Chennai, INDIA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The arrests of several businessmen and sacking of a senior bureaucrat in southern India have highlighted the power of the so-called "sand mining mafia", accused of damaging the coastline and destroying livelihoods of impoverished communities.
India's main agency for investigating corruption, the Central Bureau of Investigation, this week arrested sand mining baron Shekhar Reddy and several associates after seizing large amounts of cash and gold from his home in Tamil Nadu state.
Tamil Nadu's Chief Secretary P. Rama Mohana Rao was removed from his job a day after his home was raided.
An investigation is ongoing, a state official told reporters in Chennai, without giving more details.
The arrests highlight the large amounts of money to be made from sand mining and why the industry thrives despite laws to check illegal mining, said Debi Goenka at environmental non-profit the Conservation Action Trust.
"Sand is literally worth its weight in gold in India because of the construction boom," he said.
"There's no shortage of laws, but no enforcement. There's corruption at all levels. Meanwhile, coastlines are eroding, coastal settlements are disappearing and groundwater is falling."
As the world's fastest growing major economy expands, demand for construction materials, including sand, is increasing to build roads, airports, malls and homes.
Despite laws regulating sand mining in most states, rivers and beaches are dredged beyond safe levels. Bribing of local officials and the police is common, campaigners say.
Officials say they are doing everything they can to check the practice.
"We have a high-level monitoring committee and we conduct periodic reviews to check illicit and illegal sand mining," said R. Palaniswamy, the state's mining commissioner.
"We are aware there are violations; we investigate them and take appropriate action. We are doing everything in our power," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Thousands of truckloads of sand are mined every day in Tamil Nadu, which has India's second-longest coastline.
Sand is key to the construction industry, which provides about 35 million jobs.
Sand that is mined is worth up to 450 billion rupees ($6.6 billion) annually, according to some estimates, but much of this is illegal, and its impact is serious.
Removing large amounts of sand erodes river beds and beaches, enlarges river mouths, destroys bio-diversity, and exacerbates groundwater shortages and flooding, while leading to the loss of livelihoods of coastal communities.
Sand mining has depleted fish stocks, and made water unfit for agriculture. It has also led to landslides, which further erode coastlines and hurt communities that depend on the water for their livelihoods.
It is a similar story elsewhere in Asia. In Cambodia, illegal sand mining has led to the disappearance of beaches and the collapse of mangroves.
In Tamil Nadu, anti-sand mining activists have been attacked, and even killed, while officials who have stood up to the mafia have also been targeted.
The punishment for mining sand illegally is jail for up to two years or a fine of up to 25,000 rupees ($370), or both.
"If we were to arrest everyone that is caught and lock them up for two years, it would send out a message," said Goenka.
($1 = 67.8415 Indian rupees)
(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)