Illegal mining thriving under the “goonda (rogue) tax” collectors is no big issue for the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) in Punjab, it might be for the people being robbed of the nature-gifted mineral resource of sand and gravel.
In the Lok Sabha elections now, candidates have had to answer the local public whose livelihood from quarrying and transporting mineral as selfemployment is at stake. SAD spokesman and legislator Dr Daljeet Singh Cheema was quick to dismiss illegal shipping of the mineral and extortion in the name of “royalty” as “no issue”.
“My job as an MLA (member of the legislative assembly),” he said, “is not to stop trucks for checking.”
The MLA of Rupnagar in the Anandpur Sahib Lok Sabha constituency, however, said he knew somebody who might have the answer. “You ask Mittal (industries minister Madan Mohan Mittal, MLA from Nangal, which also falls in Anandpur Sahib),” was his tip.
Confronted, Mittal, said he had got the illegal checkpoints removed but the sand crushers now paid “royalty” to the extortionists happily to move illegal consignments.
“Today (on Saturday) also, I have sent inspection teams to the crusher sites. I will not spare the mining mafia,” said the minister. “Catching extortionists is police job,” he added, however.
Prem Singh Chandumajra, SAD candidate from Anandpur Sahib, had to face villagers on the “goonda tax” issue all his campaign. He either dodged the issue or blamed the Centre for illegal mining, saying it thrived because union minister Jayanti Natrajan (who resigned in December 2013) had not given environmental clearance to the quarries.
Told that the issue was extortion, he said the crusher owners were hand-in-glove with the extortionists to protect illegal business. Chandumajra, at the start of his campaigning more than two weeks ago, had declared that no “goonda tax” would be allowed.
Now he plays defensive, while Congress candidate Ambika Soni is being asked why her party’s local leadership is silent.
Legislator Balbir Sidhu, and ex- MLAs Rana Kaypee and Ramesh Dutt Sharma, all strong local leaders of the Congress, were quiet until the Lok Sabha elections, when also they only blamed the Akalis after news reports.
“Mittal (industries minister) has been paid crores of rupees by the crusher owners, and the “goonda tax” is SAD innovation, as its senior leaders pocket this money,” said Rana Kaypee.
Mittal, on the other hand, accused Kaypee of getting crusher owners to fund his campaign in the 2012 assembly elections.
Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) candidate Himmat Singh Shergill is looking to cash the situation. He accuses the Akalis of patronising “goonda tax” and the Congress of not raising the issue for seven to eight years. “Every child here knows about ‘goonda parchi’ (illegal gate pass) and I mention in each speech that the extortion money goes to big politicians,” he said.
He did not name the big leaders but pointed to a “conspiracy of silence”. “Every candidate, whether Ambika Soni or Chandumajra, is talking about ‘goonda parchi’,” said voter Succha Singh of Bassi village in Nurpur Bedi block.
The rural leaders, including those linked with the mining trade, have called a meeting at the local gurdwara to demand the withdrawal of all “fake” cases against them of illegal mining.
“We are all poor people. Goons confront us when we carry sand from our free river resource for minor construction in the village,” said another villager.
“If we pay them, we get safe passage, and if we refuse, either they beat us up or the police lodge a case (against us),” said Zora Singh of Barwa village, who operates a tipper truck. “How are we responsible for the legality of the consignments? Our job is just to ferry,” he said.
(Tomorrow: Poll code and the promise of quashing FIR's)