On the banks of the Narmada near Nasrullahganj, some 100 km from Bhopal, is a village that wakes up after dark. A tractor trolley quietly drives into the river bed on the opposite bank, which lies in Harda district.
It is followed by a JCB excavator, which starts digging and loading the trolley with sand. The tractor trolley then drives back along the same road it had taken, and on certain nights it can reach as far as Hoshangabad and Harda town.
The funny part is that there are several checkposts run by both police and forest department along the route, and even then the supply of illegally mined sand remains unabated.
The pit pass
A pit pass is a document that allows transportation of excavated material. It is a one-time permission - to pick up material from point X and deliver it to Point Y.
The most common abuse of a pit pass is its repeated use. This is done by changing the issue date and number on the pass. Kamlesh, a resident of Katni town who was booked in a case of illegal mining, told HT that the date and number on the pit pass can be easily rubbed off, allowing it to be used over and over again. Often a pit pass issued to a legal miner can be used to ‘legally’ transport illegally mined produce.
For example, in Katni, when the district administration detected a major illegal iron ore mining racket, they found the diggers arrested from the illegal mine to be in possession of pit passes issued in the name of legal mines. The iron ore was being mined illegally, but transported legally.
Area of deception
Excavating in an area more than what has been approved by the authorities is another common practice. This is the easiest if the adjoining land is government-owned - one just needs to bribe the local revenue authorities or forest department staff.
The Katni district administration carried out a raid on land owned by the industries department of the state government in the Chaka industrial area (near Katni town) in September 2012.
While 10 labourers and their manager were caught red-handed, eight motorbikes, several mobile phones, three JCB machines, two dumpers, 800 metric tonnes of iron ore were seized. The damning report filed by the SDM Katni (copy with HT) mentions that nearly 200 labourers were engaged in illegal mining operation at that particular place.
At about 10pm everyday, JCB machines reached the spot and began digging. After midnight, the dumpers would come in for loading. During the raid, the mobiles left behind by the illegal miners who managed to flee from the spot in the cover of darkness kept ringing constantly.
The assistant collector, posing as an illegal miner, asked one of the callers what would happen now that the operation has been raided.
The caller asked the assistant collector to not worry as “Dixit bhai” would fix everything. The report indicates that “Dixit bhai” was actually a political leader of considerable clout.
The standard operating principle of illegal mining is bribery. Money changes hands even before the mining lease is awarded and continues as formalities are completed and excavation starts. Informal estimates show that if the state exchequer should legally get R40 crore from a mining block as royalty, only 45% of that actually reaches its coffers.
The reasons for this are manifold: First, scant records are kept on when exactly the excavation started; second, the entire ‘food chain’ of bribery is fed from the money that should have actually gone to the public exchequer; third, the bribed officials readily tamper with records to show that the “45%” is actually the right amount that’s come.
Additional chief principal conservator of forest Jagdish Prasad Sharma, in his report dated October 4, 2011 submitted to the principal chief conservator of forest Ramesh Dave, remarked: “A proper investigation into Satna district’s illegal stone quarrying can reveal the stone and royalty theft worth crores of rupees… It is a symbol of deep-rooted corruption.”
Illegal mining in remote areas or deep inside forests is as easy as digging a pit and clearing it of mud and stones. If it’s a stone mine like those in Satna district, then the dug out stones are cut and chiselled at the mine site itself. Stone slabs that are three-foot wide and 17-inch wide are cut and loaded onto tractors. A three and a half feet long stone slab which costs Rs. 200, is sold at Rs. 450 a piece in market.
A network of agents connects the miner with the end-user. The agent takes the requirement of the mineral product from the end-user and informs the miner. “In Katni, there are a number of agents who work for small steel plants based in Chhattisgarh and Nagpur. They convey the details of the requirement from the end-user to the miner,” says Kamlesh, a corporator in the Katni Municipal Corporation.
They are the in charge of excavation. Their job includes recruiting a team of labourers, arrange for JCB machines and dumper drivers and making the payments. The manager liaises with the agent through the entire process. His job is to also protect and insulate the end-user as well as the ‘godfather’ who is actually the kingpin in the illegal mining operation, but never the face.
In case something goes wrong, the manager is the scapegoat. He eliminates the trail that leads to the end-user but is protected by the ‘godfather’. At a recent raid in the Chaka industrial area in Katni where a manager was arrested, the manager took all the blame on himself.
“We know he could not have pulled it off on his own. There is a machinery worth crores involved and the seized material is also worth crores, and the manager doesn’t look like he gets all the profits,” said an official of the Katni administration.
Katni’s slums are fertile recruiting grounds for the workforce in illegal mining operations. Once the order is placed, the manager recruits a team of labourers that sift through the mined material – separating the high-value stuff from the rest.
The material is loaded on to dumpers that transport it to the end-user on a pit pass which usually is issued from a legitimate mine. Normally, the diggers involved know that they are working in an illegal mine and therefore charge double. In case of illegally mined iron ore, labourers get Rs. 60 per tonne, the JCB operator gets Rs. 1,000 per hour. The mined produce is sold at Rs. 500 per tonne to the enduser while the official price is about Rs. 1,500 per tonne.
He may or may not know that he is ferrying illegal material. Normally, he is hired from outside the region, so he doesn’t create trouble. In case he is aware, he keeps shut because he is only concerned with his earnings. Trouble starts when lessees don’t pay up or adequately. Drivers then approach authorities or NGOs to extract revenge.
In areas where illegal mining has become organised, the local police station has a monthly share from the proceeds. Recently, the Katni police was not very keen to keep trucks seized by the mining department within the thana premises, suggesting some sort of link between the police and miners.
Similarly, the forest department also takes a share to look the other way in areas where mining is being carried out in forest areas. The mining department staff takes a ‘cut’ in legal mining as well, right from the time papers are processed for permission.
First Person Account
Nityanand Mishra, advocate
“I was studying in Rewa from 2004 to 2009. In the middle of lectures, high-decibel explosions would jolt us. On the campus of Awadhesh Pratap Singh Vishwavidyalay, Rewa, illegal excavation of stones was on. The area is very rich in limestones. The illegal excavations took place at two levels on Rewa university campus.
The local mining mafia, in connivance with university authorities, dug out stones that were used to make ‘murram’ which is used in construction work. About 20 trolleys full of stones were dug daily from the campus, which cost Rs. 1 lakh then.
We complained about it to then university vice chancellor Shiv Narayan Yadav, the brotherin-law of former MP deputy chief minister Subhash Yadav. We also complained to the local administration and police. But no one took action. Then we filed a PIL in the Jabalpur High Court.
Gorelal Tamrakar, whistleblower
“The state government cancelled 15 legal stone mines in Sakhauha (Satna district) where I worked so that illegal stone mines being operated by the nephew of a minister could continue. These legal mines were 250 metres away from forests and were in operation for the last 30 years. There were neither trees nor nullahs near them. Closure of legal mines has thrown 5,000 people, including me, out of regular employment. If legal mines are not allowed to operate, how will owners pay to workers, clear dues and pay royalty? The former lessees of these mines have moved the MP High Court for revival of mining lease. Illegal mining of stones still goes on in about 400 villages of Nagaud and Unchehara forest range (Satna district)."