by- Ankush P Aware
Residents of Panegoan village in the Nevasa taluka of Ahmednagar district in Maharashtra have been taking on the government and illegal sand miners without a formal organisation or leadership.
Panegoan is located on the right bank of the river Mula while Manjari village in Rahuri taluka is situated on the left bank. Panegoan must be perhaps among the very few villages on the banks of a river, in Maharashtra or in India, that has preserved its sand so abundantly (see photograph). This means that a sand track of between 20km and 21 km in length, 100 metres in width and about 80 feet to 100 feet depth, has been preserved in the village.
The villagers are fighting to preserve the ecosystem by not only preventing governmental agencies from auctioning off the sand but also deterring illegal sand miners from pillaging the riverbed.
Agriculture is a vital source of income for the Panegoan villagers. The village is a part of the sugar cane belt of Ahmednagar district and sugar cane is the major crop that is cultivated. Apart from agriculture, other sources of livelihood have not emerged due to its locational disadvantage since it is far away from the district headquarters, the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) and is also not located on any of the national or state highways. This non-availability of other avenues of employment has made the land owners as well as landless highly dependent on the agrarian economy, and the river Mula plays an important role in this scheme of things. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the economy of the village is linked with the fate of the river.
Sand plays a vital role in retaining the water-holding capacity of river and sand mining thus is a threat to the ecosystem as it not only disturbs the river flow but also affects the groundwater level. The role of the river Mula and its sand as aquifer is vital for agriculture-dependent villages like Panegoan, and has united the people of Panegoan and led them towards collective action, through which they have succeeded in protecting the riverbed from sand looters. As a result, the whole ecosystem of the village is being preserved as of now.
In 1997, the then circle officer announced an auction of the sand in Panegoan which was awarded to a contractor for Rs 10 lakh. However, realising and witnessing the perils faced by the neighbouring villages, which had allowed sand mining, the villagers of Panegoan decided not to allow extraction of sand from the riverbed. They immediately passed a resolution in the village gramsabha, banning any kind of sand extraction from the river. They also moved the Aurangabad bench of the Mumbai High Court. They are also seeking a permanent ban on sand auctioning in the village (Gudadhe; Personal Interview: 10 October 2016).
Since the waters of the Mula and the Mula dam have made it possible to cultivate water-consuming crops like sugar cane in the region, it has flourished due to the co-operative sugar factories located therein. The boom in construction in Ahmednagar and surrounding areas gave an impetus for legal and illegal sand mining in the bed of the Mula. The lifeline of the region was thus myopically exploited for sand and that from the riverbed in Valan, Pimpri, Khedale was extracted in large quantities. This led to the groundwater level getting depleted very quickly; the water-holding capacity of the river diminished. Groundwater level depleted to 300 feet in Valan.
In the month of October or November, the water in wells and tube wells is exhausted. Sand mining not only affected agriculture but it also disturbed the social peace and harmony in these villages. Easy money from sand mining has attracted the youth towards illegal activities that precipitated crimes in these villages, and on the other hand the permanent and assured source of agrarian income was jeopardised due to scarcity of water. The crime rate and severity of crimes have increased in the village since the extraction of sand (Adhav; Personal Interview: 20 October 2016). Criminalisation and sand mining are very much interlinked!
However, due to their collective struggle, a sand track spread over 20km to 21 km with 100 meter width and about 80 feet to 100 feet depth has been preserved in the village. In Panegoan tube wells get water at mere 50 feet to 60 feet underground whereas in the places where sand was excessively extracted water level has gone below 300 feet and there is no assurance of finding water too. Even though there was drought for four consecutive years—between 2012 and 2016—the village did not ask for water tankers for drinking water (Jangale; Personal Interview: 18 November 2016).
A rotation of water from Mula dam also enhances water-holding capacity of the village; water in the wells lasts for more than three to four months. Several check dams have been built on the river Mula. Sand plays a vital role in percolation of water, as percolation rate of water in the Panegoan area is extremely high, whereas villages which have extracted sand experience no percolation as rocks in the riverbed are exposed. No sand, no percolation!
Lack of sand and direct exposure to rocks makes it difficult for water to percolate and the water-holding capacity of riverbeds diminish due to deficiency of sand. Water flows rapidly in the riverbed devoid of sand, and the speed of water also precipitates soil erosion and siltation of riverbed. A riverbed full of sand avoids all these havocs and helps in preserving water.
The Panegoan villagers even blocked the tractors that were being used to transport sand (Jangale; Personal Interview: 19 November 2016) as also some tempos and dumper trucks. Word spread in the region that Panegoan does not allow sand mining and this began to deter the sand mafia members from dredging sand from the riverbed there. Only Panegoan residents are allowed to lift sand from the riverbed but with the condition that it must be done only in bullock carts and it should not be hoarded. Tractors and dumper trucks are not permitted to carry sand from the riverbed.
The uniqueness of the Panegoan’s movement is that it was spontaneous but has sustained itself for the last 19 years, without any external aid or support. People are contributing money for the pursuit of legal matter according to their financial capacity.
The Panegoan movement has also shown the way for other villages located on the banks of a river. Many villages have also passed resolutions at gramsabhas, preventing sand mining in any part of the river going through their villages. This ripple effect of the Panegoan movement is being felt in adjoining villages on the riverbanks of Mula and Pravara in the Ahmednagar district (Dainik Loksatta; Ahmednagar: 22 November 2016). More than 12 villages have moved to court seeking ban on legal sand extraction and through vigilance they are preventing illegal sand looting.
Villagers are using democratic and legal tools to protect rivers and riverbed from environmental poachers. A deep sense is prevalent among villagers that health of river is interlinked with the health of their agrarian economy. Despite knowing the hazards of sand mining, government is doing auction of sand for meagre revenue whereas the environment cost of sand extraction is exorbitant (Dainik Pudhari; Ahmednagar: 24 Nov. 2016). However, people are thwarting all efforts of the government agencies and sand mafias. Thus, it is a unique movement in a sense which is trying to prevent growing environmental degradation at the ground level.