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Water
Sand Pirates
India’s red-hot construction boom is leaving the country’s riverbeds—and the wildlife that depends on them—in the dust.

When Jamuna Thiagarajan was young, the waters of India’s Palar River ran green. Little gray foxes gambolled in the woods. Kingfishers and other birds nested on the shores. “We used to have streams” even in the dry season, recalls Thiagarajan, now 76, who crusades to save the waterway as president of the Save Palar People’s Movement. Children played with frogs among the rivulets while men caught fish. Now the riverbed is bone dry most of the year.

Upriver states, modern irrigation systems, and tanneries all siphon water out of the Palar. And then there’s the “sand mafia.” To provide the concrete that fuels India’s construction boom, thieves steal the river’s sand and, with it, its very capacity to retain groundwater in the dry summer months.

As a result, wildlife is suffering. The sand mining disturbs migrating gulls’ rest stops, says P.A. Azeez, director of India’s Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History. Waders and plovers are losing ground, too. “They feed on the sand banks, where it is a bit moist” and they can find worms, mussels, and crabs, Azeez explains. Kingfishers and bee-eaters nest on the muddy sandbanks. Without the moisture, “the bank starts crumbling down, and the nests come with it.”

The sand acts like a sponge, holding and releasing water. The aquifer below recharges the groundwater slowly to supply farm crops and other vegetation. The Palar’s sand was once 25 to 30 feet deep, says S. Janakarajan of the Madras Institute of Development Studies. Now much of what was created over millennia has been stripped away. “The future is in dilemma,” he says, adding that no one stops the thieves because “it’s a necessary evil. Sand is like gold.”

In a mined Palar tributary, man-high gouges pock a 15-foot golden sand cliff. Off to the side, in small pools, algae bloom. Bubbles rise in the water. A short ride away, a small emerald-green rice paddy dazzles. “The whole banks were like this before, but paddies are very rare now,” Thiagarajan says.

Mining along the Palar is allowed to a depth of five feet for permit holders, but revenue officers catch thieves digging deeper almost daily. “They take so many loads and pay a fine one or two times when they are caught,” says the district sub-collector, Lalitha Lakshmi Venkataramani, who the previous week had apprehended sand pirates with six tractors in a night raid.
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