The Coming Sand Wars

Battles over mining sand in India are only the beginning.

Indian workers use boats to remove sand in Allahabad on March 16, 2018.
Indian workers use boats to remove sand in Allahabad on March 16, 2018. Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images

A little after 11 a.m. on July 31, 2013, the sun was beating down on the low, modest residential buildings lining a back street in the Indian farming village of Raipur Khadar, southeast of New Delhi. Faint smells of cooking spices, dust, and sewage seasoned the air.

In the back room of a two-story brick-and-plaster house, Paleram Chauhan, a 52-year-old vegetable farmer, was napping after an early lunch. In the next room, his wife and daughter-in-law were cleaning up while Paleram’s son Ravindra played with his 3-year-old nephew.

Suddenly gunshots thundered through the house. Preeti Chauhan, Paleram’s daughter-in-law, rushed into Paleram’s room, Ravindra right behind her. Through the open back door, they saw two men with white kerchiefs covering their lower faces. One was holding a pistol. The men piled onto a motorcycle driven by a third and roared away.

Paleram lay on his bed, blood bubbling out of his stomach, neck, and head. He stared at Preeti, trying to speak, but no sound came from his mouth. Ravindra borrowed a neighbor’s car and rushed his father to a hospital, but it was too late. Paleram was dead on arrival.

Despite the masks, the family had no doubts about who was behind the killing. For 10 years Paleram had been campaigning to get local authorities to shut down a powerful gang of criminals headquartered in Raipur Khadar. The “mafia,” as people called them, had for years been robbing the village of one of its most precious resources: sand.

The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization, Vince Beiser, Riverhead Books, 304 pp., $17, August 2019

The area around Raipur Khadar used to be mostly agricultural—wheat and vegetables growing in the Yamuna River floodplain. But New Delhi, India’s capital and the world’s second-biggest city with a population topping 25 million, is less than an hour’s drive north, and it is encroaching fast. Driving down a new six-lane expressway that cuts through Gautam Budh Nagar, the district in which Raipur Khadar sits, I passed construction site after construction site, new glass and cement towers sprouting skyward like the opening credits from Game of Thrones made real across miles of Indian countryside. Besides countless generic shopping malls, apartment blocks, and office towers, a 5,000-acre “Sports City” was under construction, including several stadiums and a Formula 1 racetrack.

The building boom got in gear in the mid-2000s, and so did the sand mafias. “There was some illegal sand mining before,” said Dushynt Nagar, the head of a local farmers’ rights organization, “but not at a scale where land was getting stolen or people were getting killed.”

The Chauhan family has lived in the area for centuries, Paleram’s son Aakash told me. He’s young and slim, with wide brown eyes and receding black hair, wearing jeans, a gray sweatshirt, and flip-flops. We were sitting on plastic chairs set on the bare concrete floor of the family’s living room, just a few yards from where his father was killed.

The family owns about 10 acres of land and shares some 200 acres of communal land with the village—or used to. About 10 years earlier, a group of local musclemen, as Aakash calls them, led by Rajpal Chauhan (no relation—it’s a common surname) and his three sons, seized control of the communal land. They stripped away its topsoil and started digging up the sand built up by centuries of the Yamuna’s floods. To make matters worse, the dust kicked up by the operation stunted the growth of surrounding crops.

As a member of the village panchayat, or governing council, Paleram took the lead in a campaign to get the sand mine shut down. It should have been pretty straightforward. Aside from stealing the village’s land, sand mining is not permitted in the Raipur Khadar area at all, because it’s close to a bird sanctuary. And the government knows it’s happening: In 2013, a fact-finding team from the federal Ministry of Environment and Forests found “rampant, unscientific, and illegal mining” all over Gautam Budh Nagar.

Nonetheless, Paleram and other villagers couldn’t find anyone willing to help. They petitioned police, government officials, and courts for years—and nothing happened. Conventional wisdom is that many local authorities accept bribes from the sand miners to stay out of their business—and not infrequently are involved in the business themselves.

Since 2014, Indian sand miners have killed at least 70 people, including seven police officers and more than half a dozen government officials and whistleblowers.

For those who don’t take the carrot of a bribe, the mafias aren’t shy about using a stick. “We do conduct raids on the illegal sand miners,” said Navin Das, the official in charge of mining in Gautam Budh Nagar. “But it’s very difficult because we get attacked and shot at.”

Since 2014, Indian sand miners have killed at least 70 people, including seven police officers and more than half a dozen government officials and whistleblowers. Many more have been injured, including journalists.

Rajpal and his sons warned Paleram and his family, as well as other villagers, to stop making trouble for the miners—or else. They didn’t, and Paleram paid the price.

All this over sand? It’s the humblest of materials, something that seems as trivial as it is ubiquitous.

But sand is the main material that modern cities are made of. It is to cities what flour is to bread, what cells are to our bodies: the invisible but fundamental ingredient that makes up the bulk of the built environment in which most of us live.

Sand is at the core of our daily lives. Look around you right now. Is there a floor beneath you, walls around, a roof overhead? Chances are excellent they are made at least partly out of concrete. And what is concrete? It’s essentially just sand and gravel glued together with cement.

Take a glance out the window. All those other buildings you see are also made from sand. So is the glass in that window. So are the miles of asphalt roads that connect all those buildings. So are the silicon chips that are the brains of your laptop and smartphone.

