The Good Fight: Lessons from Sumaira Abdulali’s campaign against sand mining

Sumaira’s (far left) work contributed to the international campaign against illegal sand mining, a growing environmental hazard across the world

“What can I tell you about fighting the mafia? Try not getting killed,” says Ashoka Fellow and prominent activist Sumaira Abdulali, laughing. She knows a thing or two about fighting rough. She’s been an advocate against illegal sand mining that’s rampant on beaches across Maharashtra — an activity that’s boring into the ecological stability of these regions by denuding beaches. This kind of mining usually enjoys the patronage of political bigwigs and construction magnates, know colloquially as the “sand mafia”. Like many other voices that rose against environmental exploitation of our coasts, forests and rivers, Abdulali’s too has been threatened with intimidation and violence. Its unnerving to hear about the two heinous attempts on her life, though she brings them up casually in conversation. “ Once some members of the mafia tried to chase me off a bridge. Thank god I know how to drive in the hills. I learned some tips from my husband. He’s a rally driver,” she says (rather)jovially.

Driving lessons aside, Sumaira’s journey is ripe with such experiences, because she’s spent her life negotiating at the front lines of power. What keeps a changemaker like her going despite the drastic odds? This is what Sumaira had to share.

Wear Your Heart on Your Sleeve — If it’s impossible, its worth doing

“There was no way I could’ve made an issue out of illegal sand mining if I didn’t catch the miners red-handed. I had to make the conscious decision to press on, even if it meant putting myself in danger,” says Sumaira. When she saw her beloved Kihim beach torn apart by machine dregs that were taking sand away for construction sites, Sumaira went to complain at the local police station. Instead of help, she received an ultimatum: You have to catch the miners in action, or we can’t help you. Sumaira, with no precedent to follow, launched an investigation herself and apprehended the miners who came in large trucks to steal sand. “I was punched in the face and my car destroyed. The supporters who came with me were roughed up too. But we had no choice. The police wasn’t inclined to help us,” she adds. Sumaira didn’t stop with the attack. She spent nights on the beach collecting evidence through pictures for the local authorities to act upon. This is how the seeds of the movement against sand mining began, and the more Sumaira dug, the more dirt she found — not just in Kihim but across beaches in Maharashtra and beyond. “ Looking back, I wouldn’t change my approach. But I’d be more careful about protecting myself physically now,” she says.

Black, White and everything in between — There are no absolute villains

So who helped Sumaira when the local authorities wouldn’t even lift a finger? “It was the local villagers, some of whom were miners themselves,” says Sumaira. While it may seem like she’s pitched a solitary battle against the sand mafia, Sumaira reveals that the problem is acutely complex, and the perpetrator-victim lines aren’t so defined. “ Many of the informers who tip me off about illegal activities are miners themselves. They’re mine manually and take away smaller quantities of sand. They help me because they too don’t want their ecosystem to be destroyed. Their livelihoods are threatened by the machines brought in by some of the bigger miners,” Sumaira says. Many villagers were originally fisherman and have been pushed into mining by a reduced and increasingly polluted coast line. To support themselves now they mine and dive, and are exploited by bigger players of the sand mining game. Despite their role, Sumaira believes that there are no absolute villains here. “Sand mining is not a glorious occupation. Only the few powerful and politically-connected profit from it. Everyone else, even the miners, are caught in between,” she adds. In understanding the social landscape, Sumaira learned that it was important not to ascribe blame or judgement to any one group, to lump the “bad guys” together. That those who are part of the problem can be part of the solution as well. This insight has helped Sumaira build the most unlikely yet strong allies in her fight. Together with the local villagers, many of whom have championed this cause, Sumaira has wiped out illegal mining almost completely from Kihim and other beaches.

Don’t Play Favourites — Political patronage isn’t worth the hype

Choosing sides in a politically charged battle can be suicidal. It’s a decision Sumaira had to make, and keep, early in her journey. “ Though I was attacked first by a member of a particular political party, I never joined hands with their rivals. There were offers of support, but I knew none of the parties were completely innocent when it came to sand mining. I’ve never chosen sides and that’s why I couldn’t be used as a political pawn,” she adds. This has been especially difficult in the case of sand mining where the trail sometimes leads right back to politicians, who prefer to keep their involvement a secret. In addition to this internal barometer, Sumaira also made it a point to let her allies know that she’s non-partisan. Being neutral has allowed Sumaira to hold all political parties accountable, and keep herself from choosing a controversial side.

Gut Knowledge — Listen, Feel, then Act

“You can’t let yourself feel grandiose, better and above the situation you find yourself in,” Sumaira says, commenting on her relationship with the communities that live on the beaches. When Sumaira began, sand mining was a deeply personal issue as it was eroding a place she called home. Taking up the baton however showed how intensely her personal struggle was linked to the struggles of people who were not quite like her. Listening to these rural folk was eye-opening, as it showed Sumaira that it wasn’t only her as an urban, educated citizen that cared about the environment. The people from the villages, who later became allies, were directly impacted by the evils of this rampant mining. “You have to be aware, you have to be patient, and listen to what people are saying. Once the people living in these beach communities understood my goal of stopping the mining, they were more accepting of me. They got local leadership to take charge of their beaches. Now illegal miners are driven out from these spaces by the local people themselves,” she says.

Sumaira’s good fight is far from over. With the constant shift in blame and responsibility, sand mining is becoming more intractable as a social problem. However, following these principles has helped Sumaira bring the issue from the local beaches around Mumbai to international forums like the UN and COP11. No doubt all those who lead change in these complicated and dangerous times will draw strength ( and a smile!) from these hard-earned lessons.