By Roli Srivastava
MUMBAI, Sept 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Authorities in western India have begun the process of offering alternative work to men risking their lives illegally mining sand, after a Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation in July uncovered at least two deaths in the past year.
A Maharashtra state official also announced plans to legalise and regulate sand mining along Vasai Creek outside Mumbai by auctioning sites.
The investigation revealed numerous unreported deaths in hotspots where about 75,000 men, many from India's poorest areas, dive 40 feet (12 metres) into pitchblack waters, clutching iron buckets to fill with sand.
"We have asked the district heads of Thane (city) and Palghar district to give these workers employment in their districts," said Siddharam Salimath, deputy commissioner in the revenue department of Maharashtra state.
"We have also instructed the district heads to stop all illegal excavations," he said in a phone interview.
Sand mining has been declared illegal in many parts of India with countless court petitions highlighting the danger it poses to coastlines, marine life, and sand reserves.
Most of India's sand is extracted by suction pumps from rivers, often illegally, and manual mining is also common in many places, driven by rising demand from the country's fast growing cities.
The sand is used across the construction industry, in the flooring of upmarket apartments in Mumbai and Thane and to plaster the walls of cheap, illegal homes in distant suburbs where people are moving as space tightens in the cities.
Miners make 1,000 Indian rupees ($16) for a boat-full of sand and gravel, much higher than the average daily wage in India of about 270 rupees.
Salimath said new jobs will be created for the sand miners or they will be given work, such as road building, under existing government schemes for the rural poor.
District heads, who are responsible for regulating mining, will include sand miners in existing village health camps and skill development programmes, he said.
They will also ensure miners have identity cards so that they benefit from government welfare schemes.
In another initiative, the Maharashtra Maritime Board plans to auction sand along Vasai Creek this year, which would end the illegal business and protect workers, Salimath said.
"Once an auction of sand on this navigation channel is allowed, the manual sand mining work will be done legally," he said.
"It will then become the responsibility of the auction holder to take all precautions for the workers. When they do it illegally, we are unable to pinpoint the responsible person."
A leading campaigner reacted cautiously to the initiative, calling for transparency if sand mining is legalised.
"Sand mining should be completely stopped as the level of sand is already deep," said Sumaira Abdulali, founder of the environmental advocacy group Awaaz Foundation.
"They will have to assess the depth and all the proposed mining details should be put up on the website."
($1 = 63.9700 Indian rupees)
(Reporting by Roli Srivastava @Rolionaroll. Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)
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