought to the site was being used merely to create an approach road to the mine and that all mining operations stop at 6 pm.

Yet, on the night of July 30, at about 9 pm, exactly one day after the NGT received the reply and affidavit from NKC Projects Pvt. Ltd that denied all violations, I spotted a JCB machine extracting sand and gravel from the bed of the Shali Ganga.

It seems the problem of illegal mining in the Kashmir valley is set to continue for years. Machines at midnight Part of the beauty of the Kashmir Valley comes from the many rivers and streams that arise in the mountains of the Himalayas and the Pir Panjal and flow into the Jhelum river. Most of these tributaries are less than 50 meters wide. But their waters are used for drinking and to irrigate paddy fields and apple orchards.

In the last 20 years, the combination of massive urbanisation and a population explosion has put pressure on the Jhelum and its tributaries, many of which are being mined for construction material like sand, gravel and boulders regardless of environmental concerns. While riverbed mining has always been conducted in this area, it was carried out manually by local workers, so the environmental impact was low. However, in the last few years, contractors have been bringing in heavy machines for riverbed mining, which is degrading and destroying these rivers. Since the cost of construction materials has also nearly doubled, locals believe that an organised mining mafia is working across the Kashmir valley, clandestinely backed by officials from several government departments including the geology and mining department, the irrigation and flood control department, and the departments of fisheries, revenue and police.

It is never easy for a project proponent (contractor) to get a river bed mining contract anywhere in the country since there is a long and rigorous process involved in acquiring environmental clearance from the relevant State Environmental Impact Assessment Authority.

In Jammu & Kashmir, the JKEIAA, which works under the direction of the Union Ministry of Environment Forests and Climate Change, is the authority that grants the EC document when the project proponent fulfils several standard and specific conditions. These conditions include the prohibition of mining at night, the prohibition of the use of heavy machinery in mining operations, a provision to sell the excavated material from the riverbed locally at a discount of 50% and the use of CCTVs on the site.

The rigorous process exists for a reason. Already, Kashmir’s paddy land has been destroyed by brick kilns and almond orchards in karewa land (elevated table land) have been wasted due to clay mining. Rivers and streams are unscrupulous contractors’ next target. Without an environmental impact assessment, no project proponent can undertake riverbed mining. In the case of the Shali Ganga mining site, the EC was granted by the JKEIAA to NKC Project Pvt. Ltd under proposal numbers SIA/JK/MIN/255737/2022 and SIA/JK/MIN/233732/2021 and an order dated April 19, 2022, to undertake riverbed mining on approximately three hectares of riverbed around minor mineral Block No. 4 located between Panzan bridge and Trumbi Bagh, in downstream Shali Ganga. This is located at Lalgam village in Chadoora tehsil of Budgam district.

NKC Project Pvt. Ltd, incidentally, also holds the contract for the Srinagar Semi Ring Road. When the NGT heard my appeal against the JKEIAA and NKC Project Pvt. Ltd, my counsel Rahul Chowdhary argued that the EC granted by JKEIAA was in violation of Rule 4(iv) of the Jammu and Kashmir Minor Mineral Concession which states that the licensee of a unit/plant/crusher should maintain all records of the minor minerals procured, processed and supplied to further destinations and submit monthly returns.

Chowdhary added that Rule 4 of the J&K Mining Rules, 2016, is also being violated as it prohibits mining within 25 meters from the embankments. Since the widths of the Doodh Ganga and Shali Ganga streams are no more than 40 meters on an average, it seems that no verification of the width of the streams was made on ground. Thus, it is illegal to allow mining in their riverbeds.

When the court issued a one-month notice to the JKEIAA and NKC Project Pvt. Ltd, the JKEIAA responded within two days, stating that the rule regarding distance from the embankments had been amended, reducing it to 10 metres on either side. Even with this new parameter in place however, the fact remains that the mining is being carried out just two to three metres away from the embankments.