Illegal sand mining in India is fatefully hurting gharial crocodiles, Ganges River dolphins

In India, a construction boom is fueling a criminal enterprise around one of the most ubiquitous substances on Earth: sand.

Photo credit: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP / Getty Images
  • India's construction industry is booming, which means that demand for concrete is very high.
  • Sand is a crucial ingredient in concrete, but mining it can cause significant environmental damage.
  • The Indian government has, therefore, regulated the mining of sand — but doing so is an easy way for many Indians to earn some extra money. As a result, illegal sand mining has become a commonplace activity, leading to corruption and sometimes violence.

All across India, high-rise developers and construction companies are building hotels, businesses, and homes, turning the country's horizon to a skyline. Over the next 20 years, $650 billion is expected to be invested in urban infrastructure alone. The construction industry employs 35 million people, the second largest sector in India after agriculture. All those buildings, after all, need people to build them.

However, the vast majority of those buildings are being constructed with concrete — and that's a problem. One of the main constituents of concrete has become so valuable in India that the excess mining of this material is destroying local ecosystems, damaging crops, and drying out rivers.

Mining practices around this material is being carefully regulated, but it's worth so much that loosely-formed criminal organizations have formed to skirt the government's rules and extract this substance from the earth, regularly relying on violence to ensure its steady supply.

But this isn't any particularly rare substance: it's sand.

Surprisingly dangerous

Kashmiri boatmen collect sand along the banks of the Jhelum River.

Photo credit: SAJJAD HUSSAIN / AFP / Getty Images

At first blush, sand mining might not seem like it could do all that much damage. However, sand plays an important role in any environment with a river, lake, or coastline. As sand is removed from the environment, the water table drops lower and lower. This makes it difficult for people to get access to clean drinking water and it destroys the environments that various animals — and plants — need to survive.

The gharial crocodile in India, for instance, is on the brink of extinction, partially due to sand mining practices that have destroyed its nesting sites. The same is true of the Ganges River dolphin. When dunes or other coastline barriers are mined for their sand, sometimes nearby communities can be flooded. Ironically, although deserts have an abundance of sand, the sand grains found in such environments have been rounded by the wind, causing them to bind poorly and rendering them ineffective for use in concrete.

Sand mining is regulated, but its difficult to enforce regulations when it is so easy for individuals to gather sand in their local river. For this reason, India's sand mafia differs from a traditional mafia in the sense that its much more distributed and less hierarchical. Illegal sand mining can be carried out independently or as part of small group of sand miners. One can participate in the illegal sand mining industry by mining directly, transporting the material, accepting bribes to ignore the law, acting as a middleman between the miners and developers, and so on.

A Ganges River dolphin swimming near Bangladesh. Image source: worldwildlife.org

However, sand mining also includes individuals we would think of as more traditional gangsters. For instance, consider how one man who owned an illegal sand mining operation described encounters with the police in an interview with The New York Times: "If there are a lot of police and only a few men, then we run. […] If the police are few and the men are many, then we get into it with them. We fire shot for shot."

Violence is not uncommon in the illegal sand mining trade. Another individual, Paleram Chauhan, 52, was shot dead after speaking out against the sand mining that was going on in his village. His son, Akaash Chauhan, decided to continue his father's crusade against the illegal sand mining industry. "My father's fight has become my fight," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "Sand mining is ongoing — my father was against it, I am against it and so is my family."

A lucrative industry

Indian laborers extract sand from the Meshwo river bed, near Mahemdabad.

Photo credit: SAM PANTHAKY / AFP / Getty Images

There's good reason illegal sand mining is so violently defended. Conservatively, the illegal sand mining industry is worth $250 million a year, which translates to significant sums for workers who would only receive poor wages elsewhere. One individual who had worked at a bank was paid 400 rupees per day, or $5. Working in the middle of the night, mining and carting away sand netted him five times that amount, a sum of money that goes a long way in impoverished Indian communities.

Sand mining is a necessary practice that will continue so long as there are buildings to be made. In India, there is enough sand to do so in a sustainable way when mining is targeted at the right areas, but corruption makes enforcing industry regulations quite difficult. At humanity's current population and industrial scale, even extracting something as ubiquitous as sand can have drastic environmental consequences, underscoring the need for effective regulation.

Yug, age 7, and Alia, age 10, both entered Let Grow's "Independence Challenge" essay contest.

Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • The coronavirus pandemic may have a silver lining: It shows how insanely resourceful kids really are.
  • Let Grow, a non-profit promoting independence as a critical part of childhood, ran an "Independence Challenge" essay contest for kids. Here are a few of the amazing essays that came in.
  • Download Let Grow's free Independence Kit with ideas for kids.
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Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
Culture & Religion

Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
  • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

Withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants can last over a year, new study finds

We must rethink the "chemical imbalance" theory of mental health.

Bottles of antidepressant pills named (L-R) Wellbutrin, Paxil, Fluoxetine and Lexapro are shown March 23, 2004 photographed in Miami, Florida.

Photo Illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • A new review found that withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants and antipsychotics can last for over a year.
  • Side effects from SSRIs, SNRIs, and antipsychotics last longer than benzodiazepines like Valium or Prozac.
  • The global antidepressant market is expected to reach $28.6 billion this year.
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