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    Battling the Ecological Peril: The Tireless Journey of Sumaira Abdulali Against India’s Illegal Sand Mining Industry

    A Champion for the Environment, Sumaira Abdulali Fights the Silent Menace Threatening Coastal Ecosystems and Livelihoods

    In a Herculean endeavor spanning decades, Sumaira Abdulali has waged a relentless crusade against the scourge of illegal sand mining in India. While the construction industry thrives on sand, the clandestine practice of mining it has remained unchecked for far too long. However, the unwavering commitment of environmentalist Sumaira Abdulali has led her to combat this issue with unwavering resolve, determined to bring it to a definitive end.

    Sand mining, a relatively recent 21st-century phenomenon, has been fueled by the global construction boom. As modern cities rise, sand becomes an indispensable ingredient for concrete, cement, glass, and tarmac. However, the coarse and sharp grains found on beaches and riverbeds, rather than the abundant fine desert sand, are essential for the construction industry. India’s construction market is on the precipice of becoming the world’s third-largest, driving an insatiable demand for sand that is rapidly eroding coastlines, depleting groundwater levels, and devastating ecosystems and livelihoods.

    Sumaira Abdulali’s initial encounter with sand mining did not immediately reveal the looming threat to coastal environments. At that time, she was not yet an environmental activist, but rather a concerned mother. Growing up on the picturesque Kihim beach in Alibag, she enjoyed a carefree childhood, wandering its shores. Witnessing large trucks pillage the sand, leaving behind a despoiled and scarred coastline, propelled her into action. However, objections raised with local authorities and pleas for support within her community were met with apathy and confusion. Abdulali recounts with a frown, “People would say things like, ‘There’s plenty of sand, why are you wasting your time? There are more important issues to worry about like poverty or education.'”

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    When she finally caught the sand miners in the act in Alibag, she fell victim to a violent attack, leading to hospitalization, a paralyzed hand, broken teeth, and lifelong headaches. This experience exposed the far-reaching consequences of sand mining and made Abdulali acutely aware of its gravity. She reflects, “The purpose of such an attack is to deter you from pursuing it further. But it can work in reverse because it makes you aware that this thing that everyone tells you is a non-issue is worth enough for someone to attack you.”

    This realization ignited her determination to collect photographic evidence of illegal sand mining on beaches, rivers, and creeks. She filed a groundbreaking Public Interest Litigation (PIL) with the Bombay High Court, which resulted in the first court order against sand mining. However, her pursuit of justice did not come without risks. During investigations into ongoing illegal activities, she narrowly escaped an attempt on her life as perpetrators pursued her car with the intention of forcing her off a cliff. Almost two decades after these near-death encounters, Abdulali works tirelessly to raise awareness about the dire consequences of sand mining in India and beyond.

    Abdulali’s selfless dedication to environmental causes is rooted in her past. Spending every holiday on Kihim beach during her upbringing and residing in Japan for a period of time, she imbibed the Japanese ethos of celebrating and coexisting with nature. Furthermore, her family’s legacy of environmental stewardship has significantly influenced her path. Her father-in-law, Humayun Abdulali, a biologist and ornithologist and cousin of Salim Ali, India’s renowned ornithologist widely known as the ‘birdman of India,’ was an inspiration. Her uncle, Saad Ali, an environmentalist and member of the Bombay Environmental Action Group (BEAG), nurtured Abdulali’s passion for nature, propelling her towards activism. It was his encouragement that led Abdulali to establish the Awaaz Foundation, aimed at raising awareness about noise pollution and its impact on public health.

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    Regardless of the issue at hand, Sumaira Abdulali has pioneered the dissemination of information through rigorous research and litigation, striving to bring attention to critical matters. Despite the widespread prevalence of sand mining and its alarming global consequences, it remained unrecognized as an environmental threat by organizations like the United Nations until 2012. It was during the COP 11 UN Convention on Biological Diversity in Hyderabad that Abdulali presented her findings, finally shedding light on this ecological menace. In 2018, her efforts, alongside the Awaaz Foundation, led to the formal passage of a resolution on sand mining by the United Nations. Subsequently, the Government of Maharashtra and the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change of India followed suit. Abdulali has also been supporting the work of Shyam Asolekar, a professor at IIT Bombay, who strives to develop sustainable alternatives to natural sand.

    Sand ranks as the second most extracted material on Earth after water. Yet, commonly used phrases like “as plentiful as grains of sand” propagate a fallacy of abundance. Like any other natural resource, sand is finite, and its rapid depletion by the construction industry outpaces its renewal rate. Furthermore, it plays a pivotal role in maintaining delicate ecosystems and poses sociopolitical challenges. Urban megaprojects that rely on sand are often associated with notions of progress and modernity, providing employment for a significant number of laborers. Paradoxically, it is often these very individuals, particularly women, who bear the brunt of floods, storm surges, and pollution resulting from sand mining. Recognizing this intricate web of factors, Abdulali places her hope in the environmentally conscious younger generation to innovate solutions and push authorities to enact stricter measures against illegal activities.

    Clarifying the complexity of the issue, Abdulali asserts, “There’s much more to this story than a fight between the good guys and the bad guys.” At 61 years old, this resilient activist continues to champion environmental causes, never losing sight of how it all began—casually, on a beach.

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