It’s not just the distant northern states where the sand mafia is pinching the ground from under the citizens’ feet. Not very far from the city, the bed of the Vaitarna is quickly thinning, and weakening a vital rail bridge over the river, which connects Mumbai to Delhi.
Illegal sand mining is happening right under everybody’s nose. And the authorities in the metropolitan seem to have tightened their blindfolds as the pillars of the rail over-bridge (RoB) at Vaitarna loosen, what with the relentless dredging of black sand from the riverbed and areas near the banks.
Shaking the base
After heavy showers have lashed Mumbai the past three months, the Western Railway (WR) authorities are waiting for the dry season to begin repairs and maintenance of the Vaitarna bridge. Over the months, the structure’s pillars have weakened, and the ones most affected are those at the ends which take maximum load of tracks, rail and trains passing above. The condition is such that the sand under the water next to these vital pillars has loosened.
Officials from WR said the illegal miners often start dredging in the dark or dim hours. Over the months, they said, so much soil has been removed that the weights around the pillars have been damaged at both ends of the bridge.
“The black soil accumulated on the banks of the river next to the pillars has been illegally removed. This has weakened the load-bearing capacity to an extent, and we want to start maintenance work post-monsoon,” said a senior WR official asking to remain anonymous.
The WR authorities will now rebuild the abutments to the bridge, since its foundation has been enfeebled. “We expect to complete the work by March 2014,” said another WR official.
By the side of this bridge, another rail over-bridge is being constructed, longer than the existing one.
At the spot
When MiD DAY visited the spot, a few metres from Vaitarna railway station, some locals were fishing by the banks. A couple of them were inside the waters, paddling towards the middle of the river. Black sand was heaped close to the riverbed, next to huge boats. On the other side of the bank, one could see a bare handful of shanties.
When MiD DAY asked the locals about the mounds of sand, they said it had been lying there for days. “The sand has been dredged from the river bank and it will be used for construction,” said one. “The work of removing sand had stopped due to some issues but the bosses, at whose behest the work is done, have asked us to stay here at the site. We are only labourers and do what is asked.”
Across the spot, work on the new rail bridge was under way and labourers were pegging away. The construction work had reached the water of the Vaitarna, and pillars were being cemented. A few metres away, there was a police chowky and light bustle of two-wheelers and pedestrians.
The weak link
The bridge is among the first rail bridges that a long-distance train crosses as it leaves Virar. Until recently, this was the end-point of all suburban trains on Western Railway. Many crucial trains like the Mumbai-Delhi Rajdhani, the August Kranti Express and Shatabdi trains, goods trains and inter-state trains to Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and other northern states ply over this bridge.
Until Virar, the long-distance trains run at 80-100 km/h but beyond Virar they can zip at close to 160 km/h and beyond. On a rail bridge, though, they normally coast by at 50 km/h, depending on sanctions. “Presently there is a speed restriction of 20 kmph or so. This is to ensure that the rail over-bridge doesn’t deteriorate further,” said a senior WR official.
Beneath, boats and dinghies sail from one side to the other. “We don’t even want these boats here as at times they dash against the pillars while transporting soil and other goods. This is a channel meant for the flow of water,” said another WR official. MiD DAY saw big boats moored at the bank.
A spokesperson for Western Railway said, “We have written a letter to the district nagistrate in Thane on the issue of sand mining, which could affect the strength of this rail over-bridge at Vaitarna.”
Exposed 2 yrs ago
In August 2011, the Western Railway authorities first realised the problem after sand slipped off at Vaitarna Bridge due to heavy rainfall and washed away the railway tracks. They understood that the soil that keeps the pillars intact was being illegally dug out and taken away. Several builders and developers have projects on the Virar-Dahanu route. Recently the WR began operating suburban services on this 60-km route which is used by at least 75,000 people daily.