Workers empty sand from a boat on the shore of Vasai creek on the outskirts of Mumbai (Reuters)
Raghunath Bartade watched helplessly as his brother was dragged off the sand-mining boat, his leg tangled in the anchor rope and his arms flailing as he sank into the murky creek near Mumbai.
Moments earlier, Raghunath and Babban Bartade had been dredging sand by hand from the bottom of the creek -- an often deadly trade that fuels the booming construction industry, and continues despite an official crackdown.
"We found his body within minutes," said Raghunath, adding that he has witnessed several drownings since he began mining sand 13 years ago.
"The miners usually drift away in the water and their body surfaces days later," he said, standing outside his hut in Bharatpada village in Palghar district adjoining Mumbai on a rainy afternoon with his brother's children hovering close by.
Babban's death in June came a year after a Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation revealed workers were drowning while illegally mining sand in Vasai Creek, one of the two main distributaries of the Ulhas River.
The investigation found about 75,000 men, many from poor areas, were risking their lives and health by spending up to 12 hours a day diving 40 feet (12 metres) into pitch-black waters with iron buckets to fill with sand.
In response, the Maharashtra government promised to end illegal mining along the creek, impose regulations, and provide alternate jobs.
Almost one year later, there are far fewer sand mining boats on the creek, but the promised jobs have not materialised with officials at different levels of government passing responsibility for the employment plan on to others.
A recent visit to sand mining hotspots by the Thomson Reuters Foundation showed the industry has slowed considerably since the crackdown, but poverty still drives some men to brave the Vasai creek's depths. (Reuters)
Siddharam Salimath, deputy commissioner in the Maharashtra revenue department, said district heads were responsible for enacting the order he issued last year to provide alternative employment to sand miners.
But Anil Pawar, deputy collector for Thane district where the creek flows, said it is the state government that has the resources to create job opportunities for former sand miners.
"We have raided sand ports, seized sand. But worker rehabilitation is a policy decision that the (state) government has to take," he said.
Kapil Patil, a member of parliament for Bhiwandi region, which Vasai Creek flows through, said he wrote to Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis about four months ago, asking for a meeting to discuss the issue.
Mr Patil said he thought Fadnavis was "positive" about the plan to provide other jobs but the meeting has yet to be scheduled.
An official from the chief minister's office, who asked not to be named, said the "welfare of the workers is under active consideration".
But local activist Nandkumar Pawar said that since most workers were engaged in illegal mining, there was no record that they worked there and may not be even enlisted for rehabilitation once the government starts giving jobs.
"Worth the risk"
A recent visit to sand mining hotspots by the Thomson Reuters Foundation showed the industry has slowed considerably since the crackdown, but poverty still drives some men to brave the creek's depths.
"If there were 100 boats, there are 25 now," said Harnam Raj, who migrated from Uttar Pradesh eight years ago to work as a miner.
Mr Raj works on a boat owned by Murari Babu, the elected leader of Kalher, a village on Vasai Creek, who said he plans to continue his business.
Sand miners pose for a picture in Dadade Katkari Pada village in Vasai, Thane district. (Reuters)
"The government has said that workers cannot go down the creek as much," Mr Babu said. "But workers have been doing this work for long, and they can continue doing it."
Mr Raj said the pay makes the work worth the risks.
"My ears and nose bleed all the time," he said, as workers shifted sand from boats into piles on the creek side. "But where can I find more work? What if I don't make as much money?"
Divers can make about Rs 1,200 in a day for a boat-full of sand and gravel -- much higher than the average daily wage of about Rs 270 rupees.
The wage difference makes it hard to convince sand miners to sign on to government-backed work programmes, said Prashant Narnaware, the head of Palghar district adjoining Mumbai.
"We are willing to sponsor their healthcare and give them livelihoods," he said.
But residents of Dadade Katkari Pada, a village in Palghar surrounded by lush farmland, said they have seen little change since government officials conducted a survey of the population last year in preparation for an employment scheme.
Babu Kanha Gaware said he has taken part in government-sponsored road building and was paid Rs 100 or Rs 200 a day, but the work lasted only four or five days at a time.
"There are no jobs here," he said.
Of 30 families in the village, residents said that almost 20 still depend on sand mining in Vasai Creek, about 90 km away.
Sand mining has been declared illegal in most parts of India with countless court petitions highlighting the danger it poses to coastlines, marine life, and sand reserves.
The crackdown has helped make sand so valuable it has been dubbed "India's gold", with mining dominated by criminal gangs.
The New Delhi-based environmental group Centre for Science and Environment has estimated that illegal mining brings about $150 million a year to the "sand mafia" -- a network of businessmen, builders and dealers.
To address the sand shortage, some states are importing it from other countries including Philippines and Malaysia, a solution that Sumaira Abdulali of environmental advocacy group Awaaz Foundation called "deeply flawed."
"Importing sand from elsewhere is transferring the problem somewhere else," said Ms Abdulali.
The Confederation of Real Estate Developers' Associations of India said crushed stones are increasingly being used as an alternative to sand.
"We are all interested in the wellbeing of workers on whom our business depends," said Satish Magar, president-elect of the association.
But as long as the demand for sand remains high, people like Raj, the worker from Uttar Pradesh, are willing to keep risking their lives to supply it. "This work is about life and death, but I will work here as long as the boats last," he said.
© Thomson Reuters 2018