Majhis in Parbat put their lives at risk every day wading through high waters in Kaligandaki to extract sandThe local unit has put a ban on sand extraction in rivers during the rainy season given the risk factor but the Majhi squatter community has no other means to earn a living; they defy the ban and brave the roaring Kaligandaki.
On Friday, 17-year-old Ashmita Majhi was seen chest-high in the depths of the roaring Kaligandaki River collecting sand. The eighth-grader attends Laharepipal Secondary School in Baglung but her classes have been interrupted by the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown for the past four months. Although the nationwide lockdown has been lifted, Asmita's school is yet to resume classes.
“Earlier we would come here only during school holidays. But these days there’s no school, so I come here daily,” said Ashmita.
Ashmita, along with her friend Anju Majhi, reaches the banks of the rain-swollen Kaligandaki River every morning at 7am to extract sand from the river, which she later dumps onto a waiting tractor. By the end of the day, the two friends manage to fill the tractor.
The rest of her family join her by the riverbanks to make the day’s earnings. Residents of a Majhi settlement at Maldhunga in Kushma Municipality Ward No. 1, the family relies on the river to survive. Her mother crushes pebbles and stones and occasionally ventures into the river to extract sand. Ashmita’s father works as a helper for one of the tractor drivers.
Although it is illegal to dig or extract sand from the rivers during monsoon, as the risks of being swept away by the rivers are too high, the locals living near the river do not pay heed to the local administration’s warnings.
“We understand that it’s illegal but monsoon floodwaters bring the best quality sand which settles into the riverbed,” said Ganesh Majhi, a sand collector from Maldhunga. “We make decent money during this period.”
Ramchandra Joshi, mayor of Kushma Municipality, said the municipal office has imposed a ban on the extraction of riverbed materials during the monsoon.
“The police should crack down on those engaged in this illegal activity,” said Joshi.
Deputy Superintendent of Police Bishworaj Adhikari said, “We have been directed not to allow people to extract riverbed materials from mid-June to the start of September since the river is at its wildest during the wet season but despite the ban, we haven’t been able to stop Maldhunga locals from coming to the river. This is their only means of income, they say.”
The water level in almost all rivers has crossed the warning level in the last few days of heavy rainfall. In Kaligandaki, the water level reached 4.8 metres on Tuesday evening, according to the Flood Measurement Centre in Ratopani, Myagdi. According to the centre, four metres of water signals a red alert.
However, for sand collectors like Ashmita, wading through chest-high water braving strong currents has become routine.
“It’s safer to stick closer to the banks but to extract coarser sand we have to move a bit further into the river where the currents are strong,” said Ashmita. Coarser variety of sand is in higher demand than that of finer variety since it is more suitable for concrete.
After a day’s work, a sand collector makes somewhere between Rs 500- Rs 600, says Ashmita.
But before the sand collectors can take home their day’s earnings, they have to deal with middlemen. A middleman pays collectors Rs 2,000 for a tractor full of coarse sand extracted from the river.
“We hand over Rs 500 to the local contractor, a person who has permission from the landowner to extract sand from the river. After paying him, we split the remaining amount among ourselves and take home around Rs 500 to 600 individually. We work in groups of three or more,” said Ashmita.
The middlemen involved in the sand business sell one tractor of sand at around Rs 3,500 to Rs 4,000 to the representatives of construction companies or traders. By the time the same tractor of sand reaches the market, it sells at anywhere between Rs 5,500 to Rs 7,000. The middlemen act as a conductor between the sand collectors, construction businesses, tractor owners and the retailers.
In the entire equation, the sand collectors make the least amount of money. Although digging sand from the swollen river is risky and the returns not very handsome, the residents of Maldhunga say they have no other means to generate income since most of them come from impoverished families with little to no education to support other means of livelihood. They crush stones and pebbles in the riverbank or work as daily wage workers in the dry season.
“Every day is a struggle for us; the fruit of our labour is a pittance,” said Chandra Kumari Majhi, a sand collector. “Since almost an entire settlement is involved in sand collecting, the middlemen go to the ones who offer their labour at the lowest price.”
“If we don’t do this work, we won’t have any other means to generate income. The riverside belongs to the landowners which they rent out to contractors,” said Ganesh Majhi, another sand collector from Maldhunga.
According to the law, riverbanks can be “owned” by individuals living nearby but since the Majhis in the Majhi settlement are squatters, owning a piece of land is a far cry for their community.
There are around 150 houses in the Majhi settlement. More than 100 families are landless squatters who eke out their living extracting sand and crushing pebbles along the riverside.
Workers from Dhading, Gorkha, Tanahun, and Lamjung, among other districts, who worked for the Pokhara-Baglung road had settled in the Majhi settlement of Maldhunga 29 years ago. They are yet to receive their land ownership certificates from the government.
Pramila Bhandari, a renter and a Maldhunga local, has rented a part of the riverbank near Maldhunga from an individual in Kushma. She says being a renter does not mean she is better off than the collectors.
“We are all on the same boat. I charge Rs 500 from collectors per tractor and I have to pay Rs 50,000 upfront to the landowner during the sand collection season (monsoon),” said Bhandari.
Jhak Bahadur Majhi, another sand collector, says he will continue collecting sand in the river despite its illegality and the risk factor because this is the only way for him to survive. “If we had any other source of income, we wouldn’t be risking our lives in the river,” he said.
For Ashmita and her friend, Anju, the money they make from sand collection not only helps them meet their daily household expenses but also saves them from burdening their families with school expenses.
“We don’t make a lot but we put aside some money after deducting household expenses to buy school essentials,” Ashmita said.