Sand lies deep in our cultural consciousness. It suffuses our language. We draw lines in it, build castles in it, hide our heads in it. In medieval Europe (and a classic Metallica song), the Sandman helped ease us into sleep. In our modern mythologies, the Sandman is a DC Comics superhero and a Marvel Comics supervillain. In the creation myths of indigenous cultures from West Africa to North America, sand is portrayed as the element that gives birth to the land. Buddhist monks and Navajo artisans have painted with it for centuries.

People have used it for construction since at least the time of the ancient Egyptians. But it was only with the advent of the modern industrialized world, in the decades just before and after the turn of the 20th century, that people really began to harness the full potential of sand and begin making use of it on a colossal scale. It was during this period that sand went from being a resource used for widespread but artisanal purposes to becoming the essential building block of civilization, the key material used to create mass-manufactured structures and products demanded by a fast-growing population.

Today, your life depends on sand. You may not realize it, but sand is there, making the way you live possible, in almost every minute of your day. We live in it, travel on it, communicate with it, surround ourselves with it. When you got up this morning, you flicked on the light, provided by a glass bulb made from melted sand. You meandered to the bathroom, where you brushed your teeth over a sink made of sand-based porcelain, using water filtered through sand at your local purification plant. Your underwear snapped into place thanks to an elastic made with silicone, a synthetic compound also derived from sand.

Sand, in short, is the essential ingredient that makes your morning—indeed your entire modern life—possible. Without sand, we couldn’t have contemporary civilization.

And believe it or not, we are starting to run out. Though the supply might seem endless, usable sand is a finite resource like any other. (Desert sand generally doesn’t work for construction; shaped by wind rather than water, desert grains are too round to bind together well.) We use more of this natural resource than of any other except air and water. Humans are estimated to consume nearly 50 billion tons of sand and gravel every year. That’s enough to blanket the entire state of California. It’s also twice as much as we were using just a decade ago.

Today, there is so much demand for sand that riverbeds and beaches around the world are being stripped bare of their precious grains. Farmlands and forests are being torn up. And people are being imprisoned, tortured, and murdered. All over sand.

Back in India, Aakash agreed to show me and my interpreter, Kumar Sambhav, the village lands where the sand mafia had taken over. We’d rented a car in New Delhi that morning, and Aakash directed our driver to the site. It was hard to miss: Right across the road from the village center is an expanse of torn-up land pocked with craters 10 and 20 feet deep, stippled with house-sized piles of sand and rock. We drove in, picking our way carefully along the rutted dirt track running through the mine. Here and there trucks and earthmoving machines rumbled around, and clusters of men, at least 50 in all, were smashing up rocks with hammers and loading trucks with shovelfuls of sand. They stopped to stare at our car as we trundled past.

Aakash cautiously pointed out a tall, heavyset guy in jeans and a collared shirt: Sonu, who had been accused of involvement in Paleram’s killing.

A short while later, deep inside the site, we got out of the car so I could snap pictures of a particularly huge crater. After a few minutes, Aakash spotted four men, three of them carrying shovels, striding purposefully toward us. “Sonu is coming,” he muttered.

We started making our way back to the car, trying to look unhurried. We were too slow. Sonu, now just a few yards away, barked at Aakash. “What are you doing here?” Aakash kept silent. Sambhav mumbled something to the effect that we were just tourists as we all climbed into the car. “I’ll give you sisterfuckers a tour,” Sonu said. He yanked open our driver’s door and ordered him out. The driver obeyed, obliging the rest of us to follow. Aakash, wisely, stayed put.

“We’re journalists,” Sambhav said. “We’re here to see how the sand mining is going.”

“Mining?” Sonu said. “We are not doing any mining. What did you see?”

“We saw whatever we saw. And now we’re leaving.”

“No, you’re not,” Sonu said.

The exchange continued along those lines for a couple of increasingly tense minutes, until one of Sonu’s goons pointed out the presence of a foreigner—me. This gave Sonu and his crew pause. It’s bitterly unfair, but harming a Westerner like me could bring them a lot more trouble than going after a local like Aakash. There was a confused momentary stalemate. We grabbed the opportunity to jump back in the car and take off. Sonu, glaring, watched us go.

At the time of this writing, the case against Sonu and his relatives was still grinding its way through India’s sluggish courts. The outlook wasn’t great. “In our system, you can easily buy anything with money—witnesses, police, administrative officials,” a legal professional close to the case told me, on condition of anonymity. “And those guys have a lot of money from the mining business.”

Elsewhere around India, many others are trying in many ways to get sand mining under control. The National Green Tribunal, a sort of federal court for environmental matters, has opened its doors to any citizen to file a complaint about illegal sand mining. Villagers have organized demonstrations and blocked roads to stop sand truck traffic. Nearly every day some local or state official declares their determination to combat sand mining. They have impounded trucks, levied fines, and arrested people. Police have even started using drones to spot unauthorized mining sites.

But India is a vast country of more than 1 billion people. It hides hundreds, most likely thousands, of illegal sand mining operations. Corruption and violence will stymie many of even the best-intentioned attempts to crack down on them.

And it’s not just India. There is large-scale illegal sand extraction going on in dozens of countries. One way or another, sand is mined in almost every country on Earth. India is only the most extreme manifestation of a slow-building crisis that affects the whole world.

The supply of sand that can be mined sustainably is finite. But the demand for it is not. Every day the world’s population is growing. More and more people in India—and everywhere else—want decent housing to live in, offices and factories to work in, malls to shop in, and roads to connect them. Economic development as it has historically been understood requires concrete and glass. It requires sand.

The excerpt has been condensed and edited for publication.

Vince Beiser is an award-winning journalist and author based in Los Angeles. His first book, The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization was released in 2018.

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