Monday, March 30, 2015

Through the looking glass ... is where trouble starts?

A few years ago, when remarking in class about the role of thinking and creativity, along with science, I told them that after a while things become so much a part of our lives that we don't even bother to stop and wonder at all.

"Consider the windows, for instance.  The glass."  I told them how I am always amazed that somebody figured out how to make glass.  And we now routinely place glass beakers over flames in science labs, use glassware directly in ovens.  Right?

I asked them if they knew how glass is made.

Perhaps it is just me, who is always amazed at the stuff all around.  Every time I fly, I am even shocked that such a huge, heavy, object flies six miles above the sea level.  Six freaking miles. With 300 people, their luggage, food, drinks, and it simply floats through the sky.

Anyway, back to glass.  They did not know.  You want to take a second to see if you know?  There is a saying in the old country, வல்லவனுக்கு புல்லும் ஆயுதம், the idea of which means that for a smart person even a blade of grass can be a weapon.  I tell the class that the television character, MacGyver, is a metaphor for that thinking and creativity.

So, have you thought about how glass is made?  Yep, from sand. Sand is transformed into a clear glass.  How awesome, right?  To imagine that somebody centuries ago figured it out!  

Of course, sand is used for other purposes too.  Where there is a construction boom, there is a demand for sand.  Multistory buildings require a lot of sand.  And a lot of such buildings are rapidly being built in the fast growing and populated countries.
People use more than 40 billion tons of sand and gravel every year. 
Caption at the source:
Construction in Uttar Pradesh, India. Any building that needs concrete needs sand. 

And that is where a trouble begins:
There’s so much demand that riverbeds and beaches around the world are being stripped bare. (Desert sand generally doesn’t work for construction; shaped by wind rather than water, desert grains are too round to bind together well.) And the amount of sand being mined is increasing exponentially.
Though the supply might seem endless, sand is a finite resource like any other. The worldwide construction boom of recent years—all those mushrooming megacities, from Lagos to Beijing—is devouring unprecedented quantities; extracting it is a $70 billion industry. In Dubai enormous land-reclamation projects and breakneck skyscraper-building have exhausted all the nearby sources. Exporters in Australia are literally selling sand to Arabs.
All that means:
As land quarries and riverbeds become tapped out, sand miners are turning to the seas, where thousands of ships now vacuum up huge amounts of the stuff from the ocean floor. As you might expect, all this often wreaks havoc on rivers, deltas, and marine ecosystems. Sand mines in the US are blamed for beach erosion, water and air pollution, and other ills, from the California coast to Wisconsin’s lakes. India’s Supreme Court recently warned that riparian sand mining is undermining bridges and disrupting ecosystems all over the country, slaughtering fish and birds.
As much as  I am always amazed at the stuff all around, I am equally amazed at how careless we are with the natural environment.  Do we ever pause and ask ourselves why we do what we do?  Is it worth mining that sand when it will mess up things beyond repair?

So, you combine money with mining, and add a layer of short-term profit seeking, and package them with ineffective governments, and the result is a vast illegal and criminal landscape.
nowhere is the struggle for sand more ferocious than in India. Battles among and against “sand mafias” there have reportedly killed hundreds of people in recent years
But, of course!

Not really news to me--my father, a retired civil engineer, used to comment about this years ago, but I think even he got tired from talking about it!
Sumaira Abdulali, India’s foremost campaigner against illegal sand mining, takes me to see a different kind of mine. Abdulali is a decorous, well-heeled member of the Mumbai bourgeoisie, gentle of voice and genteel of manner. For years she has been traveling to remote areas in a leather-upholstered, chauffeur-driven sedan, snapping pictures of sand mafias at work. In the process she’s been insulted, threatened, pelted with rocks, pursued at high speeds, had her car windows smashed, and been punched hard enough to break a tooth.
As much as I am amazed by the stuff around me, by how much we mess things up, I am equally amazed at the dedication that some people have to their causes.  They are ready to risk their lives.  Talk about put your money where your mouth is!
India is fitfully taking steps 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.
Ah, yes, the National Green Tribunal.  I remember meeting with an environmental lawyer from India, who routinely presents his cases to the tribunal.  Some dedication he has, and always smiles despite the intense life.
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 it all. Economic development as it has historically been understood requires concrete and glass. It requires sand.
Concrete and glass.  Both need sand.  And there is only so much of it.


Ramesh said...

You started with wondering at the great miracles of everyday life which we have taken completely for granted. Bring somebody from even 100 years ago and the person will become an instant mental case , overwhelmed by the change. I am sure if we went into the even near future, same will be the effect. We should wonder more.

But then you branched off into yelling at sand mining. Yes, there's a lot of mafia in this in India ( of all things mafia in sand ??) And yes, completely indiscriminate extraction causes all sorts of effects. And yes, it must be sensibly regulated - for when somebody's acts cause harm to others, regulation is necessary.

But I wouldn't be so embracing of the activists. I don't know the specific cases you have quoted, but many activists simply want to stop all sand extraction. File a PIL in court and stop it.

What is the alternative. How will houses be built. Nuanced, balanced consideration of the issue is never a forte of voluble and shrill activists who yell at 25000 decibels :)

Sriram Khé said...

I am not "embracing of the activists," Ramesh. When they bring up good points, I quote them. When they talk nonsense, I criticize them. When I quote them, you disagree, but when I criticize them you agree with me. I am being "fair and balanced" based on what I read and understand.

I read in The Hindu today that the Kerala High Court "observed that development and protection of environment should be given due importance. The protection of the environment being a constitutional obligation, the State could not sacrifice the same in the name of development."

Your comment clearly indicates that you are ok with that sacrifice in the name of development. If that is what India wants, so be it--as I often remark, I have no standing when it comes to what Indians should do. But, yes, it will sadden me all the more that the natural environment is being sacrificed in order to promote economic development. I wonder about these things too.

Ramesh said...

Yeah, I know. You are far more balanced when it comes to activists. I have no patience for them for they simply oppose without being constructive. Every damned thing in India is opposed - tomorrow if you pass a law saying that a human being is free to breathe, even that will be opposed :)

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